Lucas McKenna, Seamster
Lucas McKenna among examples of his handiwork
Seamster, Lucas McKenna, works in a basement in Shoreditch High St at the heart of the district that once housed London’s furniture and upholstery trade – now given a new injection of life by Lisa Whatmough who started Squint Limited seven years ago in Redchurch St, creating distinctive furniture in a contemporary style that maintains a skilled craft tradition. Lucas spends his days sewing all the different scraps of cloth together which go to make up the fabric of these pieces, conscientiously arranging colours and textures to achieve the subtle balance of harmony and contrast that gives them their appeal. Born in Stratford and living in Whitechapel, Lucas pursues a long-standing East End trade in a modern way.
“I studied graphic design but I have always enjoyed making things and I didn’t want to work solely in front of a computer.” he admitted to me,“My mum always made odds and ends, and wedding dresses, and I have been sewing from about fifteen or sixteen years of age.” At first, Lucas worked at a prop-making company in the Borough where he became head of the sewing department, then in Whitechapel for a vintage clothing company doing alterations and repairs, before he came to work for Lisa five years ago.
It is impossible to walk past the small frontage onto the street and not have your eyes drawn by the dazzling array of upholstery on display, yet few have seen the huge basement concealed beneath which is the centre of operations. The walls are lined with the rolls of silks, satins, velvets and deck chair stripes in lavish colours – the constituents of this particular art. To one side are two desks where orders are taken and Lisa’s dog Stanley sleeps upon an elegant sofa in a persuasive demonstration of the comfort of the upholstery. To the other side, furniture, lamps and mirrors are being wrapped in the signature patchwork style while – at the centre – Lucas works, moving between his ironing board, his sewing machine and his work table where he decides upon the best juxtapositions of textiles to achieve the optimum effect.
When I arrived he was working upon a piece of patchwork cloth to upholster a Chesterfield. All the work here is bespoke and no two pieces of furniture are ever the same. Lucas refers to a page with swatches of fabric selected by the customer and is guided by an upholsterer’s pattern which tells him the size and shape of the cloth that he needs to make. The work-in-progress was laid out upon the floor and, as we sat chatting, my appreciation grew as I recognised the deliberate composition of colour, pattern, texture and scale which Lucas had created. It was, in effect, a three-dimensional collage using larger blocks of colour to offset smaller patches of detailed pattern and in which lustrous silks shone beside velvets in rich hues that absorbed the light. Lucas worked by arranging pieces of fabric upon a flat surface but in his mind’s eye he was creating a sculptural form, with all the colours and patterns sitting in the ideal places upon the finished upholstery.
“Very few people can do what he does,” confided Lisa fondly, “Lucas is a perfectionist and gets to a level of quality that others cannot even approach.” When Lisa started her company, she worked with vintage fabrics and covered antique furniture, but the limited supplies of these led her to explore the possibilities offered by new fabric technology which offer more intense colours than ever before. “In this studio, we have to be quiet,” she informed me, “because everyone is making creative decisions as well as technical ones.” Less than ten years since it started, Squint has reinvented the art of traditional upholstery, employs ten people, sells through many of the top outlets and is about to open a shop in South Kensington. “Our primary overseas market is China,” Lisa revealed to me with a shy smile, “Chinese people don’t want Chinese goods, they aspire to what’s ‘Made in Britain.’”
And it is all more work for the seamster, delighting in the endless jigsaw puzzle and infinite permutations of combining fabric in upholstery. What especially fascinates me about this dramatic and exuberant work is the way it draws attention to the maker’s art. This is upholstery as high drama, in which the process of manufacture is made visible through the patchwork technique, leading the viewer to savour the sensuous quality of the fabric made tangible – in turn – by the ingenious contrasts within the design. Lucas spends at least a day making up the patchwork for a single piece of furniture and, for years to come, the owners can enjoy these ingenious colour arrangements, contemplating each one as a unique visual diary of a seamster’s life.
Lucas cuts the patches one by one.
Inutu Lisselo sorts out scraps to wrap a mirror frame.
Rachel Postlethwaite wraps a side table.
Lucas - “You have to look at each piece of work with fresh eyes.”
The Parker Knoll
The Vienna (Green)
The Peebles (Stripes)
The Peebles (Fluorescent)
The Parker Knoll (Purple)
Squint Limited, 178 Shoreditch High St, E1 6HU
You may also like to read about