Maggie Jencks was passionate about architecture and design and their effect on emotional wellbeing. When Maggie died of cancer aged 52 she had already drafted a blueprint to support people with cancer and ensure they should not “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying”. Since the first Maggie’s Centre opened in Edinburgh 25 years ago, they have offered psychological, practical and emotional support, for free, to anyone with cancer and their families. Maggie’s blueprint guides the design of all the centres, and at the heart of this sits thoughtful and beautiful architecture, with many of the world’s leading architects and designers having worked on the 24 centres that now exist in the UK.
Natural materials play a central role in creating the humanising and nurturing atmosphere that is associated with all the Maggie’s Centres. From handmade bricks to unfinished timbers, from wool rugs to trees and plants – it was this hunt for the perfect material from which to make a bench for the Maggie’s in Manchester, that initiated the relationship between Soane and Maggie’s. The architects of the building, Foster + Partners, approached Soane in 2017 to collaborate on a bench, designed by them and made in our rattan workshop in Leicester.
Despite the copious volume of the extremely beautiful timber framework, the whole space is surprisingly intimate and welcoming and is enhanced by an elegant glasshouse which carries the interiors into the Dan-Pearson-designed garden.
Given the bench’s prominent position, as a focal point of the building’s entrance, and typical of the level of thought that goes into every single detail of the centres, the design team from Foster + Partners visited Soane’s workshop twice during the design and manufacturing process. In their own words – “the project was an opportunity for us to engage with and learn from traditional craft techniques, a continuation of our earlier approach to designing solid wood furniture for the centre…a natural, sustainably grown material, rattan was the perfect choice, offering a durable, lightweight option suitable for outdoor use.”
The bench has a steel frame as its base, around which fine canes, steamed and bent into shape, were woven by hand. It took the craftsmen at Soane around 150 hours to complete this process. First the framework for the basket seat was created, using a mixture of cane and timber. Approximately 30 lengths of cane in various thicknesses were steamed and bent by eye using just a ‘commander’ (cane bending tool). Next the weaving (randing) of the basket seat began. For a bespoke piece like this, there is no existing template, so the craftsman had to carefully map out the stakes and joins of the randing in his head as he worked his way round the basket. He began with the seat and arms – easily the most challenging parts – and then moved to the back of the seat, finishing underneath. Each of these two parts took more than 70 hours to finish. Finally the bench was singed and sanded to remove any loose strands of rattan, and lacquer applied to protect it against the weather.
Nature and views onto nature are an integral element in the design of all the Maggie’s. The rattan bench offers a place for visitors to pause before entering the building and a chance to absorb the tranquility of the garden.
Video showing craftsmen at work making the rattan bench.
All photographs and video by Nigel Young, Foster + Partners