Philip Jenks - 6th July 2020
Then, a month ago, I saw a picture on Instagram of a stair handrail in a London mansion which was designed to look like a cobra. The cobra’s body followed the line of the wall, curled round the corner, and flared up in an attack pose that was all too lifelike. How clever, I thought, to come up with that idea, and how brilliantly executed.
Matt, it turns out, is not a journeyman creator of fire grates. He designed and made the cobra handrail and is regularly featured in interiors magazines for his filigree metalwork, curving balustrades, interior gates and ornamentation. His creations, each one unique, can be found all over the world, in private houses, palaces and public buildings.
Super-talented, modest to a fault, and available for ping-pong – what more could you ask for in a neighbour?
Double headed bronze cobra handrail designed and made for a mansion in Hampstead
Wrought iron balustrade designed and made for Oswald's club in Mayfair
Manal - steel and cast iron stair balustrade designed and made for a house in Highgate
Matt, as a boy, did you show particular talent as an artist?
Art was the only thing I ever really excelled at, although I did well in any subject which needed diagrams or illustrations like Biology and Chemistry. Anything artistic or creative seems very natural to me.
Did you have a formal training for what you do now?
Yes, in design. I originally wanted to study fine art at university but my dad – who is an artist – begged me not to. He went to Bath Art College in the 60s and said that you don’t get taught fine art, so you may as well do a degree in something more useful. So I did 3D design.
I never had any formal training in metalwork or blacksmithing but just followed my instincts and focused on achieving the result I wanted rather than worrying about methods or rules. I think that has given my work a unique style.
Watercolour of Polesdon Lacey from the East
Original sketch for a closed string balustrade
Mandala with gold paint. Started as a doodle.
Weekend sketching. "Would love to make it in repousse."
What was your first commission and how much you were paid?
I started out making illuminated sculpture, selling through a gallery in Battersea. An interior design friend of the owner asked me if I could make a stair balustrade for an apartment in Regent’s Park and that’s how I got started in this direction. It was 26 years ago, so I can’t remember how much I was paid but probably not very much!
Do you have a signature piece?
Nearly everything we make is unique – that way the client gets something special and for us it’s more interesting to make, but also because to me it is progression. I try to make everything constantly better than before and move forward, learning and expanding my comfort and ability zones. I would hate to have to make the same thing over and over again.
Also I don’t just stick to one medium – we carve wood and use other materials to achieve a form and have whatever it is cast in bronze or iron. I design in any material that is appropriate for the project.
How many other people in the UK, or indeed the world, do exactly what you do?
There are lots of very talented sculptors and artist metalworkers doing their own thing. I think my very specific skills of artistic ability, spacial awareness, engineering, geometry and interest in architecture and interior design combine to make me fairly different to others.
How many people are there in your team, and who does what?
At the moment there are just 4 of us which is minimal. It can be fluid but there are usually more and I’m looking for more people with the right skills. Besides me, there is Justine (my wife) who does all the paperwork to my great relief, Tim who is our blacksmith, and Adrian who is a metal fabricator.
What skills do your team have that others don’t have? (i.e. why do people come to YOU)
I think it’s a combination of the design input and our attention to detail which comes from my “best ever” approach. I have always refused to make other people’s designs over the years – I see the design as an essential part of the making process so I can adapt and improve the design as we make it.
Huge bronze, sinuous sofa
One end of a leather sofa for a client in Hampstead
Patinated bronze lion letterbox
Who is your typical client?
We don’t really have a typical client. We get commissions from interior designers, private clients and for commercial projects, and we have done several projects abroad including in Switzerland, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Monaco, Ireland and several in France.
Do clients from outside the UK, with a tradition of ornate interior design, offer more scope to your imagination than a restrained British aesthetic?
Interesting question. But most of the projects we have done internationally were for British clients or British interior designers and architects. A lot of my clients in the UK have been from overseas which sometimes offers the opportunity to weave in some exotic aesthetic. I have had a few clients who are very adventurous, like the client we made the huge centre sofa with bronze dragons fighting round the lamp for, or the lamp with the bronze bat, the various cobra handrails and the Athens chairs.
Bronze Shabbat bat lamp
Which of your past designs are you most proud of?
The designs where the client has been keen to fly stylistically. Like the great client who commissioned the giant dragon sofa - I’m so proud of that. And of course all the metalwork we made for Oswalds Club in Mayfair. The Cobra handrails. And designs that we are just about to make - we have a commission for a console table with two intertwined pythons. And a swirling balustrade for a mansion in Buckinghamshire.
The giant bronze dragon sofa commissioned for an opulent house in North London
Do you only do commissions, or do you sell in-house designs from stock?
I do have a few in-house designs that we will make to order but I try to make each one or each batch unique if I can, and constantly improve them every time.
Are there any projects you’d really like to do?
Doing a very public commission would be great. We have work in the Langham Hotel and external metalwork around London which is great as it is very visible. I also love all the sculptural commissions - something monumental would be amazing!