Joe Kennedy: Designed by Cornwall

Joe Kennedy puts down his sanding block and runs his hand along the wood grain of the iroko door perched atop his workbench. With its clean lines and very evident heft, it wouldn’t disgrace a hall in Middle Earth or King’s Landing.

“There’s an old saying that you ‘look with your fingertips’ when it comes to working with wood, and that is absolutely true,” says Joe, his voice rising above the soundscape of industrial saws and air hoses of the joinery in Falmouth. “It is such a warm and tactile material; it’s right when it feels right.”

The 22-year-old Plymouth design graduate, who came to public attention in 2014 when one of his pieces was named best exhibit at the Young Furniture Makers Exhibition in London, has been fascinated by wood since the age of five. It’s a love he inherited from his grandfather, in whose company he spent many an hour as a boy, watching and learning as he crafted furniture in the family home in Penryn, Cornwall.

“He had no machines; everything was exactly the same as when he did his apprenticeship in the 1950s,” Joe says. “It was woodwork in its simplest form, and there is a great romance in that.”

That element of the traditional – both in terms of materials and craftsmanship – has permeated Joe’s art and work. And from his proud Cornish roots, so he’s begun to diversify through the range of influences he’s been exposed to.

“I’ve never lived more than three miles from Penryn, and much of my work expresses that I’m Cornish and I’m inspired by Cornwall,” Joe says. “But it was great to spend time at Plymouth – I was a sponge, soaking up the specialities of my teachers like Polly (Macpherson) and Roy (Tam). I learned to work with new materials like metal and plastics – I’d always found metalwork to be cold, but I learned from listening to others and I learned from doing and making mistakes.”

If this diversification owes much to the School of Architecture, Design and Environment, then the very fact that Joe came to university at all is a validation of the model of education created by Academic Partnerships. For it was through the partner college network that Joe obtained his degree on the BA (Hons) 3D Design course, having first completed a foundation degree at Cornwall College in Camborne.

It meant that he was able to continue working at Marnick Joinery in Falmouth, where he’s been a fixture and fitting since the age of 16, ensuring he not only had the funding for his education, but quality workshop time for his project work.

On the advice of Pete Davis, Lecturer in Design Culture, Joe continued on to the MA Design: Maker and Materials programme, and it was during his final project that he found perhaps the perfect expression of the theme of cultural inspiration. Embarking on a Grand Tour of nine European countries in 20 days, driving to Rome and back in a Fiat Panda, Joe collected materials associated with each country – steel from Luxembourg, oak from France, marble from Italy, for example – and created a series of products that referenced local, traditional techniques.

“The Grand Tour was the completion of a gentleman’s education,” Joe says later when we reach his home. “I undertook a literal interpretation of that concept, only instead of taking three years I did it with my girlfriend in three weeks!”

Many of the products he created are here in his home – a pair of Carrara marble vases adorn the floor, an architect’s table (made from galvanised steel and an old railway sleeper) is in the corner of the lounge, while two conical copper lights sit atop some shelves. As too is one of the two tables that he submitted to the Young Furniture Makers Exhibition last year, at the suggestion of Roy Tam. It led to an invitation to exhibit them at the premier show for students across the country and an entry into the competition.

Joe says: “All of the other awards had been given out, and the winners had all had their photos taken. And then they came to this last award and my name was being read out – it was quite a shock!”

Receiving the award from the Managing Director of Blum, an international furniture fitting company, and in front of the watching Rupert Senior, a renowned furniture maker, Joe’s prize was a trip to Austria to see the company at work and tour their facilities. It promises a glimpse into the kind of working environment that Joe would love to experience for himself.

“I want to design for people and get involved with prototyping.” He adds. “I love bringing things to life, experimenting, changing little aspects to make it better and to make it work. But then I want to hand it over for production and move on to the next challenge.”


Work by MA Design: Maker and Materials graduate Joe Kennedy

  • Joe Kennedy's work is inspired by traditional skills learnt by watching his grandfather from the age of five. ©Alex Walker

    Coffee table

    Joe Kennedy's work is inspired by traditional skills learnt by watching his grandfather from the age of five. ©Alex Walker
  • By the age of 14, he had already completed his first pieces of furniture. ©Alex Walker

    Aluminium table

    By the age of 14, he had already completed his first pieces of furniture. ©Alex Walker
  • During his time at Plymouth University, he learnt to work using new techniques and materials. ©Alex Walker

    Marble candle holders

    During his time at Plymouth University, he learnt to work using new techniques and materials. ©Alex Walker
  • He says it has allowed him to explore new ways of working. ©Alex Walker

    Copper lamps

    He says it has allowed him to explore new ways of working. ©Alex Walker
  • He says his award has come as a great shock and that it was amazing to know that people outside of friends and family like his work. ©Alex Walker

    Draughting table

    He says his award has come as a great shock and that it was amazing to know that people outside of friends and family like his work. ©Alex Walker
  • Joe now hopes to find the next stage of his career, working for a design business to gain more experience. ©Alex Walker

    Joe at St Agnes

    Joe now hopes to find the next stage of his career, working for a design business to gain more experience. ©Alex Walker