In August 2016 we met up with Luke Hope of Hope In The Woods and got the chance to watch him carving his sublime spoons. We had met Luke a couple of times previously to discuss working together and Luke was now well underway on designing and making some unique pieces for Such & Such. However, this visit was about Issue 2 of our magazine. After twenty years in one profession, Luke gave it all up to pursue his passion for working with wood, we were keen to understand what led him to making this decision, why and how it was working out. We also wanted to know more about the process of designing and carving his distinctive spoons, the inspiration of his family, and how Instagram had changed his life. Here is the article originally written for our magazine.
“It’s been a bit of a crazy time”, Luke tells us. He is speaking about the last few weeks but he could just as easilybe referring to the preceding years that have seen him quit one career and embark on another, as “someone who makes spoons”. Hand carved wooden spoons so beautifully designed and made that they are attracting international interest. “It is all very new and all very exciting”, he says.
Luke got to where he is now “in one sense, quite randomly”. He never had any training in working with wood, but was always drawn to being creative, studying design as a teenager and going on to do a graphic design course. After this he took a different path, and spent the next twenty years running sales and marketing for different businesses, eventually recruiting and mentoring others to do the same. But despite working with good people, he felt a deep lack of fulfilment. So, as part of a very slow midlife crisis (his words!) Luke stepped away from this profession and into the unknown. A risky decision with two kids and a mortgage but one which has led him to Hope in the Woods and that longed for fulfilment.
Moving from professional frustration to carving wood for a living was an organic and slow process, with a few pivotal moments along the way. One epiphany came when Luke encountered a talk on Vimeo by the English philosopher Alan Watts, who died in 1973, the year Luke was born. In the talk, Alan Watts asks a group of graduating students “what would you like to do if money was no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?” These questions resonated with Luke and were an important catalyst behind his decision to leave work and begin the search for his own answers to these questions.
Luke grew up going to Forest School Camps, an organisation with roots in the Woodcraft movement, and some of his happiest and calmest times there were spent with a pen knife and a piece of wood. When one of his own kids came back from a Forest School Camp with a small wooden spoon he had carved, Luke found himself completely taken with the item.
Soon after, on a night when he could not sleep, he got up and started to draw. He had not drawn for years, but he stayed up all night drawing spoon designs. He got himself some tools and started having a go at making them. He had come full circle, and found his way back to that calm and happy place where it was just him and a piece of wood.
It is a big leap from finding pleasure in making something, to feeling it is good enough to share with other people, let alone to imagine it is something people might want to buy. Luke describes this as a gradual shift, his confidence and motivation building over time as support for what he was making grew. When his partner, who is a photographer and blogger, took one of his spoons to a workshop she was running in the USA, it became an instant hit with those attending the workshop. The spoon was photographed and became known as the Gather spoon, after the name of the workshop, and so began Luke’s relationship with Instagram.
Luke now carves not just spoons but bowls, cake slices, scoops and other utensils. Much of his inspiration comes from other makers and designers, not only those working in wood, but ceramicists, metal workers and architects are all big influences. The beginning of a shape can often come from something as random as an architectural detail on a building, or a rock formation spotted on a beach. Making pieces with someone specific in mind is a great feeling, Luke says. “Being able to craft a piece of wood that may have special meaning to that person, and to then present them with an object they will have and use for years to come, is a real pleasure.”
The process of transferring what is in his head to paper will take time, but once he has designed the shape he will start thinking about the material, colour and grain of wood. Luke’s favourite woods to work with are sycamore and walnut, which create his distinctively contrasting light and dark palette. Sourcing wood ethically is a must for Luke, and increasingly important to his customers too, who like to know the provenance of his products. He has a number of sources of wood, furniture makers and timber yards for recycled wood, tree surgeons who pass on offcuts and let him know if aparticularly nice tree has just been felled. He works with a family near Cambridge who have kept woodland for generations, and who can name the men who first planted their trees right back to the 1700’s. It was from this supplier that he first learnt about bog oak, semi-fossilised trees buried in peat for thousands of years and offering craftsmen an incredible jet-black colour.
“It’s wonderful to take a material and change it, the way you can with wood”. When he first started out making spoons it was not so much about the finished product but about the process, about being creative, about being alone and working with his hands. Carving is a challenging skill to learn, each gesture a commitment as it takes away material that cannot be put back, and one wrong move can ruin hours of work. He describes how in the early days when something broke or didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, “it did not feel like a waste of time, it was always interesting to me that although I did not arrive at the place I had wanted, and often had nothing to show for the hours I had put in, it just felt like a very natural learning experience and not something I would get frustrated by”.
Hope in the Woods products are “very much about how they make you feel”, first on the eye and then in the hand, and the sensual qualities of each utensil come across evocatively in the photographs Luke takes. Distinctly staged, his products are laid out carefully on off-white backgrounds with just a hint of shadow, sometimes next to leaves or grains that complement the tones of the wood. Seeing these images it is not surprising that many customers are drawn to using these objects decoratively rather than functionally, though the two things are often interchangeable. A recent commission from a gourmet restaurant in France, for a set of spoons to accompany a particular dish, was inspired not only by the food it was required to hold, but also a particular aesthetic, making the plate of food into a work of art.
Luke began photographing the fruits of his labour as “a bit of a celebration”, but the photography is now an important part of the whole process, as he still does no marketing apart from posting these images on the “Hope In The Woods” Instagram account. “The community on Instagram has been an incredible and magical thing for me”, and has played a huge part in giving him confidence and getting him to where he is now. Instagram has led him to garnering support from individuals, magazines, and other makers, and together they give him a sense of community and connection.
Beyond the virtual world, Luke’s family have played a huge part in his journey to becoming a professional craftsman. As well as his children and partner, he speaks about his Grandfather, a jeweller, who had amazing tools to look at when Luke was visiting. His Uncle is a successful sculptor, and Luke often turns to him for practical advice while watching him at work in his workshop. One of his five sisters is a painter, and her paintings of woodland scenes were the inspiration for some of the shapes within a project with Midgley Green called ‘Woodlands’, for whom he made a series of standing utensils from bog oak.
With Hope In The Woods orders now flooding in, Luke is beginning to think about expansion, and what this might mean both for the business and himself. “If an order came in for 1200 identical pieces, how do I do that?” His dream, he tells me, is to one day spend half the time designing and making unique pieces for collectors and exhibitions, and the other half designing products for production on a bigger scale, engaging others in the making process. Organising the business like this will allow him to follow his instinct towards “exploring more conceptual approaches to forms that remain routed in the utilitarian”. He is also very interested in passing on his hard won skills, “my dream is absolutely to have a workshop where I can learn from and pass on skills to others”.
Alan Watts also said in his talk “if you really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it”. Despite having found his way to mastering the creation of elegant and distinctive wooden utensils with a growing following, Luke still finds it difficult to say what he does with ease. “I’m still on the journey of finding out why I am doing what I’m doing”, he says. But he enjoys spending his life like this, and it feels right.