From school to living workshop

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Designer maker Vanessa Johnson uses her historic home in a picturesque village near Wakefield as a test bed for her furniture. Sharon Dale reports. Photos by Scott Merrylees

Vanessa Johnson’s working week couldn’t be more diverse. A former commercial director at Morrisons, she now runs a food business consultancy a couple of days a week, while the rest of the time she can often be found in overalls and a welding helmet.

6The kitchen is part of a new extension on the converted school. The Lichtenstein-style splashback was Vanessa's idea and she commissioned it.

6The kitchen is part of a new extension on the converted school. The Lichtenstein-style splashback was Vanessa's idea and she commissioned it.

After an enjoyable career with the supermarket she fancied a new challenge, so she did a furniture-making course at Sheffield College to help her put her design ideas into practice.

She launched Urban Metal Works with her husband, Lee, who runs a metal fabrication business, and the couple now design and make wood, metal and glass furniture and home accessories.

While their workshop is in Wakefield, their home is the test bed for their designs.

Vanessa and Lee bought the property in the lakeside village of Newmillerdam in 1997 and have used their creative and practical skills to extend and modernise the house, which is part of a converted Victorian school.

Vanessa at the kitchen table. The table and the bench were among  the first items made by her designer maker business, Urban Metal Works. The cushion is covered in fabric by textile designer Ali Appleby

Vanessa at the kitchen table. The table and the bench were among the first items made by her designer maker business, Urban Metal Works. The cushion is covered in fabric by textile designer Ali Appleby

“It was converted by a developer and we were the second owners. It didn’t tick all the boxes because it’s a middle property with neighbours either side and it’s only got a small drive but we loved the character of the place. It has all the old beams and stonework plus the location is great,” says Vanessa.

It’s an “upside-down” house with bedrooms on the ground floor and the kitchen and living space on the first floor. The couple have altered it to suit their lifestyle and their two sons, Troy, 19, and Kurt, 13. The biggest change came in 2002 when they added a rear extension. This gave them an extra bedroom downstairs and a separate kitchen on the first floor. They also swapped the dark, traditional staircase for a wood and glass version.

Lee did much of the conversion work himself. A former policeman, he works with his father, Ian, in the family’s metal fabrication business but also trained as a quantity surveyor.

“He is one of those multi-talented people who can do anything he puts his mind to and he’s very practical and supportive. He taught me how to weld,” says Vanessa who has the upper hand when it comes to planning interiors and dreaming up product designs.

The dining area with one of the film prints centre stage

The dining area with one of the film prints centre stage

The kitchen table was one of her first projects and is much admired. It features steel legs with a wooden top and doubles as a desk because the room is a light-filled space thanks to six Velux windows.

The units and walls are white and brightened by a poster from Siena and a bespoke splashback behind the oven. “The splashback is a copy of a Lichtenstein poster that I had transferred on to Perspex,” says Vanessa.

The enormous living space, which now has a dining area where the old kitchen used to be, is where the family gather to watch TV and make music. Kurt and Lee play guitar and are learning to play piano.

The room is dark and cosy and features Vanessa’s own handmade metal and glass tables, which retail from £295. The metal stag’s head on the chimney breast is another of her bestsellers.

The open plan living space with glass and metal tables and the stag's head designed and made by Urban Metal Works.

The open plan living space with glass and metal tables and the stag's head designed and made by Urban Metal Works.

“I like the fact that glass tables don’t dominate and clutter a space so I use them a lot and we sell a lot of them for that reason. I prefer modern furniture and I’m not keen on anything twee,” adds Vanessa.

Her taste for the contemporary extends to art and the family’s collection includes prints of comic book superheroes and characters from famous films, along with framed movie posters.

They also like to travel and have framed mementoes, including badges from America’s national parks, which line the downstairs corridor.

Many of the pictures are bold and colourful and the walls are painted off-white so they don’t fight with the artwork. The only exception is the entrance hall, which has a bright pink feature wall and another of Vanessa’s metal and glass tables.

There’s more of her handiwork in the bedrooms, including the bedhead, which she made from an old tabletop, and the shell-covered mirror. The bedside table is 
a toolbox that belonged to Lee’s grandfather.

The next project is to replace the kitchen units but that has been put on hold as Urban Metal Works continues to grow. The furniture and the fact that Vanessa and Lee can make almost anything bespoke, has proved hugely popular thanks, in part, to the trend for industrial-style interiors. The materials they use perfectly suit the look that home owners and interior designers are keen to achieve.

The side table, which Vanessa while training as a furniture maker.

The side table, which Vanessa while training as a furniture maker.

“We knew when we started the business that our designs were fashionable and we were concerned that the trend would come to an end but it hasn’t,” says Vanessa, who began trading via a website and on selling sites Etsy and Not on the High Street.

“We get customers from all over Britain, from Aberdeen to Cornwall, and we also work with top interior designers,” says Vanessa, who recently supplied some distressed wooden benches and tables to Walters Workshops, a creative hub with recording studios in West London.

“I delivered them myself and the designer said if I’d have dropped them off the week before Adele would have been there recording and sitting on our bench,” she laughs.

Urban Metal Works continues to evolve, with Vanessa and Lee exploring marbling effects and concrete-topped tables at their workshop in the Art House in Wakefield.

They love the creative space, shared with other artists and makers, but Vanessa says: “The dream is to have a go at a grand design. Ideally it would be an old house with workshops and we’d build some sort of metal and glass frontage on it. I love that mix of old and new.”

Urban Metal Works, Wakefield, www.urbanmetalworks.co.uk