“I have the most incredible view from my workshop,” says the maker Jess Wheeler, who relocated from London to rural Wales three years ago. Glancing out from her converted Edwardian cow shed, her gaze is met by the form of a huge oak. “The first candle sconce I made was covered in brass oak leaves,” she recalls. “The shapes of those leaves were taken from that tree.”
Jess had recently moved from London to a 13th-century farmhouse. “We’d moved into this romantic old house on a working sheep farm,” she says. “Being in the middle of the countryside, it’s pitch dark at night. I wanted to fill the dining room with candlelight to set a soft and ambient mood inside and create a sense of occasion.”
She began experimenting with fallen leaves gathered from the ancient oak, which formed the foundation for a series of lighting design sketches and maquettes. It was after an introduction to Stanley Jankowski, 72, a retired engineer-turned-metalworker who lives in a nearby valley, that Jess embarked on an unofficial apprenticeship and began bringing her debut creation—the oak leaf candle sconce—to life. “I asked Stan to make a pair of candle sconces for me, but rather than make them for me, he taught me how to make them myself,” she says. Jess spent the afternoon in his workshop and became mesmerized by the process. “I’ve used metal everyday since then,” she says.
The shapes that Jess creates are directly inspired by the plants that surround her: ivy and oak foraged from the surrounding hills and forests, but also stems of robust rhubarb and crinkly savoy cabbage leaves gathered from her kitchen garden. Back in the studio, she sets about transforming them into “everlasting sculptures” cast in an array of materials including brass, bronze, and plaster.
“The lightbulb moment of seeing a shape in nature and imagining it as a wall light or chandelier is the part of the process I find most satisfying—that realization that a beautiful, natural form can be made into an everlasting sculpture, which also has a function in the home.”
“All the pieces I make really vary in the time that they take,” she explains. Each design in plaster and brass is made by hand by a small team of artisans; while her bronze designs are wrought at a local foundry using an age-old lost wax technique.
“I especially love to work with candlelight,” says Jess. “For me, the ritual of lighting the candles in my wall sconces usually means friends are about to arrive for a party or the room is going to be enjoyed as it looks all soft and magical. Light really is atmosphere. I aim to create a similar feeling in my electrical wall lights by hiding the light source and avoiding the glare of a bulb to create a warm, calming ambiance.”
Jess studied illustration at the Edinburgh College of Art before she began working as a set designer and art director in London, often employing flowers, soil, and grass to create biophilic sets for clients including Aesop, Alex Eagle, and Fortnum & Mason. “I have always been drawn to nature,” she says. “I grew up on a farm and would spend every moment I could with my equally feral siblings finding bits and pieces on the farm and in the woods to build and make things. I believe creating using your bare hands does heal and nurture the human spirit. The natural world is the glue of all my varied creations.”
Jess frequently collaborates with private clients, including the interior designers Barlow & Barlow, John Derian, and Summerill & Bishop, on bespoke, site-specific works. The studio is currently making a chandelier for an iconic restaurant in London: “a winding, delicate oak branch wrapped in hand-cut brass oak leaves.” A bronze furniture collection is also in development for 2024.
Before then, there’s the holiday season, and the studio is busy making a new collection of tableware and handmade decorations “all designed to transcend the season and be loved all year round.”
The shifting seasons remain a constant source of inspiration for Jess. “Daily, I bring pieces of my garden, the hills, and forests back to my workshop and imagine translating these natural forms into sculptural lighting, candlesticks, and sculptural objects,” she says. “Outside is an abundant resource which is forever changing; I will never grow tired of it. I aim for my work to illustrate the fragility of the natural world and to encourage a change in perspective of my subject matter.”
For much more, head to Jess Wheeler.