Dream Machines

 

On the outskirts of Falmouth is a futuristic hive in an old-world haven where young creatives and machines thrive. Against a backdrop of forest farm and sea, its resident cabinetmaker and landlord, James, takes us on a tour of this modernist collective where everything is now primed and possible.


 

James is rummaging through thick foliage, causing the bright nasturtiums to dance alongside drooping runner beans now heavy at summer’s end. He is saying something but only fragments catch and carry. “A lot of the berries have not been harvested… I’m trying to think of what’s here… it’s grown up a lot…” His boots crunch on the gravel as he moves swiftly from one bed to the next. He passes verdant canopies demurely revealing buttery pattypans and speckled kabocha beneath, then flowering strawberries sheltered under delicate netting, then into the greenhouse where garlic bulbs are browning in the heat. “The garlic and shallots and… amazing how in here, everyday it’s… we’ve had a good variety of tomatoes—” one hand still lost amongst the fragrant vines, he looks back. “Would you like to try the tomatoes?”

Thanks to careful forethought, the abundance at Argal Home Farm provides for everyone who lives onsite (including a nurse, schoolteacher, marine biologist, filmmaker, photographer, graphic designer, and James himself), with plenty remaining for the farm’s communal events. James, soft-spoken and deliberate, says, “It’s about having more control over what you’re putting into your body. Reducing our reliance on going to the supermarket. The environmental side — the haulage, fertiliser, and energy that go into growing, storing, moving food — trying to reduce that in a big way.” Gleaning knowledge from numerous encyclopaedias, a local forest gardener, his parents, and own childhood based in the countryside, he recalls of the outset, “I really didn’t know much at all, but it’s gradually gotten more straight forward. This is the most productive it’s been because we’ve done a series of regular plantings and maintenance. A lot of it is about planning.”

But for James, who has devoted much of the last five years tending to this fruitful plot of land, the garden has been as much a project in postmodern self-sufficiency as it is about celebrating an age-old culinary tradition: a love for food. He has returned from the greenhouse now and, with restrained jubilance, produces a handful of perfect, marbled cherry tomatoes. “If you’re cooking a pasta sauce?” he says, invitingly. “You can put some of the leaf in as well while it’s cooking. It intensifies the tomato flavour.” He gracefully pops one into this mouth.

Flowering strawberry bushes protected under netting in the garden.
Onion bulbs drying in the sun.
 
 

‘It’s about having more control over what you’re putting into your body, and the environmental side—the haulage, fertiliser, and energy that go into growing, storing, moving food—trying to reduce that in a big way.’

 
 
In his forest garden, James rummages through a vegetable bed of summer squash and beans.

A cabinetmaker by trade, James spent his early working years in Edinburgh and London before returning to Falmouth, his university town. Once there, he established James Smith Designs but soon began to envision a rural idyll where fellow young designers could live and work sustainably, collaboratively. He dedicated months to searching before finally purchasing Argal Home Farm in 2014; then he moved in and got to work.

Translated from Cornish, argall means “a secluded place, shelter, or retreat.” The 14-acre farm sits four miles west of Falmouth, discreetly marked by a blink-and-you-will-miss-it signpost at the foot of a winding lane. Towards the crest of the hill, a cluster of modernist farm buildings come into view, each smartly clad with lime render or wood; some with skylights, others with solar panels blanketing the roofs, all connected via paved walkways and minimalist flowering borders. Everything appears motionless. A dog’s bark will arise from within one of the studios, then, in the distance, a very faint chorus of engines thrumming and the low rumble of a truck carrying something back and forth. The air — smelling curiously of sugar puffs, pine forest, and marmite — delivers hints of the distinctive commotion occurring behind closed doors. But no one is visible yet.

Perhaps the very allure of Argal Home Farm is its enigma. Is it open to the public, or private? Is someone living here? Is it a manufacturing site or design studio? Event venue? Creative commune? Like the palpable buzz of static electricity, its quiet accomplishment in being all of these things at once is humbly exhilarating. And that all of the biomass-heated, solar-powered design studios are fully occupied (and can be tenanted four times over) today is a testament and merciful denouement of an arduous, five-year journey.

A portrait of James Smith at Argal Home Farm, outside his workshop.
A portrait of James Smith at Argal Home Farm, outside his workshop.

“I thought it would happen a lot faster,” James says, as he begins to re-count the relentless succession of setbacks: planning delays, failed grants, construction nightmares — all forcibly shelving his own design career. “It was within the first year I realised I couldn’t do both at the same time, so I decided to throw myself into the garden, managing the biomass installation, getting the buildings up. If I had known that it would take four years before I would have a workshop again…” he stalls, exhaling sharply. “I wonder if I would’ve been able to go into it with the same enthusiasm. It might have been a much bigger decision.”

Thankfully these residual regrets have started to fade. The garden, for instance, has been a very welcome repercussion. “If I’d had my workshop running after a year and was like, right, now I’m going to stop and build a garden — that would have been very extravagant.” He continues, “Despite the time lost, it’s not all bad. It was important for me to do it, to be involved in every element so that I understand it all properly. And it’s a good time now. I’m excited. It has been frustrating but I’m quickly forgetting all of that—” In a serendipitous moment, his is interrupted; a young couple have appeared on a nearby path trying to keep pace with two kids bounding ahead of them in wellies.

“Hiya!” They greet us as they pass.

“Hey, good morning!” We reply.

“Can you show them how to feed the pigs?” James asks.

The boy at the front spins on his toes and proceeds to trot backwards. “Yeah! I’m going to show them the piggies!” Then he is off again.

James smiles. “Two and a half scoops, Mikey,” he calls after them. “Theo knows the routine.”

Turning back, he explains, “They don’t live on the farm. Mikey is visiting. He’s a friend from uni. Theo’s not actually their child.” He laughs. “I don’t know where their parents are, but they’re all staying with me.”

The group disappears behind the buildings.

Solar panels run across James Smith Designs workshop roof, a building designed by James Smith and his brother Tom Smith of Gluckman Smith Architects.

Above: Seamless. Solar panels run the width of James Smith Designs, a workshop building designed by James and his brother Tom, of Gluckman Smith Architects. Below: Productive Playground. Woodworking machinery dominate the interior expanse; logs are milled and stacked to air-dry in the vast timber store; natural fuel for the biomass boiler appear at-home in the landscape.

He is eager to get back to work. “As a designer, it feels like I’m starting again,” James says. “I’m really trying to put in full-time. That’s the goal.” His workshop, the final building completed in the Argal Home Farm project, is an impressive, standalone conversion which he enters now via a glass concertina door. Inside, the visual expanse is surprisingly unobtrusive given the surfeit of formidable machinery: an Altendorf sliding table panel saw, a morticer, wood router, biscuit joiner, mitre saw, lathe, electrical drills, bulky ducting hoses (collecting sawdust for the biomass boiler), extractor units cantilevered high on the walls, and exposed circuitry looping the room’s perimeter from which suspend extension reels, mask respirators, and noise-cancelling headphones. “I had lots of peculiar demands for the function,” he confesses. Luckily, he was able to turn to his architect brother, Tom, to help him fulfil all specifications in efficiency, workflow, ventilation, and aesthetics: North-facing skylights (“for steady light”); sweeping views of the garden (“I wanted to look south down the fields”); a retractable garage door (“access to the back”) through which all equipment, including his more recent CNC machine, could be seamlessly delivered; wood floors (“easier on your body when standing for hours, and more forgiving when dropping tools”); and space. “As much space as possible,” he had told his brother.

There between the panel saw and handling trolley, as I imagine the size of sheet materials and their required movements between the machines, I begin to appreciate his appeal for “space” — but everything becomes clear when he opens the timber store next door.

Machinery and power tools inside James Smith Designs workshop at Argal Home Farm.
Machinery and power tools inside James Smith Designs workshop at Argal Home Farm.
An Altendorf sliding table panel saw in James Smith Designs’ workshop at Argal Home Farm.

Logs. Plenty of them. Most are six meters long, milled and stacked into two meter heights, balancing neatly on perpendicular battens. Some have made their way here from his parents’ garden in the Cotswolds, others from local or European forests. James squints at one of them in particular and a furrow deepens in his brow. “I’ve just noticed that that pile of oak there is tipping,” he says.

Woodworkers rely on air- or kiln-drying methods (often times both) to ready both soft and hard woods. The process can take up to one year per inch of wood thickness and, in the case of solid timber furniture which James specialises in, moisture content must be reduced down to 6-8 per cent. The timber expands and contracts during this process — naturally twisting, cupping, warping. “Through winter and summer, the timber will shift slightly within itself,” he says. “You can work with this on a tabletop, for instance, if you balance the planks and put inserts to let it float. But if you try and tie it down it’ll break a joint or split the wood. You have to collaborate with it.” His patient approach speaks of the skilfulness we often overlook behind many our commonplace objects. But James doesn’t seem to mind; the unsung artefacts of our everyday lives have influenced him the most. His beaux idéals include the iconically modest chairs of Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner, as well as Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s “Super Normal” — a curated collection of anonymously-designed objects like a pair of scissors or a paperclip which have, over time, become the familiar, archetypal models of their kind, simply because utility has been prioritised over form. His own line of freestanding homewares include desk trays, chopping boards, and clothes stands, all sharing his penchant for simplicity and refinement.

Has his rural location been an asset or hindrance for his business? “Being here has its merits but the obvious challenge is access to market; you have to work harder to reach people,” he responds. “Local to here, the commercial opportunities are definitely more modest, so a lot of what I sell goes to London or to cities.” Then adds, “But I suppose internet shopping is so ubiquitous now that it’s irrelevant where you are.” Beneficially so, as it seems James is enjoying a newfound productivity away from city lights. “If I find myself at a loose end one evening I can walk a hundred meters and do a bit of work, it’s no stress,” he says. “I find working here much easier, the environment much more efficient. And the fact that I can have a huge timber store and workshop that size — space, overheads, all of it — to have this much space in London would be completely prohibitive.”

And, who better to work with than your closest comrades? James’ first project from his newly-completed workshop was a signboard collaboration with his friend Rich, the owner of Yallah Coffee Roasters; his partner Bonnie, a graphic designer; and his tenant Jenny, a laser cutter and etcher — all of whom work full-time at Argal Home Farm. “It was such a pleasing thing to do, as a first thing,” he says. “What’s been really nice is that a lot of friends have moved to Cornwall in the last 5 years. That was a big worry for me, that it would be a bit lonely in this place. But that has not been a problem.”

Tall stacks of milled timber, air-drying in the barn timber store at Argal Home Farm.
Power tools and milled timber in the barn at Argal Home Farm.
Large stack of logs ready for the biomass boiler lie on a field at Argal Home Farm, with farmland and hedges in the background.
 
 

‘I find working here much easier, the environment much more efficient; and the fact that I can have a timber store and workshop that size—to have this much space in London would be completely prohibitive.’

 
 
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Above: A Breath of Fresh Air. Outside the new, shared workshop hall where natural light and fresh air have been prioritised. James says: "A big part it for me was making the environment healthy; so not only is it warm and dry, but also well-ventilated." Yoga classes are also held here. Below: 'Living-In.' A peek inside the studios of Francli Craftwear and Cut by Beam, where Ali and Jenny craft their products, respectively; in the barn where Rich is busy with Yallah Coffee Roasters.

Businesses elsewhere on the farm are also kicking off in all manner of charm.

“Wow, look at that.” James is saying. He has discovered a white-frosted cake in a metal tin, laid out next to a naked orange, freshly zested.

“Oh, sorry!” Ali says bashfully, quickly arising from behind her desktop, explaining, “I’m re-icing it because I squished the lid, it’s James’ birthday cake [Ali’s partner, not James Smith], he forgot it so I’ve brought it with me. He’ll be picking it up actually, so… when he comes then there will be cake?” she offers.

The next ten minutes are spent teasing each other, catching up on one another’s projects, and lamenting having to miss this morning’s yoga class on site. It is the warm banter of familiar colleagues.

With a design background in Performance Sportswear, Ali, too, had left her job in London to return to Cornwall and the sea, subsequently founding Francli Craftwear in 2013. She has been at Argal Home Farm since its beginning. From her desk, she shares anecdotes and photographs from the early days when she and Rich (of Yallah Coffee) had both occupied this very workroom on the farm. The images scrolling across her computer screen reveal an old cattle shed, dark and damp with exposed stonework and wooden rafters. “We had to keep the door open all year ’round because there were no skylights or anything — the only natural light was from the door,” she laughs. “We all had these heavy-lined rubber boots. It’s funny, isn’t it? But that’s how we worked for years.”

Today, her airy workshop boasts floor-to-ceiling windows where morning light is spilling over a row of industrial sewing machines. It is here where she hand-crafts resilient workwear and accessories made from salvaged materials like discontinued climbing rope or leather cut-offs from car upholstery. Her projects have included zero-waste smocks for artists, bespoke studio aprons for potters and leatherworkers, rucksacks for adventure photographers, handle-bar bags for cyclists, and prototypes for other businesses. She has been busy, and “apart from very small jobs like repairs,” most of her projects originate from regional and international clients. Working alone “is just about manageable,” she admits. “I can’t take on much more work.” So she relies on out-contracting for additional sewers and pattern-cutters for bigger projects. What about hiring assistance full-time? “I guess in order to grow the business I need to think about…” She pauses, thinking better of it. “I don’t know. For such a long time the build-up has just been about getting in here.”

Surrounding her are some of her favourite vintage rucksacks, sketches pinned to drafting tables, ironing boards, a hand-drawn calendar meticulously filled with highlighted tasks and projects, and the birthday cake. They are happy reminders of how far she has come. So despite the occasional all-nighter, for the time-being, she is thoroughly enjoying her occupational solitude. “It’s been such a warm summer, I haven’t had the heating on at all — which has been so nice,” she relishes. “It’s starting to feel like, living-in.”

Francli Craftwear’s collection of vintage and prototype rucksacks at Argal Home Farm.
A portrait of Ali, owner of Francli Craftwear.
Sketches pinned to a drafting table in Francli Craftwear’s workshop at Argal Home Farm.
Handmade sewing patterns hanging in Francli Craftwear’s studio at Argal Home Farm, Cornwall.

Opening the door to the neighbouring studio, James hasn’t quite finished saying “you probably won’t be able to hear much in here” when a cacophony of whirring fans, dog barks, voices, and motors seep out and envelope us as we step inside. There is an erratic pitch of robotic arms. Hunched over independent stations are several people closely monitoring the steady movements of lasers. From the corner, Jenny peers over her laptop with an exhausted smile. She declares above the din: “There’s quite a lot happening!”

Several years after graduating from Falmouth University with a degree in 3D Design for Sustainability, Jenny launched Cut by Beam in 2014 and has been increasingly busy ever since. She designs, cuts, and etches everything from leather denim labels and enamel cups to plywood signage and glass tabletops, for clients like Hiut Denim, Seedlip, and Green&Blue.

Although many of James’ tenants had applied to him directly after hearing about the farm through word of mouth, a few, like Jenny, were invited to work here for symbiotic business reasons. “I knew she was running this company and I knew I wanted to get a CNC machine,” James explains. “But it’s a big investment to keep the machine running. Jenny was out-contracting some of the work at the time, so I was really keen to get her here. Now she can have CNC as part of her business and pay me a rent for it, and it’s potentially a massive boost for her as a resource.”

Today, Jenny and her team are in the midst of fulfilling an intricate order for trail-running medals. Bits of fluorescent green and black-and-white acrylic tiles sprawl across the centre table where cardboard boxes labeled 'FRAGILE' lie waiting to be filled. Mobile phones connected to portable chargers suggest not only that all sockets are being occupied by power tools in-use but also long hours and little sleep; they are on a home straight. Leaving them to their work, James gives them a nod, then shuts the studio door behind us like a vacuum against the whirlwind.

Plywood and power tools in Cut by Beam’s workshop at Argal Home Farm.
A portrait of Jenny in her Cut by Beam workshop at Argal Home Farm.
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Jenny’s terrier, Purdy, stands amongst Cut by Beam’s boxes and signage.

At the end of the long barn, Rich is standing near the entrance tinkering on a tangled contraption vaguely resembling an engine. He looks up and grins, “It is a total state in here, sorry.” It turns out that he has dismantled one of his espresso machines.

“What’s this?" James asks.

“It’s a process of elimination,” Rich replies.

“Are you—?”

“Not an engineer or electrician?” he quips light-heartedly, rifling through his toolbox. “Now, why the element has gone is the main question mark.”

Behind him, arranged as a loft, is the headquarters of Yallah Coffee Roasters. On ground level is a maze of tubs, wires, laptops, destoners, digital scales, and grinders, which he navigates now to make his way to the back where beans are being released from a large roaster into a cooling pan. “Can you hear it popping?” he enthuses. “It’s going through the development period when there’s no moisture left in the coffee bean and you’re developing all the sugars,” he explains. “It’s very faint.” Then, “Can you hear it now?”

In 2014, Rich moved to Argal Home Farm with the ambition of launching Yallah Coffee. Originally from Worcester, he had been training as a coffee roaster in Bristol when James told him of his plans for the farm. “He came straight away,” James says of his old friend, “and he’s done so well. It’s been a lot of work for him but he’s kept at it. It’s grown and grown.”

Fittingly, yallah in colloquial Arabic means “let’s go.” Shortly after his arrival in Cornwall, Rich successfully established partnerships with co-ops in Brazil and Nicaragua and began distributing wholesale coffee to cafes and restaurants across the South West. Over the years, he has diversified his business to include merchandise bearing their signature whimsical motifs (illustrated by local artist and friend, Josh), fair-trade hot chocolate in collaboration with Chocolarder, cupping events, and training services and equipment (hence the tinkering) for his suppliers. In summer 2018, Rich opened a waterfront kiosk in St Ives where fresh doughnuts, teas, cold-press juices, and their single origin coffees are served. Today, he co-runs the enterprise with his business partner, Phil, and their growing team. “It’s all systems go,” Rich says.

Does he miss the city at all? “I do know that I’m very happy not to be a part of the London coffee scene,” he replies. “There, good coffee roasters are two a penny. Here, the person and the personality behind the brand have a chance to come through.” In a recent interview with Hole & Corner, he explains: “Being in the water brings a peace of mind and satisfaction I definitely can’t live without … Some people thrive on hustle and bustle, for me it’s completely the opposite, being away from it all and near the sea calms nerves and makes me think clearer. It makes tough times worth it and the long hours seem like a small price to pay.” I think it’s safe to say that Rich has found his groove in Cornwall.

Rich, owner of Yallah Coffee Roasters, stands amongst machines and gadgets in the barn.
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Rich waits in front of a large coffee roaster where beans are being dispensed into a cooling pan.
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‘The proximity to Falmouth is absolutely key. Any of the sites that were even a few miles further away wouldn’t have had the same ease.’

 
 
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Now that everything is falling into place, James is enjoying a sigh of relief. When asked what it feels like to see his friends and colleagues flourishing at the farm, he responds with a same quiet elation that had surfaced earlier in the garden: “You’ve gone out on a limb and, actually, people are into it,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like — you know when you have a close shave in a car, you feel that anxiety? I remember some of the locations I had looked at and, if I’d been there, it wouldn’t have worked. The proximity to Falmouth is absolutely key. Any of the sites that were even a few miles further away wouldn’t have had the same ease.”

Indeed, the farm’s sense of seclusion belies its seamless connectivity to nearby towns: a 15-minute drive to Falmouth, 20 minutes to Helston, 45 minutes to St Ives, and London is 4.5 hours away by train. Which is “not a big deal,” James insists. “It’s a nice amount of time to read a book or get some work done.” And with nearby forests and their meandering rivers beckoning further exploration on foot, coastal towns offering weekends for sailing and surfing with friends, and sheltered beaches promising respite at the end of long, productive workdays — “it’s glorious,” he says. And it is.

So what next for Argal Home Farm? “Design residencies,” he replies. “Giving people the opportunity to take a concept to preproduction stage.” And for himself? “To have a varied career that puts me a little beyond the level of a local or regional cabinetmaker. That I’m able to work and collaborate with a range of people, in a range of places, doing a diverse range of work — that would be great,” he says. “And getting a pilot’s license and a small chopper,” he adds, half in jest. Here in this eutopia where conjured fictions become fact, they are dreams that have every chance of coming true. ▫

 

Words by Beverly. Published on: 2 May 2019. Photographs by Fields in Fields. For upcoming events at Argal Home Farm or studio visits by appointment, email: studios@argalhomefarm.co.uk. Argal Home Farm, Kergilliack, Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 5PD. Visit jamessmithdesigns.co.uk, francli.co.uk, cutbybeam.co.uk, yallahcoffee.co.uk, bonniemably.com, luluash.co.uk.