Australian Country Style, December 1994
Geoffrey Hannah's cabinets are desrving of world-class honours. By Debbie Kruger. Photography by Stuart Owen Fox.
The workshop is open, tools are at the ready, and Geoffrey Hannah, master wood craftsman and cabinet-maker is wandering around like a lost sheep.
He has some small restoration jobs and a dining room suite to make on commission, but thoughts at the time of Australian Country Styles visit were primarily focused on his last major project, the Australian collectors cabinet, and its possible sale for the modest sum of $500,000.
Geoffrey spent in the vacinity of 3,500 hours over a two-year period making the cabinet. Two years, and 30 years of wood collecting, he says, and then adds, I didnt collect wood for 30 years specifically for that piece. Ive just been collecting it thinking, oh, Ill do something with it one day.
Geoffreys casual manner belies the fact that his career has not been built on such laxity. The Australiana cabinet has been exhibited around Australia since last November, in venues such as the State Library of NSW in Sydney, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, and Parliament House in Canberra, as well as regional centres such as Grafton, Ballina and his home town of Lismore. The marketing and public relations effort that has accompanied each exhibition has been with the expressed desire that the cabinet should remain in Australia, a desire Geoffrey does not think unreasonable.
Everyone reckons its too cheap. I think out of the thousands that seen it theres only be three comments I could recall that were, Oh, that much?
Entirely crafted by hand, the Australiana cabinet features 47 native Australian timbers and 10 others incorporated into a labyrinth of doors and 82 drawers, illustrating examples of Australiana flora in the most minute detail. It wasnt so much conceived as the monumental, glamorous and expensive piece that it is, but rather as a natural successor to the one that had come before. At $95,000, Geoffreys previous cabinet, with a mere 52 drawers, was purchased for Government House, the Haydens residence, last year. That in turn had followed the bicentennial Cabinet, his first major work, which still stands proudly in his house.
I mean, theres no use going back and making a coffee table, says Geoffrey. I could see after the first cabinet that it was the start of something big.
Prior to 1988 Geoffrey was making small pieces such as two-door cabinets and writing desks nothing elaborate. Nowadays he prefers not to take on jobs that will distract him from his larger projects for too long, despite the fact that bread and butter work serves its purpose. Fine craftsmanship has its price to pay though, and the cheapest desk Geoffrey might create would sell for $3,000.
Whatever I do, I use fairly expensive veneers and timber so when its finished its got a quality. I wouldnt put the time into something if I didnt use the right timber or it just defeats the purpose.
His storeroom is full of pieces of exotically named woods including silky oak, yellow walnut, Rio rosewood and Swiss pear. Geoffrey collects a lot of the pieces himself on his travels around the country conducting workshops, seminars and two week Summer courses.
Fortunately, he is unfailingly enthusiastic about his work, a trait he has retained since his apprenticeship in cabinet making began at the age of 15. After 10 years building and repairing furniture for the Brown & Jolly store in Lismore, he set up shop in the garage of his house in 1973, and hasnt looked back.
In 1980 Geoffrey won a Churchill Fellowship enabling him to travel through England and France researching fine furniture from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. He has won the traditional furniture section of the National Woodwork Exhibition in Melbourne for the past four years, and the house he shares with his wife Rhonda and two adult children, Amorette and Stewart is a veritable gallery of exquisite and functional, hand-crafted furniture pieces.
In fact, Geoffrey is hard pressed to think of a time he wanted to anything other than make furniture. I think when I was going to high school I wanted to be a truck driver, he laughs. The closest he comes to the transport industry now other than the removal firm which conveys his special cabinets around the country is an occassional tinkering with his small collection of cars in another section of the garage.
When we met Geoffrey, all his energies were being channelled into selling the Australiana cabinet so that he could begin his next project with a clear mind. While keen that the $500,000 piece be kept in this country, Geoffrey was not adverse to taking it to New York. Id like it to stay here, but if it did sell overseas, well I think its something from this country, so that country can see what weve got, and I think thats just as important.
And the next project? A work cabinet, of course, featuring wood from Australia and overseas with an antiquarian map displayed on the façade and doors opening up to reveal the world as it is today. Then Id have that split into seven continents, open a continent and then youve got all the countries, Geoffrey explains ebulliently. For this he invisages four years of constant work in his garage.
Before I start anything I keep thinking, Is it worthy of doing? Is it good enough reason to spend that much time? From the glint in his eyes as he speaks, it clearly is.