The Bright Idea Putting Semley In The Spotlight

Semley’s industrial estate is full of surprises. There are antique stores, coffee roasters and, at number 10, a new business is getting ready.

Behind closed doors, a husband and wife team has been perfecting their distinctive and stylish lighting, which is made from sustainably sourced hardwoods. Arabella and Dom Parish will launch their new brand, Sylvie in a few days.

“The word Sylvie, as well as being a very pretty girl’s name, actually comes from the Latin word sylva, which means ‘wood’ or ‘from the forest’. All our lights are made from wood and wood veneer,” explained co-director Arabella.

Arabella and Dom Parish

I walked into a split-level workshop. Sylvie’s stunning lightshades were hung from the ceiling, adding a warm red, yellow and orange glow against the white-painted brick walls and concrete floor. This display area is open only by invitation. But Sylvie’s lighting will soon be showcased publicly at Messums of Tisbury. And it’s art that also serves a practical purpose.

“I think we’re becoming interested in design as a nation,” said Arabella. “People are very house proud nowadays and people are not moving a huge amount at the moment. They are concentrating on getting their house to be exactly as they want it to be. There’s an interest in lighting as part of the whole design,” she said.

The business is a new venture for Dom and Arabella. They’ll continue to run bespoke furniture maker Wardour Workshops from a unit a few doors down. Arabella said she’s not afraid to take a new career path.

“I was working in London in magazine publishing and I had a complete change of life. Mostly I worked for New Woman magazine and I freelanced on More, Just Seventeen and Top Santé,” she said. Arabella decided to switch from working with words to working with wood, so she enrolled on a course at the prestigious Rycotewood Furniture College.

“I have always done quite a lot of art, drawing and painting but I wanted to do something that was practical. I have a lot of artists in my family. I wanted to do something creative but I wanted it to have a practical application. I started taking an interest in furniture and wooden furniture in particular,” said Arabella.

Arabella met her future husband Dom at college. The couple married and moved to Yorkshire, where Dom worked with a furniture company. “So we spent the first year of our marriage up there and then we had a proper think about where we wanted to live. I was familiar with this area because I have lots of relations who live in Wiltshire and Dorset,” said Arabella. “I just love the area. It is very beautiful. We decided to come down here and started living in Teffont and then we moved to Mere. Very soon after that we opened the workshop on Semley Industrial Estate. That is the Wardour Workshop where we make bespoke fine furniture. We’ve been running that for 18 years.”

Arabella and Dom had their ‘lightbulb moment’ of creating a lighting business while designing their bespoke furniture at Wardour Workshops. “We were working on some other project that required ash veneer. The veneer was sitting on the lightbox and it looked just beautiful. I thought it was a shame that whenever we use the veneers, we are laminating them or putting them on something else. You never get to see through them. So we thought about making shades out of them,” said Arabella.

Dom said he’s used his woodworking skills to bring Arabella’s sketches to life. “I’ve been very much led by Arabella’s arty designs here. I’ve been facilitating her wishes,” said Dom. But he’s also had to research and understand the strict regulations governing electrical products. He’s pleased with the result.

“I am proud of the originality and freshness of them,” said Dom “The fact that they have been designed out of very basic materials to look quite sophisticated. And there are also some quite technical shapes here. There’s some laminating and serious woodwork and boat building techniques have gone into these designs,” he said.

I was intrigued that shipyard skills were being used so far inland. Then Dom moved across the room and stood beneath a long, wooden shade and pointed upwards. It clearly resembled an upturned boat. And it suddenly made sense to me.

“This is a vessel shape that we have designed to go over bars, tables or snooker tables. They are made in the same sort of way that you would make a racing skull or rowing boat of the sort that the Scandinavians used to use,” he said.

The couple’s first lighting creation didn’t have a maritime connection. It is called the Theseus. “It has a brass frame with one single sheet of ash veneer wrapped around. It is a very simple design but it brought out the beauty of the ash,” said Arabella. The ash appeared ‘poppadom’ thin. The crafted wooden veneer resembled a big wood shaving, which flexed like a firm fabric when I touched it.

“It is a delicate procedure. Once you have it hanging it has its own strengths. It is fairly flexible so you can bend it around and it takes on a strength having that tension. They are fragile. If you had a glass shade you would have to be careful with it, too. You have to be careful with veneer shades,” advised Arabella.

The effect of the light shining from behind the thin wooden shade was stunning. It revealed the different tones, textures and colours within the wood. “Some of these woods have really interesting wood grain that really comes out beautifully with the light behind it,” said Arabella. “We also use a lot of pre-dyed veneers. I love using a lot of colour. The pinks, blues and yellows come through.”

I asked Arabella whether there was any wood that did not work so well. “We haven’t used any oak shades because the light doesn’t really come through. We have used oak as a frame though. I’ve been concentrating on the paler woods, like ash and maple,” said Arabella.

“English walnut is my favourite for it’s ‘buttery-ness’ and the fact that they don’t have a lot of air miles on them. They are local trees. I like using British timbers,” added Dom.

I was curious to discover how the creators of this range of wooden veneer lighting decide on their product names. “This was up for discussion for quite some time. We went through the names of forests and bird names. In the end we settled on the names of fictional characters from the woods. So we have lots of people from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. We have Hansel and Gretel and Little Hintock from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’, and Marian and Robin from ‘Robin Hood’. No troll yet though,” joked Arabella.

I asked Arabella whether this business is unique. I have not seen wooden shades like these before. “I haven’t seen any that are remotely like ours. We have simplicity of form, so a lot of these are variations of circles, squares or rectangles. There’s nothing too complicated about them. You can’t really get veneer to do too much more than a simple curve. The materials demand fairly straightforward and simple shapes,” she said.

There are nine lights in the Sylvie range. “That includes various sizes of very similar lights. At the moment it is a small range but we are planning on adding to it as we go along. I have so many more in my head and I have sketchbook full of ideas,” said Arabella.

Soon the world will get to see this incredible collection for the first time when Sylvie’s lights are featured at Tisbury’s acclaimed gallery. “On the 5thSeptember we have a preview at Messums Tithe Barn. We’re taking over one-third of the barn and we are displaying all of our lights. We will have lots of them hanging from the ceiling and standing on the floor. It will be there for anyone to go and have a look at for four days. The exhibition will stay up until the 8th September,” Arabella said.

After the show, the business will rely on internet sales. The couple intends to use their Semley base as a private showroom and they hope to appoint selected stockists. “We’re going to start selling online. From 5thSeptember our website will be up and running. People can also visit the workshop by appointment and see the lights. Over time we hope to have retailers around the country where you can look at and buy your lights,” Arabella said.

In addition to learning the rules governing electrics, Dom has had to work out how to fulfil orders and make sure the delicate lights arrive intact. “It’s one thing having them hanging in the showroom. It’s another thing getting them to someone else’s house. We’ll soon find out by posting them to ourselves. It’s terrifying and some of them are quite bulky. Two people have to carry a standard floor lamp,” Dom said.

Arabella says she is proud that Sylvie uses local suppliers. She hopes that the business will expand and offer more employment in the future. “It would be lovely to think this is going to be a busy workshop with up to ten people working here but it is impossible to tell. We want to stay local and we want to be busy and have a thriving business. We hope to employ lots of local people,” said Arabella.

Dom and Arabella Parish have something in common with some of the other successful Shaftesbury area businesses I’ve met. The family dog is very much part of the workplace. Cocoa, a tan and white Spaniel, Patterdale, Jack Russell cross led me and Arabella through the busy premises!

The initial reaction to this couple’s gorgeous designs would suggest that this business has a bright future. And Semley and Shaftesbury are set to share Sylvie’s success. “I am proud to be part of Semley industrial estate,” said Arabella.