On Good Form
Following The Crown Estate as they develop their St James’s portfolio of office buildings, they invited us to take an aspect of a new development and examine its production. We chose the humble reception desk.

If years of watching property TV shows have taught us one thing: invest in good labour. Their knowledge helps shape our plans, their skills shave off time, and their experience saves us from heartache. The eventual outcome rightly turns construction into artistry, and a design into a home.

But can the same be said of new offices? And what’s the value of making something-to-last when it comes to the modern workspace? This line of enquiry would take us all the way to... West Hampstead.

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C.T. & S. Joinery is a family-run company in its sixth generation. With buildings set around a steep yard between the area’s leafy streets and the railway, they started out in 1846 making coffins. Today, their trade is split between high-end interior decoration and a much-evolved form of the original joinery business – think bespoke Burmese teak shelving systems for very smart home offices, or made-to-measure windows for the interior team’s luxury property projects.

We arrive at lunchtime. The sun is streaming through the workshop’s wall
of windows and across a row of workbenches covered in odd-shaped hand tools and timber of different hues and grains. Stepping into a cloud of fine particles and the vapour of fresh warm sawdust, workmen are playing darts in the back room amid large arches and box frames that are ready to be primed for painting. Steve Thornton, Assistant Manager, explains that work is roughly split between machinists and joiners. Machinists cut and form all the separate elements, and joiners (excuse the ham-handed oversimplification) join them together. 

The reception desk we’re following is for new offices at 11 Charles II Street. Its design was sketched out by the building’s architects, 3M, which was then interpreted by a CAD (computer-aided design) designer. This process took four weeks. The result was an intensely detailed set of drawings, from which the machinists created a kit of many parts and a joiner constructed every complex intersection to finish the piece. This a particular challenge, as the desk is made from many different materials, from solid American oak, oak veneers, ply, metal frame, leather, stone and an integrated lighting unit with glass panels.

The desk was constructed by John Crow, a joiner with over forty years’ experience at C.T. & S. Joinery: “I’ve been here since I left school. The shop hasn’t really changed since I was a lad: the layout is just the same. You had a trial period for six months, then a five-year apprenticeship. Originally, Simon Tavener’s grandads, Kenneth and Alec, were my bosses; so three generations of the Taveners. The whole set-up was you were here to learn. Times with Ernie, the old foreman, he would have you cut every joint by hand, and you wouldn’t dare put in any filler or anything ’cause he would just throw it away. You would repeat things.”

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The workshop encapsulates a lot of the
positivity of British skilled craft today. Every generation is represented, from fresh-faced apprentice to experienced hand. Many are in fact the second or third generation of local families that have worked there. Similarly, next generation machinery joins traditional hand tooling. The new cutting machine is only weeks old. Crow adds, “I wouldn’t say it’s easier to learn now. It’s more developed. There’s more machinery involved. You know, there’s airbags for circular work now, whereas you would make a drum to stave it all. It was so time-consuming; it was unbelievable. It took days and days just staving a door. But now, with modern machinery: it’s progress basically. It’s got a bit easier with modern-day tools, but the process is still the same. You still have to go back to the original setting out, marking out, machining and hand building.”

Shortly before publication, the desk was installed. Solidly built, but fine and light in appearance, it is surrounded by beautiful six-metre-high oak panelling with integrated lighting – also completed by the firm. A “non-typical” piece and “very modern”, as described by Thornton, it is a triumph of contemporary design crafted from traditional expertise. It is a tangible investment, full of those key St James’s qualities – patience, the mark of the craftsman, and construction complexity reduced to elegant simplicity. True, in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one element. But it’s also a testament to how to go about making a good office, a great office.

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