IT was in November 2020 that Nichola Fletcher decided it was all over. After five years of trying to raise money to save for the nation the remarkable home of craftsman and sculptor Tim Stead, the last funding application had been rejected. She and her colleagues on the Tim Stead Trust had reached the end of the line.

Stead, who died in 2000 aged just 48, occupies a unique place in Scotland’s cultural landscape. Even those who are familiar with his most famous works – the North Sea Oil Industries Memorial Chapel in Aberdeen’s St Nicholas Kirk, the National Museum of Scotland’s Millennium Clock and the interior of Glasgow’s Cafe Gandolfi – may not know his masterpiece was actually the home he made for his family in the Borders village of Blainslie.

The Trust faced a race against time to stop The Steading being sold on the open market, whereupon its stunning interior – built and modified by Stead over 20 years – would become a private home, and could be lost altogether. For the Trust, and Stead’s widow Maggy, the last five years have been a rollercoaster, ending in a dramatic reversal of fortunes. In the last month, the Trust has announced the house has been saved and it can begin to realise its vision to develop it as a centre for workshops, residencies and a celebration of Stead’s unique legacy.

Back in November, that looked impossible. After years of little progress, the spring of 2020 brought good news – a recommendation from Historic Environment Scotland that the house be category A listed. But by the autumn, the Trust was no closer to its goal of raising £500,000 to buy the house and fund essential repairs.

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“The category A listing was wonderful,” Fletcher says. “It made certain bodies who didn’t know about Tim’s work sit up and take notice. But then, almost straight away, we went into lockdown and funding bodies announced they were not taking any new applications.”

Their last hope was the National Heritage Memorial Fund but in November they learned that, too, had come to nothing. “We were absolutely gutted,” Fletcher said. “We had a trustees meeting on Zoom and, to my discredit, I said, ‘That’s it’. And a tiny part of me was even relieved because I was exhausted. Thank God some of the other trustees said, ‘It’s not over till the fat lady sings – let’s carry on till the house is sold’.”

The Trust contacted the press, and the coverage led to a surprise £60,000 donation from a private trust. A few days later, when she was driving on the M74 in torrential rain, Fletcher’s mobile rang. Struggling to hear as the downpour battered the car roof, she made out the voice of businessman Alastair Storey of catering giant Baxter Storey pledging a £250,000 gift to save The Steading.

“That was the game-changer,” she says. “After that, donations came firing in. It got to a point where, if we didn’t get £10,000 in a week I was wondering what was wrong. When we were nearly there, we launched a Crowdfunder and got the rest within a week.”

The project is about more than saving a building; it is about keeping Tim Stead’s legacy alive. He was a unique figure who intertwined the roles of artist and furniture-maker, poet, photographer and environmentalist, and whose philosophy of sustainability was decades ahead of its time. He pioneered the use of locally sourced native hardwoods rather than imported timber, and helped to establish the first community woodland in the UK, at Wooplaw near Lauder.

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Originally from Cheshire, Stead studied at Nottingham Trent University and then at Glasgow School of Art, making his early sculptures from wood he found in skips as former industrial buildings were demolished. The interior of Cafe Gandolfi, which opened in 1979, was an early commission that helped establish his workshop. In 1980, he and Maggy bought The Steading, an 18th-century farmhouse, and he began to make modifications to its interior. There was no plan, the house simply evolved as the family grew.

Maggy would say that every time she took the children to visit her parents in France, she’d come back to find a new modification: a staircase, a four-poster bed, a set of kitchen units. Even the toilet seats and light-pulls were hand-made in wood. The art critic Giles Sutherland has described The Steading as “an enormous artwork, constantly evolving like the generations of an organism responding to natural selection” which “in both a practical and an emotional sense lies at the heart of [Stead’s] work”.

In his book Explorations in Wood: The Furniture and Sculpture of Tim Stead, Sutherland quotes Stead explaining his philosophy: “One should enjoy the details of where one lives. I like to both live and work in surroundings which are visually interesting. In many ways it doesn’t take a lot more time to do something which is interesting than to do something which is boring … Finding an interesting or less obvious way of doing something is exciting.”

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Handmade furniture which celebrates the qualities and imperfections of natural wood was a novelty in the 1970s and 1980s when the world was still in thrall to modern design and mass production. Art, too, was tending towards conceptualism and technology.

Fletcher says: “Conceptual art created a division between Tim and the art world of his day. He ignored it. He never exhibited in London, he exhibited in Blainslie Village Hall and people came from all over the country. He was a real individualist, inquisitive, incredibly creative. There wasn’t a question of ‘work’ and ‘not work’. He just never stopped.”

She describes the interior of Cafe Gandolfi as “an equivalent of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tea Rooms … In our opinion, Tim Stead has been as influential and as important as Mackintosh.”

But she points out Mackintosh was largely forgotten in the decades after his death. She said: “In Scotland, Tim’s style has been infectious. You see examples of furniture and sculpture all over the place which echo his ideas, but a lot of these makers have no idea where the original thought process came from. We feel he’s a very important person, and we need to remind them.”

Now, The Steading is poised to become a focal point for celebrating that legacy. The Trust plans to host courses, school and college visits, artist residencies and public open days. It is also considering ways to manage Stead’s archive and collection in order to raise the profile of his work. Plans abound, and fundraising continues. Fletcher says: “We need to raise much more money to turn The Steading into what we want it to be. Raising the money to buy it was amazing, but in fact it’s only the beginning.”

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