Originally from Cheshire, Stead trained in Fine Art at Trent Polytechnic, where he scoured riverbanks for boat carcasses and stole sleepers from sidings. Unaltered objets trouvés were never enough for Stead. He worked them hard. His creative pilfering moved to semi-demolished tenements during his postgraduate year in Sculpture at Glasgow School of Art, where he first began to foray into furniture. Like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Stead valued every aspect of a building, from beds to washing poles, toilet seats to light pulls. Why shop? He could make.
It’s as a furniture-maker that he’s best known, particularly his chairs, from his wonderfully eccentric skeletons, progressing through devil horns, to the throne for the 1982 papal visit. His intensely human-orientated wood crafting gives Glasgow’s Cafe Gandolfi patrons a far more comfortable sitting arrangement than the equivalent Mackintosh experience. From the substantial Millennium Clock (National Museum of Scotland) to the veritable wood hymn that is St Nicholas’ Kirk in Aberdeen, to the tiny ear-cuffs crafted for his wife, wood was his life.
He didn’t just use wood; he was a powerful voice in its conservation and regeneration. Observing dull “motorways”of Sitka spruce, he began a life-long commitment to forests, most notably his Wooplaw Wood (now his burial place), the first ever Community Woodland. Consider the celebration of all those fundraising wooden axe-heads – testament, too, of his love of archaeology.
Some of his most moving pieces reveal strong Orcadian influences, in broch-like layering, and in Skara Brae-derived “contemplative spaces”. Exhibition visitors are offered torches to explore the crevices of some of the smaller examples, and in true Stead style, they are encouraged to touch and to take several apart. He disliked the term “puzzles”, considering that a puzzle once solved was complete, whereas an “enigma”retained mysteries and possibilities – open to exploration, to multiple re-assemblies, with an infinite number of ways of laying out the sections. These are sensual, visceral pieces.
Arguably, the most significant of these “spaces”is at GOMA. When Julian Spalding commissioned a bench, he must have been surprised to be presented with that now iconic spy-hole. His widow is convinced that the physical heft and presence of her late husband’s work is problematic for the current curatorial style there, and it is only because it is so impressively well-crafted and built-in that what he termed his “womb with a view”remains. It is highly symbolic of his understanding of that female “secret space”as the fount of creativity.
Stead always considered himself “essentially a sculptor”(and his finding of work, layered in the medium, recalls Michelangelo’s experience), but as well as being a designer-maker, a conservationist and an educator, he was also a poet. His lines echo his woodwork’s grain and textured clefts and their layout suggest his furniture. What, then, is his legacy?
Maggy, his beloved muse and partner, has continued his workshop. She is now contemplating leaving their memory-beautiful family home, the Steading, in safekeeping for the nation.“Intimately, none of the beds are normal. My friends aren’t getting any younger or thinner. It’s hard getting into those beds …”
Borders’children grow up with his teaching and his woods. We all share his work in many forms. Does his practice really need to be categorised? For every creative practitioner, he left this: “I have this dream where the artist, architect and client have a brainstorming party, leaving their egos outside […] They bring in a musician to make it sound right and a choreographer to make it enjoyable to move through. They invite poets and scientists, gardeners and athletes, and the ideas become more and more amazing…”