By Joshua Oliver
Goldfinch pianos are part musical instrument, part sculpture. The bespoke British workshop has collaborated with artist Lauren Baker to cover a Steinway grand piano with half a million Swarovski crystals, constructed a metallic piano that looks like an art deco flying saucer, and installed pianos on mega-yachts. These one-off instruments, which are handmade in Cambridge, cost from about £300,000 to more than £1m.
Mark Norman has worked for the company for more than 30 years. As creative director, he now leads production and design at Goldfinch, which was founded by his father in 1975.
What is the process of designing a new piano?
The musical side of the piano doesn’t change. We wouldn’t allow anything to impede that. We start with an excellent piano and build the sculpture around it. I suppose it’s different to many design areas because all the while you are working with a high-quality piano. You can’t go absolutely crazy.
How would you describe your style?
It is outside the box. A lot of our style is guided by client requests. We try to channel the client’s idea so they can see what’s possible. We take their vision and build on it.
What is one of the more unusual requests you have worked on?
We produced an amazing bar piano for one project, almost entirely from transparent acrylic and mirrors. The design was inspired by the curvaceous prows of Viking longboats.
The piano was a semicircular Sygnet grand and the bar top fixed directly to the outside of the rim; effectively the piano is in the middle and the bar surface and stools are around the outside. With the addition of some tasteful lighting effects, it really was quite stunning.
What attracts clients to your pianos?
We don’t have a lot of clients; we don’t go out to get a lot of clients. Mostly, they come to us for what we offer. We describe it as fantastical art. Nowhere else in the world will you find music and art combined in such a unique way. Clients want to express themselves.
The other thing is that they are handmade, top-quality musical instruments. All of our pianos have a self-playing feature, so even if our clients can’t play, the instrument can perform for them. It gives another dimension to parties and entertaining.
What makes an ideal client?
It is someone who is a realist who knows what they like, and they enjoy working with us to reach their dream. You don’t often get that — that’s more challenging, but it’s very rewarding.
What is one of the biggest logistical challenges you have faced?
We had a challenge with a very large object that needed a 24-carat gold finish and had to be seamless. The entire object [measured] some three metres by two metres by two metres, including the piano, which was a hidden surprise inside the main sculptural form. That completely enveloped the piano and, on command, magically opened to reveal the piano.
To get a vat big enough for this object would have been almost impossible — and to fill that vat with gold to plate it would have cost probably a million pounds. We could have used gold leaf, which wouldn’t have looked the same. We could have done it in sections, which wouldn’t have been seamless. So we used a totally new method.
I can’t say any more about the technique, but it took us probably 18 months to perfect that system. We are always researching new methods and finishes.
Is there anything you would never allow on a Goldfinch piano?
It has to be in good taste, whatever we do. If we don’t like the design, we won’t do it. These projects can be several years in the making and are so enjoyable that if the client wanted something weird, we would say no. But I don’t think there’s ever been one we have had to turn down. Normally if the client asks for something I don’t like, we find a way around it.
We wouldn’t allow anything that hindered the excellence of the musical instrument. That’s the bottom line.
What is one current trend that excites you, or that you cannot stand?
There are so many new and different materials available that weren’t in the same usable form a few years ago. Take concrete, for example. Concrete has been evolved and morphed from its original, very agricultural and structural form into more readily usable mediums that are well suited to sculptural art forms. We haven’t created anything with concrete yet, but I’m sure we will soon.
Photographs: Lee Ralph