There are people who love what they do, and then there’s Geoff Hannah. Growing up in Northern Rivers, the hinterland around Byron Bay, two things that were never in short supply were inspiration and timber – so it’s no surprise that those are the two elements so central to Geoff’s work.
Leaving school at 14 to pursue a cabinetmaking apprenticeship with Brown and Jolly, at the time one of Australia’s largest home furniture stores, Geoff’s work was never just about creating something functional – he wanted to create something beautiful as well.
Yet ‘beautiful’ doesn’t even begin to describe Geoff’s latest piece – an intricate cabinet worth $1.5 million (yep, $1.5 million) and featuring 140 handmade drawers, using 34 different types of timber, with artwork, engravings and precious stones inlaid.
The Hannah Cabinet, as it has come to be known, features such an intricate design that there are sections only Geoff himself can access, because he has created unique locking devices. One such section, at the very core of the intricate piece, features woven material from Marie Antoinette’s bed.
In other words: this is not your everyday cabinet. But there again, Geoff is not your everyday individual.
The essence of craft
Geoff’s work epitomises the essence of craft – whether you’re building your own boat or creating a new craft beer. It all comes down to passion, putting your soul and, particularly, your heart into a project.
For Geoff, creating the cabinet was a labour of love in every way, taking him over six years to complete. It is something of a shrine to Geoff’s late parents, who raised him with a love of nature, something that shines through in the finished article, whether it’s in the ornate depictions of birds waiting to delight inside many drawers, or the way Geoff seems to instinctively know which types of wood will make the cabinet come alive.
Speaking to Geoff, you’d never guess at his intimidating resume – that, for example, he won a Churchill Scholarship to hone his craft in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Palace of Versailles in France, or that one of his earlier pieces, the ‘Australiana’ cabinet, sold to a private art collector in Belgium for a cool $500,000.
Instead, what you get is a country boy with an easy laugh and a humility you can’t fake. In person, Geoff comes across as a kindly grandfather who genuinely doesn’t seem to understand that he has created something truly remarkable.
‘Everything you see in that cabinet, I’ve done,’ he explains matter-of-factly. ‘It took forever to actually create the drawings of what I wanted to go where!’
Describing the cabinet as ‘a bit Flemish, but more just the realisation of where I was going and what I was trying to achieve with my last four pieces,’ Geoff explains that the hardest part about his work is financing the projects – the lining alone features $13,000 worth of ebony from New Guinea, and for the gallery on top of the cabinet he used petrified wood – for which he purpose-built a $12,000 saw and then spent three months using, simply to cut it into the right pieces.
‘The holdback, I suppose, is making enough money to get going with the next one!’ he laughs. ‘I’ve had my next project on the drawing board for five years now, it’s a table-top cabinet, but I’ve never been able to move on with it while this [the Hannah Cabinet] has been hanging over my head. Still, I’d better not stall for too long – I’ll be bloody gone before it’s finished!’
As for why he’s spent a lifetime creating cabinets in such exquisite detail, Geoff’s answer is as revealing as it is simple:
‘I suppose I just have a passion. A passion for creating something beautiful.’