Furniture Designer what!!

Furniture Designer Maker is not a title that trips easily off the tongue, though apparently it is a placard that many of us would hang about our necks. When deciding recently on the entry qualifications for a web forum of like minded professionals those three words seemed to best describe the activities that we were engaged upon, though I for one wouldn’t call myself a furniture designer maker, perhaps because of it’s wordiness and lack of elegance. Yet the words we use are particularly important if we are to understand not only who we are, but in what direction we might go.

It may help if we look at the meanings of these words a little more closely. Furniture is clear enough, though it’s a pretty wide term and can encompass anything from a boardroom table to a break front cabinet and though our definition is not media specific most of our forum members would be designers and makers of furniture very largely in wood. Designer: Now there’s a word to conjure with. A quick flip through my web based dictionary says of designer “one who produces designs”. That’s not very helpful. More useful it also says “someone who creates a plan leading to something being made”. Of design it says “to conceive or fashion in the mind” or “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details”. Now that’s a bit more helpful. Making: Well this is where us woodies go all soft and gooey. We have workshops and routers and bits and bobs that whizz and whirr, and we like to see oak shavings and smell cedar wood. This is perhaps the definition that separates us from many others. I know Designers with a capital D that sit in offices not much unlike my own with drawing boards and huge Macintosh screens and their projects progress from sketch to virtual image, to clay or prototype, to production design, to product. The realisation of the whole process is in the end product, be it a mobile phone or a motor car. For many designers within this sphere their actual contact with the materials they are using and the knowledge of the fabrication and handling of those materials is often limited. It didn’t use to be that way, but it is becoming more noticeable of late. At best, they would have an understanding. It would be rare for that understanding to become an intimate knowledge, yet I’m prepared to bet that our greatest designers do have that kind of intimate knowledge. Though I cannot prove it I would bet that Brunel knew as much about cast iron founding as any of his master metal workers, and it was that understanding that enabled him to, with confidence, push the boundaries of his material and take the risks that he did with the structures that still amaze us today.

Yet now we see a divorce between thinking and doing, between conceiving the object and realising it. Maybe my socialist instincts are roused by this but I see it as a class issue, one between the comfortable white collar work of design and the hands on blue collar work of making. The cerebral thought provoking world of design and a sweaty manually dextrous world of making.
One can chart a subtle change in this direction when looking at the Royal College of Art, which is this country’s premier design post graduate college, and seeing how it used it’s technicians. In what I would call “the early days”, senior practitioners within the field, potters like Bernard Leach, would go to the Royal College and physically work with students. Everyone would be getting nice and mucky all covered in clay. That process was changed in the 1960s. Visiting practitioners were replaced with technicians in brown coats. These people, skilled practitioners within their crafts, were employed, not to work alongside design students but to work for design students, quite often realising their designs entirely. A furniture graduate student in this period would be required to produce finished drawings, but would not need to even touch the materials used in the construction of the piece. That would be done by the technician. As far as I know this system still exists in the Royal College, but today we are moving even further away, into a world of virtual reality where students are creating their objects in full in a virtual world.

The virtual examples shown here are digital images by Jonathan Hicks, a design student from Plymouth College of Art & Design and are typical. Objects created in this way can treat timber in the same way as plastic, or Corian, glass or metal. A designer may value American Walnut for it’s colour and variance of surface and employ it in a design, but unless he’s familiar with the working properties of that material he would be in danger of treating it in the same way as plastic or Corian. This is not meant as criticism, its a fact of life. Design colleges, stretched by budgetary requirements, frequently determine that a room full of computers is easier to deal with than machine rooms, woodworking machines, machinery technicians, bench rooms, finishing shops and all the added plethora of furniture manufacture.

Yet there is a distinction here. The furniture designer maker is not really aiming at manufacture. The designer maker is inevitably captured within the world of one off bespoke, or small scale, small batch production. The Designer with a D’s objective is for the product to be resolved to a point where it still leaves a visually intriguing object that answers the need of function, that is efficient of time and materials in manufacture, and that allows the product to be made at a significant profit. A profit not only to the manufacturer but to the distributor, who would add on in excess of 100% on the manufacturers profit and making costs. This is rarely achieved by designer makers. This wondrous ‘design for manufacture’ is a world that either eludes or does not interest all but a small minority of designer makers. And this is the stick that is used most frequently to beat us.

This designer maker world is a world of the exclusive, the unresolved, the frivolous and at it’s worst that’s exactly what it is. Yet it is a world where the boundaries of materials and structures are tested on a daily basis and that perhaps is our only justification for existence.We can play without the restrictions of manufacture. We can also be in control of our making process and have, on a small scale, the capacity to be as efficient as we choose. David Caldwell, noted for his chair designs, has essentially been developing a similar chair for most of his working life time. He seeks an efficiency of structure and process seen in the very best manufactured object and it’s a mystery to me why his chairs aren’t manufactured in larger numbers .

As I sit here in my office with two screens either side of me, and drawing board at the back, I know that a dining table and batch of chairs are being made in the adjacent machine shop, that a pair of bespoke fireside chairs are being fashioned very slowly in the bench room directly underneath me and an occasional table in the bench room next to that. All three will require my personal intervention in their making process. I have provided a starting point ( to conceive or fashion in the mind). I’m not restricted by my subcontractors as I don’t have any, therefore I don’t have to clearly specify at the beginning of the making process exactly what this object is. We can hang loose. I can intervene in the making process, respond to the materials, modify, change, refine and occasionally bin the whole blasted thing. Working with a good maker who has a good pair of eyes and knowledge of his craft is like playing tennis. “What is it you want here in this corner?” he says pointing to the junction of two small components. “Well I want to keep it really light and thin and airy” “Well I need two good fixings in there.” “How big are the fixings?” “Well they’ve got to be at least this big” “Can you make them a bit smaller?” “Well maybe, but I’m going to lose strength if I’m not careful” “Do you think we could get away with…” And so it goes on. I notice if I make the piece myself, the process is entirely different. The mind set of a maker is incremental, step by step, shaving by shaving. I waltz gaily downstairs see the piece in front of me and say “Hey lets lop three inches off at the knees”. I can only do that because, firstly I’ve not seen it for a while and it’s fresh in my mind and secondly it’s not my time I’m risking here. It’s his. If I were making that piece I would be much less likely to risk lopping those three inches off. My mindset would be that of the maker, incremental, step by step. So the tension between us is a dynamic necessary to the construction of the object and it’s perhaps this core relationship that matters to me. That is why I can, perhaps with bad grace, accept to being a rather inelegant furniture designer maker.


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