Future talk

This will be a three-part blog post based on a talk given to the Woodworkers Association of Pretoria in September 2011.

What shall we tell them, go for it or not ?

Part 1     Picture if you will a small workshop the size of a double garage with two or three cabinet makers in there producing furniture that you cannot buy at the mall or order from Ikea.  It becomes increasingly difficult to motivate that there is a future in that setting. I mean “future” as in whether or not a youngster should pursue woodworking heart and soul as a career choice. The main reason for the scepticism is because at this particular point in time we have moved so decisively into the technological age that furniture making has become synonymous with cave dwelling.

Well at least that frothy forefront of technology (iPad, iPod, iPhone, i-whatever) which seems to be moving at the speed of light. (Has anyone in Silicone Valley ever heard of wood?)

Wood

Ah, but reality, that moderator of euphoria, will have you know that sooner or later you are going to need furniture and more specifically wooden furniture. Why wood? Because it is the most abundant, most replenishable, most versatile, most formable, most widely used, most eco-friendly (and given all the former qualities) the most beautiful natural material on this blue planet. And as Marc Adams points out on his website; this stuff  was created.

Sure, in those glitzy boardrooms they like to recline in stainless steel constructions covered with some exotic hi-tech fabric but somewhere wood will show, if for nothing else than to remind us that we are mortal earthlings bound to this soil. Oh yes, and for the beauty of it.

I have been teaching woodworking to young and old for the past five years and I have heard the question from parents often: Do you think there is a future for a youngster in woodworking ? The answer is an unequivocal yes but some aspects have to be clear and I will discuss them in the upcomming posts. Stay tuned.

Grandson Jean Philippe

Minimalist Scandinavian and Shaker furniture have had a strong influence on present-day designs. Chippendale/ Federal/Sheraton are still choices for formal settings. Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts are still being reproduced today. Western/Oriental blend styles are popular. And then of course contemporary design. Point is, the furniture in demand today is a mix of old and new, all sharing four criteria: utility, comfort, permanence and beauty.

Suffice it to say then that furniture will be made. Question is, who will make it and how ?  Stay tuned

Part 3 Who will make the furniture of the future and how. Mass production will always be with us and not all mass produced things are bad. But here is the right place to point out out that in the past several movements in furniture design have started as a reaction against mass produced things. From the mid 1800’s the English designers like Charles Eastlake,  William Morris and John Ruskin started  reacting against mass production. The  Arts & crafts movement was a direct result with emphasis on hand craftsmanship and limited ornamentation.

No you don’t have to start a similar movement (would be nice if you did!) but the sentiment that drove those movements are still with us and this keeps the door open for small-shop furniture makers. However, some provisos apply.

Bear in mind that my perspective will differ somewhat  from that of someone giving advice to young people in America or Europe. This is Africa and although we have a furniture making tradition which came with the European settlers in the mid 1600’s the current woodworking culture is small. With the advance of the technological age we suffered the same fate as the western world: we stopped teaching woodworking in our schools and we somehow expect  technology to produce the furniture. And it does, and in some cases it does so admirably. CNC machines turn out complex components in very short time cycles.

But we are arguing the case for hand-made furniture. These are distinct one-off pieces or or a limited production run. There have always been a market for hand made furniture and there always will be. In the case of artist/craftsmen you can only broadly specify your needs but thereafter it is up to him or her to render their version of your request.

So, lets say a particular individual shows some aptitude towards woodworking and expresses the desire to make furniture for a living what are the minimum requirements? Let me just be clear that I am not referring to someone working in a furniture factory. That is a machine operator or an assembly line person but not a furniture maker.

1. Learn the skills. There are many skills to learn and it is going to take time. Start by fitting out a small workshop with a workbench and a basic set of hand tools. Then buy some books or attend a woodworking school.

2. Gain experience. Make furniture. Make lots of furniture. Measure yourself and improve on the quality as you progress.

3. Study design. The successful one-man furniture makers are the ones who can come up with their own design. Before you can become a known entity you will have to do a lot of work for individuals and related industries and you have to have the ability to conceptualise and design. Years ago I worked closely with architects and interior designers and it was often the case of being shown a rough pencil sketch from which you were expected to come up with a concept. You have to have this ability in your armoury.

Eliel Saarinen chair (an interpretation by Vejdi Avsar)

4. Learn business skills. You are in business and you have to keep a set of books, have the ability to estimate a job, be able to put together a detailed quotation, maintain machinery, budget, pay your taxes (yea I know how you feel), pay the rent etc. etc.

And who knows, if you are successful you too will one day immortalise your name in some piece of furniture like Mies van der Rohe, Marianne Brandt, Gerrit Rietveld or Hans Wegner.

  1. Hi there,
    I stumbled across with this page and I noticed one of my pieces (Eliel Saarinen chair) has been pictured on this site. I must admit it made me proud but at the same time it was a little disappointing to see no mentioning of the maker. Particularly in a place like yours that is teaching for the future craftsmen. Here is my web address http://www.vejdiavsar.com. On this site, in one of the workshop pages, it gives information about the chair. Best of luck for your teaching. Thank you very much in advance.

    • Good day to you Mr. Avsar,
      Thank you for your email and for drawing our attention to this discrepancy. My apologies for omitting reference. I will certainly speak to the lady managing the blog and have it rectified.
      All the best with the fine furniture you are producing.
      Greetings,
      Heinrich Sachse

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