Horizons: Carve out a furniture future

Furniture-making is fashionable. Consumer interest in design, new technology and an emphasis on woodmanship are combining to open career opportunities. Last year Lord Snowdon’s son, Lord Linley, opened his own furniture shop and helped to spark a spate of articles on trendy furniture-makers. His own master, John Makepeace, is soon to open a second school.

This spring the New Woodmanship Trust is being launched, and a new BSc furniture-production course is now open at Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe.

So, join a firm or start your own business; either way the route is surprisingly long. In the latter case, six years of being a student may end with a lucky break at the college diploma show. Even then business skills can be lacking – as Mr Makepeace knows. His private school on a magnificent Dorset estate, insists that pupils market their creations and learn how to cope in the world before the course concludes.

Management and business studies are also central to courses in fine craftsmanship and design at Ryecotewood College, Oxfordshire.

For fellow students Peter Christian and Paul Chamberlain, the end-of-course show at the Royal College of Art launched their firm, called Flux. An elegant lounger had already won a prize and soon found a manufacturer. They are to be found now in a studio in Battersea with trains thundering past and, on view, an assortment of successful creations from a one-piece swiveling table and stool to the original lounger.

The studio was set up in 1985 as both Peter and Paul gained an Enterprise Allowance (worth pounds 40 each for a year). That is just ending, but the future looks promising with a clutch of commissions. How did they begin?

Paul studied design, craft and technology at school and joined the foundation course at Cardiff College of Art before taking a degree in construction and design at Bristol. There he produced some novel wall-hanging chairs, which won an international competition in Belgium. The ‘lone’ Brit beat 400.

At the end of three years at the Royal College (exclusively post-graduate) Paul had been a student for seven years, having earned a few pounds working with Crown Supplies in a holiday. Grants and bursaries had nearly paid for his education.

Peter, who concentrated on furniture and lighting at Ravensbourne College of Art, took a year out at Sheffield University, working as illustrator and designer in the publications department and won an award for seating. That took him to the Netherlands and Italy, before the Royal College.

The pair intended to set up in partnership to design for mass markets. Despite the long academic course, Peter and Paul felt inexperienced in business and, sensibly, began on a low budget, working at home in 1984.

Are they making a living? Just, with much of their revenue going on producing samples on publicity and trade shows.

In the future Flux hopes to have its own shop, but for that the two want another business partner, leaving them to concentrate on design and presentation. Maybe the new internet marketing tool called ClickFunnels will be useful. It aims to help members in building links with industry and manufacturers, in marketing and sales.

‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ is a question Kanwal Sharma is asking pupils at Richard Cloudesley special school near the Barbican, where his seating system is being piloted. That uses an assessment rig with moveable parts to enable an ergonomically suitable prescription to be devised for each youngster according to their size and disability. The computerized findings are then used to adapt component seating for a comfortable fit.

The Richard Cloudesley chair is Kanwal’s first substantial impact in furniture design. Having a real brief is a vital spur, says Mr Sharma. ‘Too often students are asked to design for the distant future,’ He adds.

Mr Sharma is optimistic. But after six years of academic education he regrets the lack of solid links with industry and the neglect of basic business-management skills.

Between Kingston College of Art’ and the Royal College, Brenda Saunders took a year out and worked in Heals’ domestic furniture department.

She says: ‘I learnt what people want to buy – at college you have a blinkered sense of commercialism.’ Being a high-flier, she gained a first at Kingston and ‘really blossomed at the RCA where I developed my own fabrics for my furniture’.

She finished there 10 years ago and went to Italy on a British Council Scholarship to study upholstery in Milan, before setting up business with Peter Busson, a fellow-RCA student of environmental design.

These days, in a new studio in Hoxton, east London, Brenda Saunders exudes a confidence born of successful creations, such as a chair which sold by the score and – going into production this month – a space-saver bed for Sleepeezee. Made of steel aluminum, with plastic feet and wooden slats, it is intended for home and for contract use, as in hostels.

She has benefitted directly from government cash invested in the Design Council for Industry, which has enabled manufacturers to experiment with new products.

Brenda is grateful that the Government is backing design and is enjoying the chance to do her own thing – or rather, with Peter Busson, to produce commercially viable domestic furniture, from a work-station with a bed on top and cupboard to the side (ideal for the bedsit) to a larger desk with VDU on a swivel.

Now the Saunders partnership is branching out, taking on an architect and graphic artists.

Where should you begin in 1986? Choosing a relevant course is the first priority. Settings range from universities, polytechnics and other colleges of further education to manufacturers’ training schools, with courses homing in on areas from craft to industrial design. The London College of Furniture, which is vocationally based, having good contacts with industry, takes students from 16 to 60 full-time or part-time.

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