A harmony in teaching the old and the new

There’s a healthy debate in some woodworking circles on the impact of new technologies on traditional skills. Anselm Fraser, principal of the Chippendale International School of Furniture, offers a teaching perspective.
Anselm Fraser Two

Here at the Chippendale International School of Furniture we’re this year celebrating our 30th birthday. We’re still here because of our international reputation which is based, I believe, in teaching both the old and the new.

That ethos was inspired by the great Thomas Chippendale, the hugely influential 18th century furniture designer, after whom the School is named. His success was partly due to keeping one step ahead of changing fashions – and reflecting Rococo, Gothic and Oriental influences. He wasn’t afraid to bend with the times if that’s what his customers wanted.

It’s a philosophy that we share at the School, and one that we teach to our students. First, we ensure that everyone thoroughly learns age-old craftsmanship. However, second, we don’t discourage new computer design or making technologies.

A good understanding of traditional craftsmanship is what every woodworker initially needs, because it’s a set of skills that, taken together, provide a full understanding of the properties of different woods, how those properties can be melded to make beautiful furniture – and, not least, the confidence that only age-old craftsmanship can teach.

But woodworking has inexorably moved on. We have better, more accurate, and sharper tools. We make use of electrical saws and other equipment for convenience, to save time – and therefore reduce cost. As woodworkers, we have always embraced new technologies – otherwise we would still be using flints and jaw-bones.

In other words, like Canute, we shouldn’t try to ignore new technologies because, if we understand the basics of traditional craftsmanship, we can use new developments to better translate design vision into fine furniture: still understanding the uniqueness of each piece of wood, but shaping them in ways that the old masters would instantly have embraced.

An important lesson that we teach at the School is that craftsmanship and vision are two sides of the same coin. We teach respect for the tactile raw materials that we use, but we also allow our students to follow their own intuitions and imaginations.

And that’s where the very new technologies, such as CAD and CNC, have stirred up such a healthy debate, because there are some in the profession who would like to draw an arbitrary line in the sand – as King Canute did – and say: no further.

While I can understand that argument, I disagree with it. If I have an infection, I’d rather be treated with modern antibiotics than a bucket of leeches; and I’d rather fly in a modern jet airliner than a Zeppelin airship. Progress is a perpetual constant; the only thing that’s changed is the speed of change and how, as woodworkers, we should respond to it.

I was interested to see that the celebrated and award-winning artist and teacher Scott Grove agrees with this perspective. Scott is an author and long-time teacher on veneering at the School, and also has a diverse portfolio of skills encompassing fine art and sculpture.

This topic has been an ongoing issue for him; he has given his lecture, Technology and the Human Hand – Are We Losing Touch? at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, and the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Vermont. He says that he has used such technologies as CNC and AutoCAD but “not lost personal expression or hands-on craftsmanship, although others may have a different experience.”

Our view at the School is similar: we are equipping our students with life-skills to set up their own businesses. For example, from last year’s graduating class, we have one student who is largely designing and making kitchens; another who is working on interiors for high-end yachts; and a third who is making quirky furniture for an international market. In each case, on top of design and individual skill, what they’re also selling on is price – or maybe, for the very wealthy, the lack of it!

And that’s really the crux of the CAD and CNC debate, because there’s no point being a woodworker if you don’t understand your business market and the kind of prices they’ll pay. That’s where computer technologies offer an advantage: they can significantly reduce the time it takes to turn vision into reality, and the reality of reducing time is to reduce cost. That in turn can mean winning business, or losing a sale.

A good example is a piece of furniture that we designed and made at the School last year – an intricately-inlaid piece that we named the “Referendum cabinet” to mark one of the most important events in the country’s recent history: the Scottish independence referendum.

It was designed to tell an interwoven story of Scotland’s history, with detailed marquetry posing questions about the country’s place in the Union, and incorporating iconic scenes from both Scotland and London.

While the cabinet required intricate craftsmanship, we also used computer technologies. For example, some of the finest details on the cabinet were given additional precision using CNC line technology. By combining computer aided design technologies with traditional craftsmanship, we were able to produce an iconic piece of furniture in four months – from start to finish.

Without using computer technology, we’d still be making it – at huge cost.

The fact is that woodworking processes will continue to change, and so woodworking itself will continue to change. After all, every issue of every woodworking magazine is full of stories and advertisements for the latest gadget or technological advance.

It’s an evolution we should welcome, so long as we also remain true to the guiding principles of our craft, and have mastered the traditional ways of doing things. We need that healthy and age-old perspective to put modern woodworking into a historical continuum – understanding traditional woodworking skills, but not being afraid to use modern technologies to better meet today’s markets.

It’s probably a debate that we’ll still be having in ten years time, as new computer technologies become ever-more smarter and cheaper. It’s a debate that Thomas Chippendale would have understood; start with the basics, learn craftsmanship, but don’t be afraid of the future.

That, in essence, is what we teach and one of the reasons why we have such an international reputation and have been in business for 30 years.

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