A period of calm for a curriculum of success


It’s that time of year when the class of 2016/17 has left us and the class of 2017/18 has yet to arrive.

It’s a time therefore for reflection.  To reflect on what we do well and to see what we could do better.

It’s something we do every year because, in a competitive market, only the best will survive and thrive.

It’s partly why we’ve been a leading furniture design school for over 30 years.  Yes, we have good tutors and all the materials and equipment our students need.

But we’re always being self-critical, listening to our students, and thinking how the world of furniture design is changing.

Because change is ever-present in everything we do, from advances in machine-room technologies to the kinds of furniture that people want to buy.

Our primary task is, of course, to teach woodworking.  It’s that fundamental skill that our students can take into their creative and business lives – to design and make beautiful furniture.

But we constantly have to ask them – and ourselves – what is beautiful furniture?

Until the start of the 20th century, all furniture was made from wood.  It was the only available building material – cheap, plentiful and easy to work with.

But all that changed in the first decades of the 20th century as furniture designers realised that they no longer needed to work with wood – other materials would do just as well, if not better.

It paved the way for mass production, using steel, glass or plastic – and making furniture affordable for everyone.  Modernism was born.

Some of those Modernist designs are still classics, while designers such as Walter Gropius, Josef Albers and Charles and Ray Eames remain influential designers for today’s furniture designers.

It’s no coincidence that the likes of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were also architects, able to balance form and function across disciplines, or Isamu Noguchi, whose classic designs were inspired by his other life as a sculptor.

Their creativity was to move away from wood and to use whatever material best suited their imaginations, or their one blinding flash of brilliance.

For example, Marcel Breuer’s chromium-plated steel Wassily chair was inspired by his bicycle.  If a bicycle’s handlebars could be made from tubular steel, he thought to himself, why not a chair?

But my guess is that wood is now gaining in popularity.  In the UK, TV advertisements for home furniture have begun to extol the virtues of tables, beds and cabinets made from solid wood.

In an ubiquitous world of cheap MDF and plywood, good old-fashioned wood is being seen again as a material of quality and durability – a simple recognition that, while it may be a bit more expensive, you’re buying something that will last a lifetime.

That’s one reason why I think that furniture design could be on the brink of a renaissance.  Wood is once again being seen as a material to be valued, and furniture no longer unwanted clutter to be chucked away when we paint the living room walls.

In that space between yesterday and today is a huge opportunity for today’s woodworkers and furniture designers: to create pieces that are timeless, able to fit seamlessly into people’s homes – becoming things that will be cherished and passed on to children and grandchildren.

That’s a huge teaching agenda and an enormous challenge for us as tutors.  We want our students to succeed, and the only way they can succeed is by designing furniture that people want to buy.

So in this brief period of calm between students leaving and students arriving, we have a chance to think again about the changing world of woodworking – and how best to teach success as part of the curriculum.

Anselm Fraser is principal of the Chippendale International School of Furniture

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