Being realistic but aiming high


At the Chippendale school, we love to sell furniture or, more precisely, we love it when our students sell what they’ve made.

We’ve just had our annual Open Days and public exhibitions to showcase the work of our graduating students, and many were able to sell pieces they’d made during their year with us.

It’s always great when that happens because it gives the graduate the confidence to know that their hard work hasn’t been for nothing.

More than that, because furniture making is about realising an inner core of design magic, and then finding out that you’ve made a connection with someone else – and that this someone has bought into your imagination.

Over the years we’ve had students who have displayed all sorts of imaginations, making everything from the utterly functional to the absurdly wonderful.

But what we encourage our students to make are pieces that will stand the test of time because, as TV personality Janet Street-Porter said, “I’ve owned more sofas than I’ve had husbands. Both sag in the end, but I generally fall out of love with the furniture quicker than the men.”

If unlocking students’ inner imagination is difficult, it’s harder still to teach students to have realistic expectations.

After all, because we’ve taught them well, when they graduate they are skilled craftsmen and women.  They deserve immediate success.

But what they have to learn is the Oscar Wilde observation that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

For a furniture maker, that means selling at a reasonable price, because it’s better to earn something rather than nothing.  It means charging Ford prices before you can charge Rolls-Royce prices.

It’s an issue that is particularly pertinent for today’s woodworkers, because the value that we place on a beautifully-crafted piece of furniture may be rather more than a prospective customer is prepared to pay for it.

Yes, it may have taken many, many hours to make, using the finest woods, veneers and delicate inlays.  But if that prospective customer is looking for a simple table or chest of drawers, then he or she may be more interested in utility value than financial value.

In our experience, it’s those graduates who take that lesson to heart who go on to build the most successful businesses.

Remember that Pablo Picasso survived during his early career in Paris by burning most of his paintings to keep warm.  (By the way, that’s one of them at the top of this article).

I always advise our students to be pragmatic, certainly until they have built a reputation.  There’s no point in graduating from a furniture school and thinking you are immediately a master of the woodworking universe.

To quote Oscar Wilde again: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”  That’s what we all must do.

Anselm Fraser, principal, Chippendale International School of Furniture

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