Over the past 34 years, hundreds of students have passed through the buzzing workshops of Chippendale School. We are proud to have supported the careers of many professional woodworkers and furniture makers, providing them with the skills to make a success of themselves in the industry.
Furniture maker, Mike Whittall is a graduate of Chippendale School’s nine-month Professional course, which he studied during 2015 – 2016. He now runs Ochre & Wood, a successful furniture business in Aberdeenshire, which creates bespoke, handmade furniture for private and commercial clients.
We caught up with Mike to discuss his experiences at the school, and life after Chippendale.
What attracted you to the Chippendale School’s Professional Course?
“Chippendale School is the only learning centre of its kind in Scotland – I was very impressed by the variety of the Professional course content. An emphasis was placed on practical, hands-on experience but encouraging creativity and experimentation was a big part.
“What also drew me to Chippendale was studying at a school with an international outlook. I was joined on the course by students from across the world. The cultural differences added to the creativity of the work we designed, with people from countries as far afield as Russia and Australia, sharing furniture styles favoured in their home countries.
“Finally, I was inspired by the success stories of past students of Chippendale School – examples of their work and what they had gone on to achieve since graduating encouraged me to apply for the course.”
What did you do prior to studying on the course?
“Before I decided to pursue furniture making, I had a 25-year career in accountancy as a tax adviser. I had just turned 50 and had reached a stage in life where I was questioning whether to carry on in the same trajectory until retirement, or to try out something different.
“I had always enjoyed working with wood, so I decided to build on a skill that I already had to start designing and making furniture. I knew that it would give me an outlet for something that I was really passionate about – you only have one life!”
How was your experience studying at the Chippendale School?
“I can remember the journey to Chippendale School on my first day, questioning whether I was creative enough to study on a course like this. I didn’t have much confidence in my artistry, although I had been doing woodworking projects on and off over the years. When I got to the school, those worries quickly faded away – the school is a melting pot of creativity, and their whole ethos encourages collaboration.
“You can chat to others to learn from their approach, including the resident tutors and guest lecturers who are there to provide students with full support. We were encouraged to work as a group as well as individually, which meant we were always learning from one another.
“It was interesting to have such a mix of students. The youngest of our group of 25 was just out of school, one person was on a career break and some had just retired. Many others, like me, were looking for a change of direction. It really is a course that is suitable for anyone at any stage of life, and you can get what you want to achieve out of it.
“Overall, what struck me was the enthusiasm at Chippendale School – it really comes across in every aspect of school life. From the tutors to the students, the enthusiasm for creativity is contagious, and that enthusiasm instilled in me comes across now when I’m working with my clients.”
How did you fit studying into your life in 2015/2016?
“I left my job in accountancy and studied at the school every day. I wanted to make the most of my experience, so I would be there from 8am until 8pm. I stayed locally, as did many students, so that I could easily get to the school each day and often at weekends.
What have you been doing since graduating?
“After finishing the course in June 2016, I received a commission right away from a former colleague. For a month, I stayed on at Chippendale School’s Myreside Studios – the incubation workshop where graduates can make use of facilities, equipment and knowledge from the course tutors while they establish their businesses. In that time, I completed a dining table and chairs made from elm and ash, working with my client to agree upon design.
“Then, a few months later, in November 2016, I set up my workshop in Aberdeenshire.”
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about undertaking study at Chippendale School?
“I would say, if you’re inclined to do it, go for it! I personally opted for total immersion, as I felt like I needed a complete break from what I’d previously been doing and wanted to be fully concentrated on something I was interested in.
“I would encourage students to be open minded – there were a few woodworking elements that I thought I’d never be able to undertake and wouldn’t even have considered trying previously. At Chippendale School, however, there are very few limits, and countless opportunities to try out unfamiliar techniques. The tutors pull out all the stops to help the students.
“I would also encourage them to consider what they want to get out of the course and where they would like it to take them, as nine months goes flying by. I go back once a year to give a talk to the students. I always advise them to have a think while they’re doing the course about what they might like to do afterwards, and to get as much experience as they can in that particular area.”
What was your highlight from life at the School?
Learning to make artistic pieces of furniture which I had not previously thought I’d be capable of making.
Also, the Christmas dinner was
really good! A nice touch to have everyone in the room around a great big long
table having a good old get together before Christmas.
What did you make for your end of year pieces?
I made a steam bent coffee table from ash and elm, a leather-topped desk from elm and oak and a dressing table and stool set, with a curvy leg and mirror, from sycamore and yew.
What have you been making recently at Ochre & Wood?
Recently, I designed and made a boardroom table for Balmenach Distillery. Some of the wood used for the table came from an old oak spirit vat – one of the original vats dating from when the distillery was built in 1824. It was quite a privilege to work on a piece of furniture using wood with such history.
At the moment, I am making a small kitchen in a coastal cottage for a private client. It is made predominantly with ash sourced locally. I like to work with native woods where possible as they are beautiful, and it is more sustainable.
Anything you would like to add?
Studying at Chippendale School was certainly a big investment, but it was absolutely worth it. I am very glad to have studied on the Professional course and have no regrets.
We’d like to thank Mike for taking the time to speak with us about his experiences since graduating from the Professional course. Take a look at Ochre and Wood for further insight into Mike’s work.