Preserving the craft of furniture restoration

In this blog, Chippendale School Principal Tom Fraser spoke with design writer, presenter and industry consultant Roddy Clarke about why restoration is a craft worth preserving.  

What first sparked your interest in sustainable design and restoration?  

“I grew up surrounded by restoration. When I was young I would watch my father at work, he was an expert china and porcelain restorer. However, it was during my teens that I realised how unique this craft was and I enjoyed discovering the history and narratives behind some of the pieces my father would restore. 

“I believe that each piece of furniture has its own journey and story to tell and sometimes they become engrained in a family’s history. It’s so rewarding to be able to restore a piece to its former glory and preserve the narrative within it. It is something I’m truly passionate about.  

“When I found myself back in the interiors world a few years later after working alongside my father, I felt that some areas of the sector lacked depth, history and integrity. This spurred me into exploring the role of restoration within a circular economy and reignited my own love for the craft.” 

Why is it important to keep this craft alive?  

“By restoring furniture, we are not buying into the wasteful habits of the ‘fast furniture’ world. There has been a return in recent years to a love for one-off and handmade items, and this is what brings us real joy – the storytelling that accompanies a treasured piece of furniture. It makes so much sense when you think about it, as the craft does nothing but enhance and enrich society. 

“There is such emotion embedded in restoring furniture – I’ve seen customers in floods of tears when they witness their restored piece for the first time. It is all about appreciating the craft beyond the material aspect of the piece itself and the deeper connection an owner can have to each item.” 

Restoration is a key part of the Professional Course at Chippendale School. What does the wider landscape in the UK look like today?  

“A lot of restorers started to change how they did things in the late 1990s, due to the rise of the high street and the onset of short-term trends and fashions. With many seeking work in other sectors, a lot of educational organisations dropped restoration as part of their offering due to a lack of interest. However, currently the desire for antiques is again on the rise and, with antique dealers getting more business, the need for restoration is also increasing too. 

“With this increase in demand it is very difficult to find good experienced restorers as many have retired or are nearing retirement. The problem lies in not enough young people are taking it up as a viable career progression and it is important we act now, in harnessing these skillsets, to ensure they can be passed onto future generations. Hence, I am launching a new restoration platform later this year to help facilitate this.   

“We need to emphasise that being a restorer can be a very rewarding, and lucrative, career and it is definitely not a redundant skill. I’m so passionate about reviving the craft and establishing a new restoration collective which will introduce more young people to restoration whilst also making it more accessible as an industry.” 

“I believe that furniture makers and manufacturers should build restoration into their model by offering a restoration service. You need people with the intrinsic knowledge around the history and background of wood and the eras of design in order to maintain the integrity of each piece. It is about preserving the standard of restoration to ensure that this can take place. This is not upcycling – it is very different skill that truly focuses on the preservation of a piece above all else, taking into account the way it was created and finished originally.” 

How can you tell if something is worth restoring?  

This is where an expert comes in – send a picture of the piece to a local dealer; they are usually easier to find locally than a restorer. They will be able to examine it and give you an idea of value. However, I believe that most furniture that we deem as vintage or antique today is worth restoring. The quality of such items surpasses that of the items you see mass-produced today. I am not talking about independent furniture studios or workshops, but the mass-market alternatives showcased on the high street. Every piece we restore stops us from buying into this linear cycle of production and helps us to value the craft and quality behind a piece. Even if it might not have much market value, it can still hold a piece of history and will have more longevity than these mass-produced items .” 

Where can you learn restoration techniques?  

“There are a few courses remaining including Chippendale School’s Professional Course and West Dean College’s conservation course. However, many are centred around restoration as a hobby and lack the infrastructure to help graduates establish themselves as a restoration business. Last year, I worked hard to salvage one of the last remaining restoration apprenticeship schemes at GCSE and A-Level standards in collaboration with FIESTA. I organised a GoFundMe campaign and the response from the industry was overwhelming and we are currently in the process of reinstating this for the next academic year. Through this, and the platform I will be launching, I hope to revive a more inclusive industry and reach communities who might now have had access to such creative opportunities.”   

Do you have any cherished antiques or restored items in your own home/family home? 

“Yes, in our family home where my parents live – most things are antique! Personally I have recently moved into a new home and haven’t had the opportunity to invest in many items yet, but eventually I’d like to fill my house with items I personally connect to and which can be passed down to future generations. I recall an old writing bureau as a child which sat in our hallway. I always wanted to do my homework from it, but it was too small and the drop down leaf was too high for me so it wasn’t really practical. My favourite piece was an old Mornington and Weston piano with barley twist legs. It isn’t of great financial value, but it has beautiful features.” 

Are there any designs today that you consider future classics that are worth investing in and looking after for years to come? 

“Look at people like Sebastian Cox, Robert Brain, and Benchmark – these designers and furniture makers are creating heirlooms of the future! Their work is made with such integrity and skill and will last for generations to come and these pieces will be held in high regard. We are so lucky to witness such a wealth in craft pioneers today like Sebastian Cox who is doing amazing things for the industry.  

“Restoration is key but it won’t ever fully replace the desire for buying new. What it does offer is an alternative to the fast furniture world and, if you are buying new, always invest in something that has been handmade and you know the maker or the source of the materials themselves. However, affordability is a challenge, and this is where you can find great deals through vintage websites or flea markets.”   

What is your opinion on the fast furniture market?  
“The high street and the fast furniture world are changing as consumers are finally realising the importance of what lies behind the purchases they make. They are starting to look at the ethics behind production – tracing the furniture back to the maker and checking that they are treated well and paid fairly.”  

What are the alternatives to buying cheap, mass produced, low quality furniture? 

“As mentioned previously, affordability and accessibility are among the biggest challenges of the design industry today. It is always going to be more expensive to buy from independent makers, but perhaps we can open up price plans, affordable payment schemes or make simpler pieces in our design studios. We also need the industry to think more about making sustainable design choices more widely accessible.   

“In terms of alternatives, there are lots of options – look at vintage markets, eBay,  Vinteriors, Selency, Facebook Marketplace, Etsy, Gumtree, 1stDibs, Merchant & Found and Panomo! These platforms offer a wide range of price points. 

“It would be good to have a coming-together of the finance world and interiors to make financing pieces easier, but renting a piece can also be an economical short-term alternative and there are now more options for that which is great. For example, Antique Look is a new sustainable platform for antique furniture, offering both financing and pieces available for rental.” 

You can find out more about Roddy and his work on his website, or keep up to date with him on Instagram.

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