A simple fact about bespoke furniture is that good design sells.
That’s a lesson that Fiona Gilfillan, one of recent professional course graduates has learned.
During her course, she made a spalted Sycamore and Elm console table, which sold at the graduate exhibition.
She was then commissioned by another customer to make a second console table.
Now she’s just completing a third, making her something of a console queen.
Fiona was the second student on our newly-introduced month-long intermediate course last year.
Then, despite not initially intending to make woodworking her life, she enrolled on our 2018/19 professional course.
Fiona is now setting up FeeMade from incubation space at the school.
Those spaces, Myreside Studios, are one of the ways we try to help graduates in their early careers.
Because we don’t believe that education and support should end when our students graduate.
Instead, in a more holistic approach, our Myreside Studios allow graduates to set themselves up in business from the school’s campus.
We give them good working space and full access to equipment and machinery.
They also have continued help from our tutors, so that they don’t have to feel isolated.
That’s important because our students build up close working relationships with other students, with everyone learning from each other.
Myreside Studios allow those working relationships to extend into professional life so that, in a very real sense, the school is a community of students and professional woodworkers.
Fiona also has one other claim to Chippendale woodworking fame.
She first came to us on a one-week introductory course, making her the only person to have completed all three of our courses.
Fiona is gifted and hard-working and we’re hugely pleased that she’s staying on at the school.Read More
It’s a good way for potential professional woodworkers to see if they really do have sawdust in their veins.
And if they do, and enrol onto our professional course, the introductory course fees are deducted.
It’s a route into woodworking that several professional course students have taken, having proved to themselves that woodworking is the career for them.
For Stephen, originally from Northern Ireland but now living in Edinburgh, it was a bold change of professional direction.
His previous career was in IT consultancy, with his own company, which he sold.
Stephen’s stand-out piece, for which he won this year’s Richard Demarco Prize, was a humorous statement on the vexed question of Brexit.
His “Strong and Stable Brexit Cabinet” was just as divided as the country on the issue.
His two-door cabinet in Walnut and Japanese Ash depicted the Union Jack on one door, and the EU’s stars on the other.
Also, one of the EU’s stars was missing…a visual quip about the UK’s intention to (maybe) leave the EU.
In our experience, furniture sells when it’s well-made and carries a design that turns it into a talking point.
Not only was Stephen’s cabinet extremely well made but his fun design gave it topical appeal.
In the run-up to the school’s graduation exhibition, several newspapers – including The Times – carried stories about his cabinet.
At the exhibition itself he was awarded The Richard Demarco Prize 2019.
This annual prize is awarded by Professor Richard Demarco CBE, one of the UK’s leading arts commentators.
Professor Demarco’s prize is awarded to the student whose work not only displays design and woodworking skill but exceptional artistic talent.
Stephen is now setting up Starship Unicorn Furniture from incubation space at the school.
These spaces, Myreside Studios, are another good reason to study at the Chippendale school.
They allow graduates to immediately set up in business and make full use of the school’s equipment and machinery.
They also still have tutor support in case of difficulty in those important early months.
It’s all part of the school’s holistic approach to teaching woodworking and helping our students post-graduation.Read More
Steve Tripp’s journey to the Chippendale school and our professional course took four years to plan.
Steve, a former IT consultant from Minnesota, finally made the move, with his wife also enrolling at a university in Edinburgh.
While he was busy learning his new woodworking trade, she completed a Masters in Arts, Culture and Festival Management.
Both Steve and his wife have long had an interest in traditional crafts and ways of working. Those include everything from weaving to ceramics, and from woodworking to lace making.
He’s particularly been influenced by the Lost Trades Fair in Australia. This is all about promoting traditional crafts made by people not machines.
It’s also a movement that has ideals of sustainability and educational outreach and, in different guises, is gaining traction worldwide.
Steve’s stand-out piece was a beautiful mirror with an enigmatic message.
The mirror, in white Oak, had the words, “The lyf so short” across its top.
Below, it had “The craft so long to lerne.”
It’s a good quote because the artistry involved in woodworking is also a process of lifelong learning.
However, the quote is actually from the 14th century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. It comes from his epic poem, The Parliament of Fowles.
The quote is about love and how learning how to love is a skill, or craft, in itself.
But the enigma of the quote goes further because the poem describes a flock of birds gathering in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day.’ The birds are there to choose their mate for the year.
It’s believed that the poem later became the inspiration for St Valentine’s Day.
The words on Steve’s mirror were oil gilded in 24 carat gold. The mirror itself was decorated with the iconic rose motifs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The result was a thought-provoking mirror, with a powerful punch of a message, and beautifully executed.Read More
Anselm Fraser, principal, the Chippendale school’s principal, writes in The Woodworker magazine.
Oscar Wilde, the 19th century playwright, expressed it perfectly.
In his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, he wrote that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Like much of Oscar Wilde’s work, his comedy hides a biting truth. We often consider moral or ethical values as being less important than financial worth. We allow greed to overrule good sense.
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 other words, spending days and weeks crafting the finest chest of drawers in the whole history of chests of drawers, and placing a huge price tag on it, is no guarantee of a sale.
In a world dominated by IKEA, furniture makers have to look imaginatively at the market, design and build accordingly. Most importantly, always have a sensible price in mind. We may be craftsmen and women, but our valuations have to be pragmatic.
The key concept is value. The painting hanging on our wall may only have aesthetic value, until we discover it’s a Picasso. At that point it acquires huge utility value as a way of paying off the mortgage.
In the same way, good furniture has both utility and aesthetic value. Our wonderful chest of drawers may be aesthetically beautiful but, if the drawers don’t open properly, it lacks utility value.
That balance between form and function is at the heart of all good design, from architecture to fine woodworking. Finding that balance is the first thing that furniture designers should always do. Who am I selling to, and what are the values my customer is looking for?
The fact is, good design must be about both the aesthetic and the utilitarian. If necessary, woodworkers shouldn’t be afraid to compromise, if compromise brings down the cost to an acceptable level.
That budget will be influenced by two things – the cost of materials and the labour costs of designing and making the piece of furniture. It’s a deceptively simple bit of arithmetic: costs + your time = price.
Of course, it’s a little bit more complicated. Costs aren’t just wood and screws. They also include everything from heating to water, local taxes to equipment.
It’s a process of determining cost and then building in a reasonable profit margin.
Make something for £10,000 and sell it for £11,800, and your gross profit is £1,800. You will also go out of business rather rapidly.
As a rule, gross margins after direct costs should be in the region of 40-50%.
Generally, improving profit margin should always be a clear and unambiguous business objective. But, equally, you must have realistic expectations about what customers may be prepared to pay.
The problem is that many woodworkers think too highly of themselves. They charge a Rolls-Royce rate, when their customer is looking for a Fiat Uno. (All too infrequently, alas, the opposite can be true!)
Also remember that Pablo Picasso only survived during his early career in Paris by burning most of his paintings to keep warm.
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.
That takes time and, in the meantime, it’s better to under-sell rather than not sell. Remember also another line from Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Start low, be sensible and pragmatic, but always aim higher and higher.
Note: A couple of places remain on our professional nine-month course which begins in October. For more information, click here.Read More