The Future of Furniture
image credit: Ben Tynegate
At Davison Highley we recognise the importance of furniture design education; our design department are all graduates of courses which combined design and craft skills and we’ve had numerous students through our doors over the years working on projects or gaining experience during their summer break.
We’re carrying on our commitment to supporting graduate designers by hosting REACH: the 2019 Rycotewood graduate show at the Davison Highley showroom in Clerkenwell. Which got us thinking about furniture design education and the changes which are happening in UK universities. Are the courses still giving the industry what it needs?
We caught up with Dr Lynn Jones, Former Head of Department of Furniture at Bucks New University and current lecturer at Rycotewood to examine both the changes and the future of Furniture Design education in the UK.
How has the education of furniture designers changed in the last 10 years?
Ten years ago there were many more university and college courses offering Furniture Design as a specialist subject than there are now. Over the course of time the way universities and colleges obtain their funding has changed dramatically. Putting it simply, the money the government lend to students, that students then pay to colleges to pay for their fees, pays for courses to run, so without money from students, there can be no course.
What this means is that student numbers are the main reason d’etre for courses to run. Previously, BA courses in Furniture Design and Making in the UK typically would have no more than 20 students in each cohort which had been the status quo for over 50 years. For example, the course I studied at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent Uni) took 15 students a year. The MA course I ran at Buckinghamshire University College years later had an intake of 10 students (all funded by state bursaries incidentally) each year, which had also been the case for over 40 years, so basically the way government funded University courses was very different. Consequently, the success rate for students was higher: employability rates at Bucks were notoriously high at 100% year on year. In other words, 10 MA students or 20 BA students were far more likely to find furniture industry related work than their contemporaries today because the numbers applying for jobs more or less equated to the numbers of jobs available.
Nowadays the picture is quite different. The more students accepted onto courses the more income the university or college receives – and relies on for survival. This shift has meant that courses have become commercial entities, competing for students on a global playing field. Further, universities have to manage their own funding and prioritise what to spend on. In many institutions, the diversity of the courses delivered across any college or University, means that they have had to introduce ‘metrics’ to measure the costs of one course against another. This marked the beginning of the end for most furniture specific courses, as teaching people to make things using tools, machines, workshops and staff to support those workshops, could never compete with the resource cost of teaching 200+ students in one space, usually a classroom or lecture theatre.
image credit: Ben Tynegate
What is the current status of furniture design education in the UK?
Some courses have survived or have found strategic ways of supporting the discipline of furniture within the broader context of other disciplines, most namely Product Design and Interior Design both of which have presence in the minds of young people either because Product Design is still taught in secondary schools, and because Interior Design is more generally understood in the wider public domain.
Funding has become fundamental. Things that used to be budgeted as normal expenditure are now classed as ‘Added Value’ items – educational visits; visiting designers; dedicated studio or bench space; basic materials – are all included and prioritised at the discretion of the institutions, depending usually on what they cost.
image credit: Ben Tynegate
What are your aspirations on the ability for the UK to produce world class furniture designers of the future?
The picture is not all bad. The experiences students report to me as their external examiner are generally positive across the board with the occasional grumble about workshop issues not quite being perfect. Without exception though, students report the very highest quality of teaching, commitment and pastoral care from their tutors.
So why then are Furniture specific courses still against the ropes?
In my view, any commercial situation can be sustainable. Of course it can. Creative management is clearly evident in those courses that have survived the storm of course closures in recent years. Acknowledging the benefits of smaller group sizes means that people will leave with more developed skills, having had more focussed attention and care. Even fitting 15 people in a minibus makes trips more likely to happen. And to cost less. And, it is easier for industry to show smaller groups around a factory and still conform to Health & Safety protocols.
Inevitable reductions in teaching hours per week (otherwise known as contact time) will lead to less skills being taught and honed. The readiness of students for industry is then brought into question.
image credit: Ben Tynegate
How beneficial is it for students and industry to work together?
If we lose the discipline of Furniture Design & Making in our education system, the supply of people who can do the myriad of jobs needed by the furniture industry - from detailing joinery construction to designing extrusions for office seats – will not be filled. Employers feedback to me as their reasons for rejecting candidates things like “no construction knowledge” or “lack of material knowledge” on a regular basis. Some employers are now recruiting people with the specialist knowledge they need from overseas – most notably Poland, Bulgaria and Germany – also a worrying scenario for if and when we leave Europe.
When furniture companies work collaboratively with furniture courses everyone benefits: staff maintain currency, students learn about the profession and grow their network, students become more confident, courses save costs (knowledge exchange has great educational value…resources like show spaces can be shared too for example). The reciprocal benefits are huge: students can bring excitement, fresh thinking, ideas and optimism to companies and companies can identify skills and qualities they seek for their roles.
Davison Highley have exemplified this with this current furniture graduate exhibition. As regular employers of graduates of historically the two best known bespoke furniture courses in the UK – BA Furniture courses in High Wycombe (which has sadly now closed it’s Furniture Department) and at Rycotewood in Oxford – they are an exemplar of how working together can both prepare graduates for employment and prepare employers to know what to expect of graduates. This exhibition is a celebration of that collaborative spirit, hopefully providing inspiration for others to follow……..
Lynn Jones Associates
About Rycotewood Furniture Oxford
We are delighted to present an exhibition of furniture from the most recent graduates of Rycotewood. The work exhibited illustrates their command of the technical skills and an understanding of materials and processes required to produce high quality craftsmanship. However, it is the combination of skill with creativity which makes these graduates unique.
At Rycotewood, in central Oxford, our aim is to propagate and nurture creative and highly skilled craftsmen. It is a renowned centre of excellence, delivering vocational training in the design and craft of furniture from entry level to BA(Hons). Our offer includes courses in furniture making, apprenticeships with some of the industries finest cabinetmakers and degree level programmes in partnership with Oxford Brookes University.
Our students are regular award winners in national competitions, including those run by City & Guilds, New Forest Trust and the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers. Students benefit from our extensive network of industry partnerships and collaboration with organisations such as the American Hardwood Export Council, Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University. Regular visits, guest speakers, bursaries and live projects bring the student experience at Rycotewood to life.
Design and Make graduates from Rycotewood Furniture Oxford
Thursday 4 July 2019
9.00 – 5.30pm
Private view- 5:30 – 9pm Please register here
Friday 5 July 2019
9.00 – 4.00pm
Davison Highley, Lower Ground Floor, 16 Brewhouse Yard, Clerkenwell, London EC1V 4LJ
All of us at Davison Highley would like to congratulate the 2019 Rycotewood graduates:
Alec Roberts, Andrew Joye, Daisy Brunsdon, Darren Scott, Michael Buick, Paul Lippard, Morgan Charles, David Howson, Marcin Waszak & Tom Morgan.
You, and all the other furniture design graduates this year are The Future of Furniture.