The Gathering 27/06/09.
The Gathering now in its second year was the brain child of James Ryan of Edward Barnsley Workshop, its premise was to get together makers in an event that could discuss and implement improvements to our industry. We are an insular bunch who rarely see other makers, and some of us rarely see daylight! So this annual event is a great opportunity for us all to get out of our workshops, talk shop, and hopefully have some long term benefit for designer/makers. This year 60 top makers from the UK attended with names including John Makepeace, Andrew Varah, Robert Ingham and Joseph Walsh, no other event can claim to gather such talented makers and it was a great privilege to attend this year having missed the inaugural event.
This year’s gathering was held at Ercol’s headquarters and factory. James Ryan, who designs a range of furniture for Ercol, was able (with the generosity of Ercol’s Managing Director) to hold the event at these wonderful premises. Built in 2002 the factory itself has won numerous awards. The entire Ercol production team including over 100 staff is housed in 160,000 square foot of modern, clean, working environment with a state of art extraction system enabling all areas of production to be side by side. The air is so clean even the upholstery and polishing section is located in the open plan factory. There’s a wall of natural light bringing the outside in and the factory makes full use of modern CNC machinery.
Ercol is one of the UK’s last remaining, large furniture manufacturing companies. Founded in 1920 by Lucian Ercolani and still family owed it is now run by nephew Edward Tadros. The family have moved with the times and invested heavily in new technology enabling them to still be trading in difficult times. The work force has decreased from 800 to 150 today which will ensure profitability and longevity. Their range of furniture has also evolved employing contemporary designers to keep the furniture modern and appealing to a new younger market. A lack of forward thinking and unwillingness to change has been the demise of many large manufacturers. Ercol are well set to still be making furniture for another 90 years.
This year differed from last – the first year prominent designer/makers spoke about issues affecting the industry however this year outside speakers were all chosen for their background; a photographer, branding company, curator, public relations consultant and creative industries centre The Metropolitan Works.
All the speakers were very interesting but I personally gained the most from Brian Kennedy a curator, The Metropolitan Works and Barnaby Scott.
Brian Kennedy worked with the Irish Crafts Council prior to workig with the London gallery CAA. It was enlightening to hear him speak about what a curator’s role is and the impact it can have – Joseph Walsh who was in the audience has had his career catapulted through Brian’s input into exhibitions abroad and his work with the Irish Crafts Council. Furniture exhibitions often suffer from overcrowded exhibits, an endless sea of wood and no true connection between exhibits. Brian’s skill of choosing and mixing different disciplines in a setting helps the visitor imagine the pieces in their home and therefore having an impact on sales levels.
The Metropolitan Works is London’s leading Creative Industries Centre, helping designers and manufacturers develop ideas and bring new products to the marketplace with access to digital manufacturing, workshop space, advice, courses and exhibitions. Facilities can be hired on a project or day by day basis. This is a subject close to my heart as I feel the way forward for the industry is shared facilities and those available at The Metropolitan Works are very enviable.
The last to speak was Barnaby Scott of Waywood Furniture, Barnaby took the plunge last year and purchased a 3 axis CNC router, he was speaking of his experiences, the advantages and disadvantages of such a tool for a small workshop. The machine should be used to push the boundaries of designer/makers, and Barnaby who has only had the machine some 6 months and is already producing some ground breaking work; his walnut chest of drawers (F & C no 155 page 51) certainly is right on track in this respect.
It was nice to put names to faces at the event and get an insight of what is happening with other makers – although the recession was not mentioned and everyone seems to be doing really very well! I am not sure if this is a true measure of the state of British furniture making or spin. I have however had many conversations with makers over the last few months with many saying that clients are backing out of commissions even at the last minute causing difficulties with workshop scheduling and, of course, cash flow. These are difficult times but as Ercol MD quoted “we have seen difficult times before and we will see them again”.
Jason Heap the new owner of Betty Norbury’s Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design was present and I spent some time with him discussing his plans for the future. Wisely this year the exhibition remains unchanged, but next year Jason will be putting his mark on the exhibition and hopefully building on the good work Betty had done over the last 15 years.
The most prominent moment for me that might have gone un-noticed by many, was a question by John Makepeace to the speaker on company branding “Did he not feel company branding was indeed unnecessary for an artist, and the artist should be known for his work and not a logo?”
I felt this to be a very valid point that provokes further thought as to the direction of furniture-making. It was however a question that was misdirected to the speaker as he would never be able to answer sufficiently coming from a biased angle. The group of 60 makers however must have had their own answer, if asked the question did they consider themselves artists or craftsmen? I think they would be split, with many of them benefiting from company branding and some of them happy to stand by their artist status feeling that a signature would be enough. What makes one furniture maker an artist and another a craftsman? Is it the value of his work financially or is it that the work is of cultural importance? It is this split that John’s question had highlighted that excites and intrigues me about our future.
Design Art the movement created by gallery owners to describe this very concept is fast growing, picking up momentum and gathering rich collectors along the way. The
V & A Furniture Futures in September will bring to the forefront these very subjects. The exhibition Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design which will be running alongside this is already provoking much thought but little in the way to answering the question what is the future for designer/makers? I think we will see a definite split in the near future of art furniture from the umbrella of ‘furniture’
These may be difficult times but boy are they exciting times.