Furniture Futures Symposium
Thursday 03 December 2009
Andrea Hargreaves reports on the first biennial symposium on furniture, at the V&A
In the months that passed between first mooting the idea of a symposium that would look at aspects of furniture-making in the future, to take place in the grand arena of the lecture theatre at the V and A museum, John Makepeace and the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers must have entertained a few niggling doubts. Would the movers and shakers of the 21st century want to take to the lectern and would professional furniture makers venture from their workshops to make the trip to London?
In the event there was a huge buzz from the off and the theatre was filled almost to capacity with 275 people whom a show of hands showed to be largely furniture designer-makers with workshops in rural areas.
Down from the country they may have been but there was a sophisticated response to the line-up of speakers representing design, commerce and marketing who addressed their attentive audience over an intense seven hours which allowed much vigorous debate, particularly over the way design could be influenced by politics and the ethics of using metals and plastics instead of timber.
First to speak was American art furniture maker John Cederquist who described his latest series. This comments on the current recession and features a dollar bill motif on distressed chairs and a chest. The idea was to create a form that seemed as if it was draping down to the seat of the chair, he said. The wood was hickory, a quintessential wood. Inlaid sections were epoxied to look 3D but were only 2D. The scroll pattern was simulated with ripple maple. One chair featured scissors made from Pacific north-west maple and bleached to look like metal, cutting through a bill, another hot rod-style flames burning a bill and yet another had a rope bound around a bill to represent burning at the stake. A chest that looked two-dimensional was revealed by its opening drawers to be 3D. Powerful stuff.
Next up was materials specialist Chris Lefteri who showed various extremes of chair design like a lawn chair in polystyrene shaped to look like giant blades of grass which bent randomly under the weight of the sitter, and a sustainable chair by Hermon Miller, which would make no landfill waste.
David Colwell took this theme and ran with it. He said his work was based around the issues of sustainability, and proceeded to deliver a strong political statement about the ills of the current century.
He used graphs to illustrate how Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus philosophies were fundamental to the work produced by contemporary makers but that by the 1970s monetarism had become responsible for what was happening to the planet today. Chairs were being produced in the name of fashion that were too high to sit in and too wide.
What design did was make things desirable so a lot of this was down to us, he said. In a mature society what we do ought to have more relevance outside. Our influences were coming from the mainstream design world. We would have to make a tremendous change to our material world.
He took the example of a Windsor chair - a fabulous chair, the first design after thrones - then showed plastic chairs that could, he said, have been more wisely made from plywood. Plastic could not be recycled, he said, citing ash as the ultimate timber because the faster it grew the stronger it was.
His latest chairs were entirely steamed and were jointed via holes, so no tenons needed to be cut. It was flexible, strong and light. Steambent timber used much less energy than kiln-drying.
Industrial designer Sebastien Bergne showed a variety of designs including Slim and Jim chairs of different widths which illustrated how design had to cater for increasing body size with wider chair seats.
Designer Thomas Heatherwick and architect and furniture designer Amanda Levete courted controversy and wonderment, Heatherwick with his experiments for public seating on a huge scale from a single gigantic extrusion of aluminium - he was inspired by toothpaste squeezed from a tube - and Levete for her extravagant but beautiful use of metals and plastics on public buildings like Selfridges in Birmingham.
Levete referred to the relationship between architecture and furniture as being a matter of scale and said furniture could influence buildings and vice versa. Pragmatism and functionality went without saying, she said.
Her architectural shapes were inspired by glass-making technique. She explored the nature of glass and its fluidity, where it was left to flop and find its own form. From that idea she looked at how it could be used for a roof. It was important how you expressed material, whether in building or furniture, she said. Much of her work concerned building up complex layers of material and she considered the voids to be as important as the solids.
Levete and Heatherwick received a rough ride from Colwell, however. He could not justify using plastics because they could not be recycled. It seemed to be an incredible luxury to use materials like this for aesthetics when we could not work out how to get rid of them.
Levete countered that it was not just embodied energy in material. The energy used to run buildings was far and away more damaging than the materials used to build them. Later she opined that designers and architects would drive ourselves into a dead end if we did not do what we do. It would be hypocrisy.
Heatherwick added that it was a very difficult balance to strike. It was easy to polarise one way and to have a blind spot to another side. If someone did not like an object it did not matter how it was sourced.
He said that if every cow on the planet was killed that would be the best thing we could do for it, but were we going to do that? If you had something made of 40 components and you had 40 lorries driving round rather than one component and one lorry then the carbon footprint could be kept down. In 50 years we would look at our knee-jerk response.
Bergne thought that people had always had luxury as well as tools to get through everyday life. The choice of materials was a decision and often not yours to make. It was an industry decision. He called, however, for more responsibility about small everyday decisions.
Cederquist counted himself lucky not having to work with clients. Artists sat around and made this silly stuff. He suggested taking cinder blocks and boards to make furniture that would not need to be designed. Go beyond that, however and you got into design. In the real world you ended up doing what you wanted to do. Something might not be ecologically sound but you would do it anyway.
Colwell added that the job of the maker was to invent a tomorrow. They had aspirations and it was their job to make those aspirations appropriate. They needed to be terribly careful about what they do. What they made must speak a bit too. They needed to have something as sexy as this plastic and aluminium but without their downsides.
A student of furniture design argued that bad design was unsustainable because we would want to tear it down within a couple of years. If he was urged to buy a new thing every year the landfill would be full. So much rubbish was being put out there under the auspices of design and it was self-indulgent rubbish to make money."
Art to Mammon
As the chairman, Jeremy Myerson, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art, commented, the afternoon turned from art to Mammon, with the important business of making a profit from furniture making being addressed.
For me the key speakers were trainer Chris Croft, see 10-point success plan, and Nigel Bates who set up and runs the Artifex furniture-specific gallery in the west Midlands and explained how his venture works.
He started by getting top designer-makers Andrew Varah and Fred Baier on board, selling some pieces on commission. Slowly customers came in until he now had around 30,000 a year through the doors.
He explained that he tried to obtain a sample of work and invited clients to pick a maker and style they liked. He would then go back to the maker armed with location photos and hopefully a commission would go ahead. Furniture was his passion and did not seem to be seen in many galleries, he said.
Sociologist Bill Osgerby said that the future of furniture would be influenced particularly by the rise of the new middleclass and their lifestyle and, encouragingly, Alexander Payne, Director of Design at Phillips de Pury and Co, said there had been a huge growth in the last few years on post-war to present-day furniture. Much work was going to Asia and America, and the UK market was also showing great growth. Investment, he said, was secondary to passion for collectors of furniture.
Since the economic downturn viewings had been very strong. If you continued to offer great design to the market place it would sell, he added, stating that a Lockheed Lounge by Marc Newson had sold in London recently for £1.1m. Clients would always be there for the right object.
Designer-maker Matthew Burt asked him to what extent an auction house was an opinion former or maker and Payne replied that the auction world looked more to curate, reacting to the correct market and look to create a new market. He assured another questioner that there was a market for wooden furniture.
Promotion and communication
Journalist Caroline Roux spoke about the coverage of design in newspapers and magazines and how furniture makers could gain themselves column centimetres by writing exciting press releases.
Loic le Galliard, co-founder of the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London which specialises in high-end art pieces, said that to him form was more important than function, and illustrated this with photographs of a few pieces that were appearing in the Telling Tales exhibition at the V and A.
With design art there were probably 500 people in the world buying it, but because the press, galleries and museums were looking at it, it was a growing market.
Director of the London Design Festival, Ben Evans, said that a key role of the festival was to obtain new audiences for design via a large number of projects in the city, some of them huge, eye-catching installations in outside spaces which had the capacity to draw vast numbers.
Telling Tales curator Gareth Williams discussed use of the word work to describe furniture, urging makers to talk about their work with great respect. The works chosen for Telling Tales were works, virtually all work by designers rather than the work of craftsmen. This was not a craft-based show but a design show. They were not commissioned but were mostly self-generated, all made as unique pieces or as numbered editions.
The pieces he chose were unique or small edition, with a very strong signature style and did not look like the work of anyone else. Virtually everything in the show had been critically well received before. Museums looked for pieces with critical depth.
It was noisy work that garnered attention so most furniture was overlooked, as with art and its noisy young Turks.
Tim Jeffery, who recently co-curated the Making the Future show at his Timothy Mark showroom, was concerned that furniture did not attract much national press coverage. Design consultant Janice Blackburn felt he should try the regional press and the Crafts Council and Karoline Newman, whose Articulate company does the PR for graduate show New Designers, said a good PR would target a few people and clarify the message. Articulate was about making design democratic and accessible. The fundamentals were about excellence and quality of design done. Furniture future should be about making design less elitist. Along with the quality papers we should even get some of the red tops engaged, she said. Le Galliard, on the other hand, said it was enough to be good at what you did.
So what is the future of furniture? The message from this symposium is that it will be controversial, tough to sell and adventurous. Watch this space.