In the Workshop with Stuart Denniss - Trans Atlantic Maker archive
Monday 7 November 2011
Vanessa Austin Locke goes up north to meet maker Stuart Denniss, who has had experience on both sides of the pond, and to have a good look around his workshop
Stuart Denniss had been a butcher, a Royal Marine, a sailor in the Merchant Navy, a scaffolder and a building contractor with his own firm before he did his degree in Furniture Design at the University of Lincoln. Under the tutelage of Steven Proctor he was encouraged, upon completion, to apply for a much sought after scholarship to the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in America, of which only one per year is granted.
Originally Stuart thought he might want to pursue architecture, but it quickly became apparent that he wanted to do something far more hands-on, so opted for furniture making instead which holds a strong design element whilst incorporating the tactility he desired. His work is focused on form, specifically curves and he takes his inspiration from a variety of sources. "I like the power that's evolved in buildings, but I still end up coming back to curvaceous work and that tends to come from plant life and nature. It's all about form."
Having already had such a varied career, a surprising amount of the basic skills required for setting up as a bespoke furniture maker, from people skills, to running a business, were already cemented. However, he wasn't satisfied with his skill level and so America provided an ideal opportunity for perfecting his craft and getting an edge on the UK market.
In AmericaThe scholarship, made possible by the Roger Cliff Memorial Fund, provides one student per year with six months of intensive training, a home next to the workshop and classes in every element of making from turning and carving to marquetry, veneering and blacksmithing. The school is massive in terms of square feet and the facilities are second to none. Classes are taught by Marc Adams himself with help from about five support staff and visiting, specialist lecturers. The school caters for all levels of learner with special father/son weekends right up to the top professional training Denniss received.
He quite simply didn't feel he knew enough after his degree in the UK. "The degrees (furniture degrees) in this country are a bit wishy-washy. I wanted hard-line (techniques). I didn't feel I got that from my degree. In the words of our head lecturer, 'Theyâ€™re not teaching us to be woodworkers, they're teaching us to be thinkers.'"
At university, although the lecturers were of the highest calibre, (he speaks with the greatest regard of Steven Proctor et al), they're just not given enough hours. Stuart implied that two hours a week was all you could expect from some lecturers. In America he was given eight plus hours per day for six months straight. Do the sums and that's about a three-year UK degreeâ€™s worth of practical time if not more. "I learnt more in six months in America than in three years in the UK." And everything he learnt, whilst covered in the UK, was given depth enough to really take root and become a true skill, resulting in a maker with an entirely justified confidence that not many new makers can boast.
Return to the UKHe returned from America a year ago to a workshop, that for various fortuitous reasons was ready to go.
It seems that fortune has smiled most benevolently on this maker.
The workshop is in Brigg, Lincolnshire. It's 1000 sq ft, with a large cargo bay door that opens up the entire front of the workshop. It's remarkably tidy, but Stuart lets slip that he cleaned up before we got there. The largest challenge he faced on returning to the UK was publicising himself, letting people know that bespoke furniture doesn't have to mean unaffordable. "There's a standard of work and that's very very high but that doesn't always mean that it has to be exceptionally costly." Maybe he was always like that but he seems to have brought some of that famous American positivity back with him. "You put your heart and soul into it and find a solution."
It's a multi-pronged approach, as makers know only too well; shows, small art galleries, good websites, word of mouth and networking. Slowly business starts moving up
and out and grows bigger.
Denniss observes a change in the current economic climate, which will benefit makers. "Generally people, over the last few years, have come back to more traditional values. We've been through the stage of having disposable objects and people are looking for investments. They see the benefit in having something that's going to last as opposed to buying something you need to replace every year."
Practically speaking he out sources some finishes, upholstery and metalwork because it's not cost effective to do it in-house. He presents clients with sketches, preferring that to CAD and teases out of them what they want, separates it from what they think they want, while fulfilling his creative process. "A lot of people know they want something but they don't know what it is."
He'd like to pass on the skills he's learned to someone else.
"I've been very fortunate that people have showered me with their knowledge. Taking on an apprentice is difficult with the economic times as they are and it's not made easy. There's a lot of red tape and it can be more of a headache than it's worth. Stuart would have to radically change his machinery to even have a lad in on a Saturday morning and the cost of this is sadly not justifiable.
Style - US vs UKAccording to Stuart Americans admit that our hand skills often exceed what they're capable of. We've simply had much longer, before powertools came in, to develop our hand tool techniques. They skipped a point in the evolutionary process and he relates a good example of this. His mentor Steven Proctor trained at The Royal College, and on completion was invited to go and work for Wendell Castle. On his first day in Wendell's workshop he took up a tool and began shaping a piece of wood that Wendell had been working on. The other makers were stunned. "You can't do that!" They cried. "That's Wendell's job." Wendell on the other hand was staggered by Proctor's ability to come in and just take over from him like that, entirely confident and able to see the shape that was being realised in the wood. Stuart puts it down to the engrained tangibility that a solid training in handtools had provided Proctor with, when so many in America simply reach for powertool straight away. That's something that the American makers respect in English makers. There's an appetite for those skills in the US.
However, the market is huge in America and the high-end market is split between out-there, forward thinking design that borders on art, a la Castle and the traditional Arts and Crafts movement. Perhaps in England we look back into our long and rich history for inspiration, where America might look forward for theirs. Then there are the hobbyists, which feed a million dollar market, with woodworking shops in every town where you'd find just two or three in the whole of the UK.
In conclusionAs for advice to up and coming makers, Stuart's answer is instant and emphatic. "Be enthusiastic and don't be frightened to ask. Sometimes you get knocked back. I was. You phone some makers and they're not interested but generally woodworkers are a very kind, gentle, easygoing breed, willing to impart information freely."
When asked about his greatest achievements to date, he answers with the same level-headed yet positive humility he's presented throughout our time together, giving all credit to Steven Proctor and Deryck Gilham (another tutor). "Ongoing perseverance. I don't think I hold any one thing in such high regard. I've been very fortunate and blessed in lots of ways. I think it's very important for new people to be able to recognise opportunities even when it doesn't feel like it. The good the bad and the indifferent. The bad things, you learn something from them. The mistakes, you learn something from them."