Crafting a Life – Episode 2

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Hello, and Welcome to Crafting a Life.

I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 2, “Doesn’t this stuff cost a lot?”

I left you last time with my move out of aviation and into furniture making. I want to move away from my personal story soon, but before I do, there’s an important point to make. I have been under commercial pressure from the moment I picked up a chisel. My move to craftsmanship and furniture was not some hippy transition to a peaceful alternative lifestyle. I think the closest analogy is that I went in to the furniture equivalent of a 3 star Michelin restaurant, where only excellence was acceptable and the customer was always right. I have always enjoyed the hustle of a commercial workshop, and woodwork has never been a relaxing or Zen experience for me, it has always been my job.

Now, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand that hand crafted furniture made from beautiful timbers is going to be expensive relative to mass produced furniture. This is a no-brainer. Industrialization has made it possible to produce unbelievably cheap furniture items.

Some people are inclined to leap to the defense of craft furniture and argue that it lasts better and is therefore a justifiable expense. This is part of the “antiques of tomorrow” argument. Another approach is to argue that craft furniture supports local jobs and keeps the money in Australia. A third argument is that craft furniture is more sustainable and is environmentally friendlier than broadly manufactured furniture.

All these arguments have merit, because they are all fundamentally accurate, yet I think they miss the central point. The elephant in the room is that good craft furniture is simply a pleasure to own. The more you understand it, the more discerning you will become and the greater the pleasure you will derive from owning a special piece. There are layers of enjoyment to be had from understanding fine furniture, just as there is with any connoisseurship. I own the work of other craftsmen and I love the journey they take me on whenever I look at and experience their work. Every other consideration is a pretty distant second for me.

Actually, it’s pretty silly to claim that craft furniture is uniformly better than massed produced furniture. On the contrary, I would argue that by and large it isn’t. I would even go so far as to say that most craft furniture is actually not very good, because it is such a difficult thing to do well. Consider how many skills and resources Ikea can bring to each product. There is a team of designers, manufacturing experts, state of the art equipment and development resources to bring about every little item. Compare that to the average small workshop, and I think you get the picture.

The truth is, there is plenty of craft furniture that I hate, and I mean really hate, and I actually enjoy hating it. This is simply because it is all part of my understanding and appreciation of the craft. For me, that’s a positive, because really good work is so refreshing and exciting and rare. Just when I think I have seen it all, some clever clogs pops out with something that is both virtuosic and original. Its hard to beat those moments. If you become a serious collector of craft furniture, you will read each piece as an essay on craftsmanship and design. The most pleasing work is logical in construction, engaging in design and virtuosic in craftsmanship. That’s a pretty tall order for a talented team and a really, really tall order for an individual.  It is any wonder that really good work is so rare?

Most people buy their first piece of craft furniture largely on impulse, just because they love it. They have an instant visceral connection to a piece and decide to purchase it. This is terrific, but it usually takes years to develop a true knowledge and appreciation of good work. We don’t have much of a furniture culture here in Australia, so many of our clients are starting from a pretty low base of background knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, Australian clients are wonderfully open to ideas and very receptive to craftsmanship, but often their first ever exposure to fine work is the first time they walk through our showroom door. I don’t mean this to be as arrogant as it sounds, its just that I usually start with a prospective client by explaining the difference between an oil finish and a sprayed lacquer. That’s just not a conversation you would start with in Sweden.

Your homework for this week is to think about the craft made object that is most emotionally important to you. Don’t cheat and say it is you Iphone. That is a work of industrial design, not craft. No, I want you to consider an object that is made with craftsmanship. It could be a saddle, a wooden spoon, an old barn, a piece of jewelry, maybe some furniture. Anything that you really connect with and that makes you wonder at that hands and mind of the person or people who brought it to life.

You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.