Crafting a Life – Episode 7

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.

I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast

Episode 7, “love Over Gold”

Here’s an oldie but a goodie; how do you make a small fortune from fine furniture? You start with a large fortune and proceed from there. Fine furniture is a famously, perhaps even infamously, difficult way to make a living so… why does anybody bother?

It’s a good question and I wish I had a satisfactory answer. Those who have the itch just seem to need to scratch it. Let me tell you a little story.

A while ago I received an email from a South Coast school student. He said that he was a fan of my work and asked if he could make a copy of my Clearwater chair for his Yr 12 project in Design and Technology; did I have any tips for him?

My first reaction was to roll my eyes and sigh. This might not sound like a very gracious response, especially considering the flattery, but hear me out.

The Clearwater chair was never conceived as a chair that should be made solely with handtools. This might sound strange, because obviously I would normally describe my furniture as handmade. The point is that the Clearwater’s design is driven by a rather complex technique on the Spindle moulder.

Now, the spindle moulder is a machine with a large and potentially dangerous cutter head that no high school is ever going to own. Many professional woodschools, such as the Sturt School for Wood, don’t even own one. To try to make a faithful copy of a Clearwater chair without a spindle moulder is like trying to eat soup with a fork.

It was pretty clear to me that this young bloke didn’t understand how to read the Clearwater. Whenever I or any other craftsman looks at a piece of furniture, we read it like an essay. The logic behind a piece is there in its structure. I’m talking one layer deeper than how it was made, I’m talking about how it was conceived. A fine example of this is Hans Wegner’s 1949 chair, also known as the Round Chair or simply “The Chair”. It’s a classic, and rightly so.

From my perspective, the ’49 chair is the perfect essay on chairmaking. It is, in its own way, a sort of Euclidian proof- if this, then that. There are so many layers of thought, understanding, influences and considerations evident in this one design that you could literally write a long and detailed book talking about it. What I sometimes forget is that most people are just seeing a nice chair.

One of the key elements of the ’49 chair is that it was conceived as a factory made chair. Much of the equipment used to make it was developed at considerable expense to enable that specific design. To attempt to replicate the 49 chair entirely using handtools is to misunderstand the nature and logic of the design. In his book called On the Nature and Art of Craftsmanship, David Pye gives a clear, if extreme, example of what I’m talking about. Consider your standard ubiquitous soft drink can. Such cans are made by the gazillion for a few cents each using the appropriate equipment. Now imagine asking a highly skilled metal craftsman to make a faithful copy of a soft drink can using nothing but hand tools. It would take tremendous time and skill to make a can this way, because it was never envisaged to be made in this manner.

Cutting back to my South Coast Friend, he was effectively asking me how to make a softdrink can with hand tools. I wrote back to him with some rather vague suggestions and advised him to consider a chair that was more hand tool friendly.

A few months later, our hero turned up at my showroom with his mum. They’d just driven up from the South Coast and bought a considerable quantity of fine timber from a local merchant. It was strapped to the roofrack of mum’s car and yes, it would have represented quite a financial investment.

Now this young bloke wanted to see a Clearwater chair “in the flesh”. I spent a couple of hours with him discussing the chair and giving him as much information as I could. Any yes, I was still trying to subtly re-direct him.

You can imagine my surprise then, when after a few more months, I received some images of his interpretation of my Clearwater chair as well as an interpretation of my Tripod desk. I was flabbergasted.

Despite my reservations, Stephen had made a remarkably good attempt at both designs. Although he didn’t keep accurate records, Stephen spent in the region of 130 hours “on the tools”. His teacher, Luke Ryan, must have also put in a very considerable effort to make the project possible, and let’s not forget mum’s level of commitment.

All this effort to make a chair that he didn’t really understand. Or did he? The Clearwater chair obviously resonated with him. Stephen was prepared to do everything in his power to make one. He couldn’t be deterred. Those around him thought the idea had enough merit to for them go to very considerable time and effort to help him. His achievement was quite extraordinary.

And here’s something else to chew on. We sell the Clearwater for $1,958 including tax. I often hear people in my gallery whisper to each other “who would spend that much on one chair??” Well, for the record, we sell on average about 24 Clearwaters a year. But more important to me now is the knowledge that someone would spend at least a 130 hours just to get the taste of what it would be like to make one. Like I said at the beginning, those who have the itch just seem to need to scratch it.

And what do you think Stephen should do with his life? When I put this story on my facebook page, it went viral and he was inundated with congratulations and good wishes. Should he do the sensible thing next year and pursue the double degree in engineering as he was originally planning, or should he become a maker? Should it be love over gold or vice versa?

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.