Crafting a Life- Episode 18

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 18, “Hall Tables are Fun”

Call them hall tables, side tables, sofa tables, console tables, whatever; they’re fun.  They’re an interesting form of furniture to design and make, and we love them.

Most pieces of furniture that fall into the loose definition of “hall table” start at around 700mm tall and go up from there. This means that the shapes of the understructure, as well as the top surface is very visible and at a very human height. Detail, form and material is close enough to the viewer to be appreciated. Just as importantly, hall tables almost always stand against a solid background, such as a wall, which assists in highlighting their form. A little mood lighting to enhance the shadow play or a spot to highlight a particular aspect of the design or the timber, can really make an impact.

More than most pieces of furniture, the hall table’s primary function is decorative. They might display some interesting objects, or hold a set of keys and a mobile phone, but the most important job of most hall tables is to welcome the visitor with something nice. People subconsciously understand that a hall table’s real job is to help set the tone for the rest of the house.We find our clients spend more time choosing a hall table than other piece of furniture, with the possible exception of chairs. Choosing a hall table is a lot like choosing a painting. Scale, drama, tone, dominance, style; everything about a hall table matters.

My favourite hall table design is our Stork, because it incorporates just about every element of design that I’ve been playing with over my career. I like the visual tension of it, and I love the shapes. It’s a great palette for showing off special timber. So many little processes that we’ve developed as a workshop are utilised in the Stork, so even from a nerdy woodworker’s perspective, I’m very happy with it. It is one of those rare designs that has basically not changed from the very first edition, because I think it’s just about balanced in every way. Fortunately, many of my customers agree, so we get to make several a year and we always try to have a couple of them in stock at the showroom.

Now I’m going to go off on a tangent, but stick with me, it’ll eventually all make sense. I’ve just finished teaching the chair course with the students at the Sturt School for Wood. I know you are all probably sick of hearing this, but chairs are the hardest piece of furniture to design and make. When discussing chair design, the students all wanted solid parameters and measurements and formulas. What should the angle of the back be? How deep should the seat be? How tall should the back be? How do you make a chair comfortable? How do you even draw a chair? How long should it take to make a chair? What price will people pay for a chair? How do you jig up for chair production? What are the best timbers for chairs? How do you glue up all the curved sections of a chair? How do you cut a compound joint for a chair? How do you upholster a chair? We literally had tears of frustration from some of the students as they tried to juggle all the competing requirements and demands of chair design.

Compare this to the serenity of a hall table. Take a lovely piece of wood, compose a pleasing understructure that suspends the aforementioned beautiful piece of wood at a height that you feel is appropriate and make sure that the whole assembly doesn’t wobble too much. Apply a nice finish.
I make it sound so easy.

And yet, the Stork took me about 15 years to design. Fifteen years and much experimentation across a wide variety of furniture types. I could never have conceived of all the elements of the Stork without that 15 years of experience. The actual design process was very fast, but only because all the pre-knowledge that was already there in my head. When an artist say “this piece just came to me” what they are really saying is “this piece just came to me after a lifetime of thought, training, repetition and experience”.

And this leads me off on another tangent. Because I am now an established artist (and I’m making air quotes here as I say that), I’m in an interesting place that’s full of contradictions.  I realise that I’m a funny combination of conservative and experimental. A student can present a body of work that has a few technical and aesthetic issues but be well lauded for their effort. Quite often student work is both challenging and experimental, partly through a lack of experience and partly through a desire to be different. This sort of work often gets some pretty generous critical acclaim, and words like “emerging artist” are used. But it can be hard for the public to connect with such work.

I go to the odd exhibition of student work and I hear the establishment gushing praise in the front row but the average Joe scratching his or her head in the back row.

By contrast, anything that comes out of my workshop, or an established workshop like mine, can have the opposite reaction, with the critics saying “meh, seen it” and the public saying “ooh, love it”. Because I make my living by selling what I make, I obviously have to enjoy a bit of public acceptance, otherwise I’d starve. I nearly said, Otherwise I’d have to teach full time, but that’d be a cheap shot.

And that brings me full circle back to the Stork hall table. It’s distinctly Dunstone Design. Everything about it, from the range of techniques, to the aesthetics, makes it obviously one of ours. And it’s not a chair, which is kind of interesting, because that’s what we’re best known for. Actually, if I was asked to rate my top 5 designs, only three of them would be chairs. The point is, if I couldn’t pull out a design as resolved as the Stork by now, then I should probably be selling house insurance.

You can imagine the daunting task a student faces when they take on a year or more at a school like Sturt. They’ll encounter a range of teachers who will each tell them with utter conviction that such and such a process is the correct way to go about things, only to be contradicted by the subsequent teacher. The student will only get to make one piece of each type of furniture while they’re on the course. They’ll rarely get to make the same design twice. They will hardly get a chance to develop a personal style before the whole experience is over in a flash, and then they’ll have to somehow make sense of everything they’ve learned. Imagine the challenge of trying to find a way to put all this knowledge and half knowledge, and scraps of techniques and ideas into practice.
And then they look at me, essentially the competition, with 20 years of experience, a highly skilled staff and easily the best equipped wood working workshop in Australia. Thank goodness ignorance is bliss, because otherwise they might be a little intimidated by it all.

Which leads me, in a very round-about way, back to hall tables. Any emerging maker could do a lot worse than to focus on hall tables for a while. They’re the sort of piece that people buy off the floor, rather than commission. You can make three or four hall tables at a time and sell them through a selection of galleries or online or out of your own workshop. If your designs are any good, you will get enough turn over to develop new and better ways to make them. You can tweak the designs as you develop. Quite often you can add more and more complexity to the same basic configuration and you can find where your market and your price point lies. Quite often a successful line of hall tables can allow you to buy a special log, because you know that some of that good timber will turn into dollars reasonably fast, in the form of your hall table design. Some contemporary designer/makers I know make a significant percentage of their income just on hall tables.

A successful range of hall tables can also lead to some strategic investments in equipment, too. If you’re starting to reliably sell your hall tables, then any piece of equipment that you can acquire that will speed up production will be of great benefit. Perhaps you’ve got your eye on an expensive sanding machine? If that machine can save you two hours a hall table, and you are making four hall tables a month, you have just bought yourself an extra day of productivity each and every month just with that one purchase. And you’ll also have the benefit of that machine across the whole range of everything you make.

You’ll also learn productivity from having a range of hall tables. Every time you repeat the same design, the chances are that you’ll develop a new jig or devise a better clamping method or change to a faster joinery technique that not only makes each hall table more profitable, but also helps you across the board with your whole furniture practice. Not even talent is a substitute for experience in this game.

Finally, getting a number of hall tables into several people’s homes helps to spread the word about you and your craft. Here’s the scenario; A couple buys a new house and they make do with an old hand-me-down hall table until they’ve saved enough to buy something that really pleases them. This is not a job for IKEA. This is a shared project and for them this is also “couple time” which has a magic all of its own. They visit your workshop one afternoon and they admire the hall tables that you have on display. You talk to them about the timbers, the design, the finish, your training, your love of the craft. They spend quite some time selecting the one they really want. Eventually they reach a decision, but they’re still nervous, because really, they liked them all.
When they return home, they’ll put your design in pride-of-place right opposite their front door. The very next person to come through that door is going to say “wow, what a great hall table, where did you get that?” And your couple will feel vindicated in their decision. They are going to tell their visitor how they went to your workshop, how you told them all about the inspiration for the piece and where the timber came from, and how this one is probably the best one you’ve ever made. They are going to tell their visitor what a hero you are because it reinforces their own enjoyment in the piece. Not only do you probably have a client for life in this couple, but you also have the best possible sales advocate; a happy customer. And the best bit is, the key elements of the story are true, this is why you design and make hand made furniture out of special timbers.

Just don’t think too deeply about the fact that your hall table is up against the Stork, or it might put you off your stroke.

You’ve been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please consider going to Itunes and giving it a like, it really helps me out. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.