I’ve been struggling with something that’s troubled me for a few years now and that is the contrast between professional or what was once just full-time woodworkers and then perhaps amateurs. I see a similar comparison in other areas affecting woodworkers in the realms of teachers of woodwork craft, lecturer types too, if you will, and students; things like this. In my day it was man and boy thing, craftsman and apprentice, trainer and trainee. I still like the word journeyman because it suggests the journey distancing an apprentice into the world of an adult craftsman that starts say five to seven years after working full time in the given trade.
The word bespoke has emerged over the past half century or so to describe what was once ordinary as something or someones as perhaps not ordinary but extra-ordinary. I think the term bespoke began to emerge when the demise of woodworking became more an irreversible condition here in the west, which came when educational colleges became some kind of qualifying agency rather than the locally earned reputation of a craftsman. Of course jobs were gradually sold out to global producer/suppliers too, which meant fewer and fewer makers to take on additional craftsmen. Anyway, I do remember bespoke being used mostly by tailors and dressmakers on high streets throughout the UK making made-to-measure handmade suits.
Last week and again this week already I’ve had a lot going on. In the midst of concluding two new training project series and currently developing the next major project for filming, I found myself delving into pockets of reflection concerning the future of woodworking! What does that look like? What will woodworking be to future generations? Is it possible that woodworking in the realms of furniture making will become a locally based craft again and who will be responsible of that is indeed a goal and a possibility for the generations of people graduating from training?
In my youth I could have apprenticed with a dozen companies in the town where I lived. That’s all changed. Most professional businesses of a size capable of taking on new staff are fighting to exist here in the UK. It was the same in the US too. So it’s not the case today of course. I’d be lucky if I could find one company in ten similar sized towns today. If I did I would be feeding the machines and not making by hand too. Such is the cultural shift in woodworking no matter the craft. Despite all of this I do so a hope for the future. If we could of course disabuse new woodworkers to accept the craft is special as an ordinary craft rather than trying to change it by titles lone. Woodworking for me has always been very special and the best pieces I ever made were made by someone of little significant name for people who had no significant name.
Over recent years I have had ever-fewer inspirational conversations with what we might see as successful craftsmen working wood. For me, that’s concerning. If I try pinning down any conversation surrounding incoming work, details of say annual income or identifying a style of design that might emanate from such encounters it would be impossible to find a developed line or style originating with them. That bring the case, it’s unlikely that I depart with any clear picture as to who they are at all in terms of ambition or hope for their future. It’s as if vagueness has become the identifying feature of a class of woodworker who no longer wants to be, well, just an ordinary workman. It seems that many want to project themselves into something more non-identifying and non ordinary. Something perhaps more, well, artistic, admirable, less pinned down, more nebulous. Some use terms to describe who they are that defy definition such as bespoke. That is sort of set apart from the rest, better than the ordinary. In reality they simply perform ordinary tasks for a woodworker and produce ordinary looking stuff. Look through a UK magazine surrounding design here in Britain and you will see ‘bespoke’ and ‘designer-maker’, artist-maker woven into someone’s title somewhere, yet what exactly that means no one really knows?
Anyway, reading between the lines and listening to different conversations over the past year or so I found myself trying to listen all the more for aspirational content and even excitement with young designer-makers, only to find the spark was near sparkless. I listened to discern something that told me that they knew that they they had not arrives but hoped for a future developed ability they could somehow possess down the road if they put the hours in and gained the experience they truly needed. I didn’t really find it though. It was as if leaving college had somehow fully qualified them to give them the sense of having arrived rather than they had just learned some basics; tools if you will to get them started. The reality was that they thought they could just make their designs, find the right buyer, and then sell millions and make money by which they could measure their success. That this would somehow validate them. I had hoped that they would be excited about a design they had developed but that wasn’t really the case at all. In a couple of cases the projects I saw by different artisans were, well, very ordinary, copied, uninspired works. Technically they were correctly made but totally machine made and with no creativity to the designs and certainly no creative hand work. That can, not always, lead to the work outcome being very dull and uninteresting, boring if you will, and that’s usually because the process itself is boring. Artist designer’, ‘Designer-maker’ and ‘bespoke’ may be aspirational but the titles had nothing to do with the actual work produced. Here, the evidence was missed opportunity to step out and make change. Sparklessness fulfilled. Though I had hoped for more and I did value the different conversations I’d had with the aspiring generations, I became concerned that they no longer saw being known as workmen and working men as something of true value in and of itself. I’ve spent most of my life as just a workman and found great contentment in it, even though I was actually designing pieces that to me defied gravity. I was always able to earn a living as a single income family. Is it possible that most newish craftsmen start out assuming titles ahead of themselves before earning the reputation it takes to be what they aspire to be? By this I mean earning the title first rather than simply assuming it? Earning a personal recognition actually goes beyond the accomplishment of gaining say a degree or, more rarely and perhaps more demanding, serving a longterm apprenticeship. As a mere workman, a working man, a man contented to be a furniture maker, I still have aspirations I have yet to achieve at 66 years of age. It has nothing to do with whether I earn income from my work or not. If it were only possible for me to make furniture for a hobby, I would work on my craft in the evenings and weekends, sell or not sell my work, and still be a happily contented workman. Nothing has ever stopped me because it didn’t matter if I had a title, earned or not, or whether I had a degree. What mattered was if I made. I never did get a degree of any kind that had anything to do with my craft.
Seeing descriptive titles here in England that are actually statements unsupported by output is concerning. The work must be generated if we are to see things change. That means realism in lived lives rather than titles. It means hard work and vision. Few people see themselves as, well, ordinary working people in a virtual world any more any more. Today there are hundreds of thousands of websites depicting images of things that don’t actually exist showing workshops, hand tools and pieces of work. It’s all too easy for people to consider themselves entrepreneurs, designers, artists of an unordinary stature. That’s a new phenomenon in our western culture. Obviously there are fewer and fewer real jobs for furniture makers wanting to create bespoke work. Because the jobs don’t actually exist. That’s an issue created by politicians and economists who only see the future through blinkered eyes of “global strategies”, “imports, exports” and so on. Because of this young designers and makers must become self employed as soon as they leave college or university because they have n choice and yet finding gainful employment for at least five years would be the very answer to their future in becoming bespoke makers in their own right. I see this as the very solution we need to help them become the new genre woodworker that replaces my generation. As they then begin creating their own designs from their experience in the real world of woodworking and furniture making instead of being forced into a very, very narrow band of industrious creators struggling too early in unsupported realms they had nothing to do with.
Business cards never say working man or ordinary craftsman these days and, I know, they never did, but at least at one time business cards said it the way it was. Paul Sellers, Cabinet Making and Joinery, said all I needed to say early on. My earned reputation on the other hand was of real value. Designs that worked, held up my name as a maker and eventually a designer too and my business name became Paul Sellers furniture and design. That was in 1985 and it’s stayed the same. There was no doubt in times past workmen laboured in their craft until they felt they had had enough work under their belt to be held accountable by their customers. It wasn’t age or a degree but more than that, it was a rite of passage to gain the experience first and then let the lived life as a craftsman speak for itself. Yes, it came from and through years of rote repetitive practice in workmanship. That’s why I say it’s not important to make furniture for prestigious people or even selling a piece as such to a paying customer, but establishing yourself as a person people feel confident to entrust their work to.
I say all of this to suggest adding a few extra years to a career plan is well worth the investment and that things will need to change if that is to happen. You CANNOT rely on governmental programs put together by politicians to make this happen. If you do you will end up with endless intrusions into your business life with no end of form filling. This is something that defies political interventions designed for political and economic gain. This is a heart issue on a local level.
My thought is better to be a workman making to respectable standards rather than using self-endorsing titles. There is a true rest in this, I have found. When you need to add descriptive titles it can become mere nondescript additional baggage rather than a clear and unalloyed statement of a lived life. I would still make pieces whether I sold them or not and if I had to take one of those “real jobs” people told me to take in my early years I personally would still be making eight hours a day 6 days a week in my own time and in my own creative space. I did this on and off for many years in my early days and it worked just fine because I loved work, there was less pressure to prove anything and I have never liked substitutes for living life like TV that much anyway.
Word of mouth takes time. Be true to yourself doesn’t mean sidestepping the necessary period of truly earning respect by being faithful to each new customer that comes to your door. The best advertisement for an crafting artisan will always be through word of mouth. Clean, precise, honest work is always the very best endorsement.
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