20 Minutes with Ian Smith

Friday 6 July 2018

Exemplar Furniture seeks to redefine the world around it without losing the beauty and elegance of its medium. With the rare accolade of a Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers Award in his final year, Ian is definitely on to a winner.

F&C: What are you working on at the moment?

Ian Smith: I am currently working on a design for a dining table to complement our current range. We have been preparing some design work for a boardroom table for a commercial client and just finished work on a new flat-pack table.

F&C: Why did you become a furniture maker?

IS: I have always enjoyed design. When I left school I trained as an architectural technician and was then involved in management in the construction industry, but I wanted to get back into design. It is much more satisfactory to create something rather than just do a job. I went back to college and trained in furniture design and cabinetmaking. As a career, it offered me what I wanted – a chance to create from the start to the very end. Not many careers offer that.

F&C: What inspires you?

IS: Everything! I know that sounds a bit glib, but I find inspiration at all times, in all places. I can be out and see something that will set off an idea, or thinking about something else entirely and an idea will appear. Even when working on a piece sometimes a new idea will come to me. I always note my ideas down and so have sketchbooks full that maybe one day I will get around to exploring.

F&C: If your furniture were music, what kind of music would it be?>

IS: That's really difficult to answer. I like my work to be simple and elegant so the music would have to match that. I imagine it would have to be a classical piece; something like Erik Satie's Trois Gymnopedies. Otherwise it would need to be something by someone like Katie Melua whose songs appear clean and simple.

F&C: What do you admire in the craft at the moment?

IS: I like the fact that lots of new people are entering the designer/maker industry. The more people we have in the furniture industry, the wider the range of designs we will have to offer. People are becoming much more interested in crafted work and bespoke design. Although the vast majority don't have the funds of the private clients in the past, if we can capture the market it will give us all much more opportunity. These new craftspeople are going to push the boundaries further than the more established makers.

F&C: Who has been your greatest mentor/role model?

IS: I have always admired designers like Alvar Alto and Le Corbusier because they were able to take the materials of the day and use them in new and revolutionary ways. It fascinates me how you can take an ordinary material and use it to make something very different to anything before. It is what design is all about; creating something new out of something that was already there.

F&C: What comes first, design or technique?

IS: Design. I don't like to allow how something is made to influence what I am designing. Once the design is sorted then I work out how to make it. Of course, you will need to alter the design sometimes, but it keeps the original idea as pure as possible. Pushing the boundaries of what you can do with materials is part of design and unless you allow your design to dominate, you will always be limited by how things are made.

F&C: Are we too obsessed with outdated modes of work?

IS: Yes. But I would say that is because my work is very contemporary. I hate the idea that everything old is good. To me, this belief makes it look like we haven't advanced at all. Some old techniques are very useful and it would be a shame if they were all forgotten, but all of these outdated techniques were a new development at the time. We should be using our time to develop our own modern techniques. Just how far can you push some of the equipment we have today? Some industries are very good at this, but the furniture industry has been very conservative for years and seems too frightened to follow suit. We also have to bear in mind that old techniques tend to be very wasteful of resources which is not useful today.

F&C: How or where do you exhibit your work?

IS: We have a website with all of our work and have just opened an eBay shop to offer work to a wider audience. We also do a national show each year and then one or two smaller shows. Some work is also sold in a specialist furniture gallery.

F&C: How comfortable are you with working at someone else's design?

IS: I leave other people to make their own designs.

F&C: Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?

IS: I would describe myself a a designer with some artistic flair.

F&C: What's the practical process you undergo when moving through the stages of a project?

IS: Once I have formed an idea and come up with a suitable design I usually rough-model the basic shape and concept to satisfy myself it will work. If it's to be a batch piece I make a full-size mock up using similar materials to the finished piece, this enables me to get the form, proportions and general sizes correct. I use the basic sizes I have worked out but I am quite happy to allow these to vary if the proportions or shape of the piece is better at different sizes.

F&C: Do you think furniture making is in danger of disappearing?

IS: I don't think it is likely but the market is changing all around us and we have to understand what it is doing. There will always be some people who can and want to commission individual pieces but I believe that we can do more than that. The general market is turning its face towards craft and design, people see that paying a bit more for something significantly better than what the mass market offers is a valid option. We must learn to market to this area and push ourselves. But individual companies can't do it alone; we need more media coverage and help to build this sort of brand idea.

F&C:What advice would you give to someone starting out?

IS: Believe in yourself, but be prepared to alter your ideas and concepts. Also write down what your actual goals are at the beginning and then go back to them every so often to refresh yourself. It is very easy to get sidetracked into doing something that does not meet with your own goals. But always remember that as you develop so will your goals, so change them if it is right to do so.