Friday 6 July 2018
Northern Contemporary Furniture Makers' clients strike a hard bargain. Andrea Hargreaves meets a group whose members are surviving the credit crunch in a geographically tough market
This feature was always going to get slightly out of hand. Assemble a group of furniture makers in one room, ask them to project detailed images of their work on a big screen so as to have an idea of who makes what, and you get what you deserve. I had arranged to meet representatives of this comparatively new group to find out how membership helps their businesses but instead of an orderly presentation orchestrated by myself, an energetic free-for-all ensued on how each would tackle the other's technical problems, about Arts & Crafts versus engineering principles and the difference between the price customers are willing to pay and the 'proper' price.
I met Northern Contemporary Furniture Makers (NCFM) members Chris Tribe, Richard Jones, Andrew Lawton, John Gabler, David Mawdsley and David Wilson in the boardroom of Leeds College of Art & Design where Richard is a furniture-making Foundation and BA course leader. Leeds of course is Yorkshire's up-and-coming city and Yorkshire folk have a reputation for not being parted from their brass any too easily.
NCFM started three years ago after a few makers felt it would be useful to exhibit at an art week in Holmfirth. Andrew Lawton put it bluntly: “We've got some excellent makers in the north but it's the southerners who get noticed. For us to have to take a van load of furniture to Cheltenham or London is a huge outlay.”
David Wilson added: “It's a Â£1,000 lottery ticket. You've got fuel, accommodation and fee and if you don't sell anything that's time you could have been spending in the workshop. Because we exhibit ourselves we are not paying anyone to do it commercially.”
NCFM is now thinking out of the box and when I visited last autumn it was two weeks away from an exhibition of more than 50 pieces contributed by 15 members to coincide with a sale at Tennants Auction Centre in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, see Chris Tribe's report on page 64.
David commented: “It was a first for us last year. The amount of people coming in was amazing. We linked with a decorative arts sale. It was a really good turnout. This year's exhibition coincided with half-term week and a normal furniture sale and much more space was allocated for it.” Also showing were recent furniture-making graduates, ceramicists and turners. NCFM's furniture is also likely to be seen at northern hotspots like Arcaz in Manchester.
Currently the group has 25 members of whom 16 are rated 'serious players', and they are proud of the fact that F&C contributor Robert Ingham, former principal at Parnham College, has asked to join – he lives and works in Wales although he was brought up in Yorkshire.
David Wilson again: “We emphasise that we exhibit as a group. Anyone can join.”
But not anyone can exhibit. NCFM has rigorous standards and to be an exhibiting member you have to be inspected by two of its members.
The group operates a website, and webmaster David Mawdsley was trying to change it to allow each member to operate their own space. “I'm getting quite a bit of traffic through,” he said.
Democracy is important to the group ethos. John Gabler explained that most members paid Â£15 a month membership fees. Payment of this earned them PR priority, and graduates were charged Â£50 to exhibit.
We got to talking about the significance on the northern economy of craft in general and furniture making in particular, and David Mawdsley said he had been told that craft and its associate services now employed more people than agriculture. Sadly, he observed, there were not many organisations that promoted craft in the north.
John, with experience of life in America and Australia, said that in those places people raved about what was being made in the UK. “In Australia furniture is very much seen as part of the art section and they think the UK is groundbreaking, but here it is not supported.”
Andy said: “The Crafts Council is only interested in avant-garde design. Make a conceptual piece out of offcuts and they'd be there!”
David Wilson was of the opinion that the UK industry paid too much notice of Arts & Crafts furniture. “It sets it in the past and doesn't move it forward.”
The label Arts & Crafts, he felt, put people in mind of craft fairs. He described what is being made today as “engineering in wood, precision, a long way from Arts & Crafts and craft fairs.”
Richard, who impresses the work ethic in the real workshop world on his students, see F&C149, said it was important for furniture makers to be aware that they could take on kitchen-type projects in order to make some money.
John commented that there was a limit to what you could charge, even with the richest customers, provoking a discussion on the profitability (not) of making chairs. He observed that with finely manufactured chairs to be bought for Â£400 most clients failed to see why they were asked to pay Â£1000 for each bespoke chair.
John, who had been in business for only a year, concluded his presentation with a prototype of a wine table that he was planning to make in various woods and punt around to wine shops for about Â£150 each. He might as well have been in TV's Dragons' Den. David Wilson thought the venture was “risky”, Andrew said he would never compete with Ercol or Ikea and Chris commented: “I always worry we're only selling to rich b****rs.”
Rich they may be but they don't like parting with the hard-earned stuff. When Chris showed the group a cherry and bird's eye maple dressing table with burr elm details which he had agreed to make for Â£3,700, the general consensus was that it should have been sold for between Â£7,000 and Â£8,000.
Said David Wilson: “The struggle in the north is getting people to pay the money. They will not.”
Chris added: “The first question is always 'How much?'”
David Wilson asked: “Do you know of any other industry where the more you know the less you earn? We'd all be a lot richer doing joinery, making doors, putting roofs on.”
He illustrated the point with a hall table in European walnut and burr. “I got Â£2,600 for that and worked really hard to make it for that price. It should be Â£4,200 now. I tried to look at it by telling myself that I was being subsidised to make a great piece.”
Heirloom copies of a stool were probably the most difficult thing he had done, “but most people would think you could go out and get one from Ikea. Trying to sell that stool for Â£500-Â£600: how do you do it?”
Andrew added: “That's where we come into our own, doing work no-one else could. People who want it will pay the going rate but others won't.”
As Andrew went on to say that he kept records of everything he made including the hours each piece takes, the group became a bit competitive over drawer making, with Andrew saying he could make one from start to finish in eight hours flat and someone else – in the excitement I didn't record who – claiming an amazing six hours.
David Wilson said that making kitchen worktops was a good way of making extra cash. They were easy and the price was set by the industry. “When I started I said I was only going to make contemporary furniture, but if kitchens are made to a good standard they are still enjoyable. You are not compromising standards.”
Chris agreed that he too had to do workaday stuff in order to make the good pieces and Andrew said one way to look at it was that doing that could pay for making a speculative piece for exhibition.
David Mawdsley said he made worktops for a bathroom specialist.
So what's the best thing about membership of a group like Northern Contemporary Furniture Makers? David Wilson summed it up: “It's getting together, discussing work, contracting between ourselves. When Chris has done work for me it's done and I know I'm going to get results. As a group, the amount of tips and hints I have got gives a tremendous amount of experience.”
NCFM is energetic, entrepreneurial and, above all, realistic, its members pragmatically accepting that you can only sell for what the market will pay and that you have to be prepared to do less skilled work for more cash if you want to keep your integrity as a maker of fine bespoke furniture, a contemporary rationalisation that could serve as the motto for this group of northern realists.
Meet the makers
Chris Tribe, based in Scissett, near Huddersfield, says the emphasis in his work is on a careful attention to detail, from obtaining a precise understanding of the client's requirements and designing to meet them, through meticulous care in the making process to final delivery and after-sales service.
He has taught in adult education throughout his cabinet-making career and now offers one-to-one and small group tuition in his own workshop. Several of his projects have appeared in F&C.
Tel: 01484 862 438
Richard Jones started making furniture in the early 1970s, moving to Texas in 1993 where he ran his own full-time furniture business, providing a design-and-make service complemented by commercial work, furniture repair and restoration projects for private and business clients, interior designers and architects. Back in the UK in 2003, he first taught at Rycotewood College, Oxford before moving to Leeds College of Art & Design as course leader of the furniture foundation degree. He also makes furniture, does consultancy and writes for American and British publishers.
Tel: 0113 265 0727
Andrew Lawton trained as a designer craftsman and has been running his own workshop since 1980, creating fine furniture for private homes, businesses and public buildings. Although tried and tested traditional cabinet-making techniques are used, his work reaches out beyond merely reproducing ideas and styles of the past, without self-consciously striving for novelty. The scope of the workshop ranges from a single piece such as a stool to complete room plans. His projects will be familiar to F&C readers.
Tel: 01433 631 754
John Gabler was born in Pennsylvania, which is famous for fine timbers and excellent makers such as the Amish, and began woodworking in Colorado. He emigrated to England and became apprenticed, at that time also attending Leeds College to study advanced furniture making. After finishing his apprenticeship John felt that he wanted to have more influence from around the world and learn from the best, so studied furniture design at The Australian School of Fine Furniture where he learnt to combine his traditional making skills with modern techniques.
Tel: 07756 989 595
David & Stephanie Mawdsley's designs are influenced by natural forms, architectural shapes, unusual grain patterns in timber and decorative joint detailing. Stephanie's sense of form and space is translated into structural integrity by David. They are exploring ways of incorporating textiles into their work without using traditional upholstery techniques. This collaboration now strongly influences David's furniture design. As well as working to commissions from private clients, Mawdsley Williams have successfully collaborated with About Stone UK, Ilkley, and Kirkhall Designs, Silsden, West Yorkshire.
Tel: 01756 748 088
Originally a design engineer with 15 years' experience, David Wilson turned a lifelong interest in furniture making into a new career in 2003 after training at Leeds College of Art and Design. Well grounded in traditional and modern furniture-making materials and techniques, David's passion is for applying a clean-lined engineering approach to his designs while still creating superbly crafted furniture, always without compromise.
The WoodB Team
Tel: 01943 880417