In August 2016, the design company with the most regal of reputations opened the doors of its first initiative for young furniture makers. The LINLEY Summer School invited eight designer-makers-in-training for five days of practical workshops, lectures and field trips; as well as marking the 30th anniversary of David Linley’s business. The program gave the students the opportunity to learn skills, such as hand cutting bespoke marquetry patterns, and the art of high gloss burnishing, from renowned designer-maker, Gareth Neal, and Linley’s master craftsmen, Jonathan Rose.

David Linley started his business in 1985, after studying at Parnham House School where he honed his design and making skills under the tutelage of John Makepeace. Makepeace sold the house in 2001, but in recent years it has been reopened as an architectural school, called Hooke Park, specialising in timber constructions. One of the core aims of the LINLEY Summer School was to draw attention to the fact that workshop spaces for students are being cut across the country, with very few higher education courses being offered in furniture design and making; the most recent example being the shocking closure of Buckinghamshire New University’s Furniture department this summer.

It is important to note that one of the key figures in making the LINLEY Summer School a reality was its creative director, Carmel Allen. She explained that, “design degrees are becoming increasingly CAD dominant” and she thinks, “it is essential [that] designers can also make”, which is something I have heard repeatedly in design talks from people in industry, including designers, such as Simon Pengelly. An understanding of materials and their properties informs the designer of what processes are appropriate, how these properties can be applied successfully for the design’s advantage, or eventually how the user may interact with, or make sense of the product. A quote, taken from the LINLEY Summer School website, by William Warren, a Senior Lecturer in Furniture Design at The CASS (London) also expresses this opinion, “There’s a very unhealthy move in design education, away from making in favour of everything happening on screens. Of course, CAD is now a vital part of design but the notion that you can replace an understanding of materials, making skills and structure with a 3D render is very wrong”.

One student, who was specially selected for the Summer School, is Rosie Salt. Having recently graduated from Rycotewood Furniture Centre in Oxford, she is now working for bespoke, contract furniture company, Opus Magnum, based in Wimbledon. “Being the only woman on the LINLEY summer school was not an issue for me, as I am used to being one of few females in a workshop. Also present were two women who are part of the LINLEY franchise, so I felt there were women who shared knowledge and passion for furniture making around for the week”. It was Carmel’s vision that there would be an equal split of males and females as part of the course. Her attempts included approaching various design colleges and being open with the tutors, as well as contacting young women through channels, such as LinkedIn, to gain their interest. However, “there are definitely more young men than women who study furniture design at the moment”, says Carmel, and the summer school certainly demonstrated the discrepancy between genders within furniture education.

As with most contemporary issues, it always seems to come down to education. If the channels required to encourage young, talented women into the furniture industry are not in place, then how can there be much hope, or expectation, in ever closing the gender gap? Another flaw is that if there are few female designer-makers of the past, is it likely that designer-makers of the future will feel represented and engaged enough, in order to participate?

Rosie offered her opinion, “I definitely feel there could have been at least one talk given by a woman, I have always felt that furniture talks given by a broader mix of designer-makers would be much more beneficial to students”. At times, it does appear that the furniture industry is saturated with middle-aged men, and perhaps the way of bridging the gap between education and industry is by showing that those designer-makers currently in job roles are relatable to students, whether male or female. From my own experience at Rycotewood College, I know that the talk by Sebastian Cox in November 2015 received the greatest amount of positive feedback from students, compared to other guest speakers. It is pleasing to note that Rycotewood’s course leader, Joe Bray, is making a conscious effort to invite a wider breadth of speakers. I am particularly looking forward to the forthcoming talk from furniture designer-maker, Alice Blogg, in February 2017.

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (2008) explains how the concept of gendered work dates back to the earliest of times. Among hunter-gatherer communities, weaving was reserved for women, as it was seen to give them ‘respect in the public realm’, and ‘to help civilize the tribes’. Sennett writes that, ‘the developing of classical science contributed to the gendering of skill that produced the word craftsman as applying to men. This science contrasted the man’s hand dexterity to the inner organ strength of women’. Carmel put forward a possible explanation for the disproportion of male and female furniture students; “I think it’s nothing more sinister than the fact that at school (certainly in my day, but I hope not now) that girls did needlework when boys did woodwork. My own daughter now studies DT and the classes are mixed with boys and girls both doing textiles and woodwork”. And, Rosie added, “I feel it will become easier to find a woman who is successful in the furniture industry as design courses and workshops develop to become more inclusive, and people’s perceptions change, of what used to be viewed as gender specific jobs”.

To conclude, the future of a diverse furniture education and industry seems bright, thanks to the hard work of visionaries, like Carmel and her team. If companies, as prestigious as LINLEY, continue to develop initiatives like their Summer School, it will not only help to fill a void where so many design and make courses have closed, but we can also expect there to be more opportunities to promote craft to young people, and in particular, women. As Carmel puts it, “I think women like me have a responsibility to actively recruit and promote the industry to other women. There are some great female designers and they need to be celebrated too. I’m hatching a plan to do something on international women’s day next March, so watch this space!”

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From front to back: Freddie Keen’s, Avian Evans-White’s and Jonathan Rose’s side tables with individually designed and crafted marquetry detail. Photographed in the LINLEY show room, as part of London Design Festival, 2016.

International Women’s Day is March 8th