Hi Hester, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m 21, I’ve been making all my life – I love design and left school to go straight into a furniture apprenticeship, I then went to Rycotewood Furniture Centre and now work in the creative industries. I’m currently saving for my own business in sustainable flat-pack furniture.
How did you get into woodwork and where does your interest in furniture come from?
I’ve always been interested in woodworking, I spent my summers helping my father building barns as a teenager and fell in love with timber joinery. This inspired my love for woodwork, I gained interest through studying at school. My Sixth Form years were spent refurbishing a laser cutter given to the school and I started to create the components for furniture on there. I was also really inspired by the more iconic designers Robin Day, Charles and Ray Eames, Hans J. Wegner and Finn Juhl. Their designs inspired my interest in cabinet making and motivated me to learn.
What has been your favorite thing to make so far?
By far my favourite and most enjoyable thing I have made was helping make the tableware for the Wish List at the V&A during London Design Festival. Though the favourite thing I have made for myself would be my series of shaker-inspired, sustainable, flat-pack chairs.
What was the most important lesson you learnt during your studying experience?
Ultimately health and safety, I saw some life changing injuries where I worked and being aware of machinery and its potential danger may keep you a finger or two. Secondly, in order to design, you have to know how to make. Working in the industry and then studying furniture making, I realised those who only study how to make will never having the understanding of someone who has worked in the industry.
Do you think furniture education and apprenticeship schemes are accessible?
It was extremely difficult to get onto the apprenticeship scheme, places were in high demand and whilst I was there, many high-quality students devoted weeks of hard labour without pay and left feeling exploited. Let’s just say, the company I worked for maximized on free labour! There is a question of accessibility but the issue is more the validity of these apprenticeships. On paper, the structure of the apprentice system seems like a positive career move in which a college organization have your back. In my experience apprenticeships are used for cheap labour, with little time allotted to teaching new skills; apprentices were relatively disposable. When I was at college, I met other furniture apprentices and their experiences differed from mine, they learnt more, were given more time and seemed to be more valued. Its a great way to get into the industry and learn the more crucial aspects of manufacturing furniture and the positions involved such as metal work, upholstery and finishing. If you are interested in the creative side of furniture-making, pursue this through education as an apprenticeship trains you to make what the employer wants; your design and creativity are superfluous.
How did you find working in the industry, particularly within an extremely male dominated work force, what do you think the reasoning for this might be?
When I was studying resistance materials I was the only girl in the workshop. I would always lose my place on machines and always had to be quite assertive. When I started in a furniture apprenticeship I didn’t feel intimidated by working in a male dominated workplace however being the only girl in a work force of fifty provided to be a very challenging experience. I wasn’t just an apprentice, I was a female apprentice and for a lot of people my gender was an issue. It’s a shame that its treated like a novelty for women to work in this industry when in reality it should be the norm. I felt I had to work harder than the rest to prove my ability. Something has to change.
How could it be made more inclusive?
Women are taken seriously within furniture making but there is still a long way to go to reach equality. The ethos needs to change in school, encouraging girls to consider themselves equal in tech classes and teachers to have a zero tolerance to sexual discrimination. My gender was not an issue within the tertiary education system but in the workplace, it seemed that I need to prove myself double to be considered half as good as the guys. I faced unnecessary tasks lifting and moving large quantities of heavy furniture under the watchful eyes of the workshop supervisor to prove physical equality. Equality will happen in time and with more women coming into the industry, I can image all-girl workshops being extremely dynamic places to work but the traditional all-male workshop is still a work in progress!