From personal experience, I would suggest that one of the common ways for girls to get involved in furniture design and making is through design and technology subjects in schools. These opportunities within education are incredibly important, particularly for those students like myself, who didn’t have the fortune to inherit a connection to woodworking and making from their parents. Whilst on the Furniture Makers Student Industry Tour last month, I shared a room with Lydia Phillips. Much like myself, she had taken a natural progression through design education, and almost accidentally stumbled upon her passion for furniture. I contacted Lydia to discuss her experiences in more detail.

How did you get into furniture and product design?

I have always been a lover of drawing and making things for as long as I can remember. I really struggled with academic subjects, but I found a way to escape through art & design. I studied product design for GSCE, it was a subject I really didn’t know much about, but I quickly fell in love with it. When it came to deciding my A Levels, I knew I wanted to take Product Design. I found myself, just by chance, designing and making two items of furniture for both of my A Level projects. I found myself gravitating more towards the design & development stages of a project, rather than making because I really enjoyed outlining a brief and finding the best possible solutions through sketching and researching. After much debate with my parents and teachers, I decided to study Furniture and Lifestyle Products at Birmingham City University: a course I simply love.

What is your favourite project you have worked on?

My favourite project was set right at the beginning of my second year at uni. The task was to design & make an item of storage for a hallway or entrance. After researching, I decided I wanted to create a piece of furniture that was adaptable and interchangeable, allowing it to conform to busy, modern life. The piece was for batch production and intended for a growing family. I came up with the concept of a contemporary pin board; the smooth, outer curve, made from laminated areoply, has a series of peg holes. This allows the user to rearrange the pegs, which are joined by elasticated threads; allowing them to add or remove them, depending on the space required. Hidden behind the board are three hooks, suitable for storing jackets or bags. I really loved this particular project!

Lydia Phillips
Lydia’s hallway storage piece, designed and made as part of her degree course.

Do you think you get enough making experience as part of your course, will you feel prepared after graduation?

In my personal opinion, yes. When we spoke on the industry tour, I think I conveyed by hatred of making enough, however other students on my course often express that there are not enough projects that encourage the making of physical outcomes. This opinion is shared by all of the students studying 3D Designer Maker. I think it all depends on the individual; if a student has a desire to make and build, then they will do so regardless of the set task. So, I believe that when I graduate, I will feel prepared.

How do you find the gender balance on your course, has this affected your learning in any way?

Across all three design pathways, there are by far more males than females; all of my lecturers are male too! Whilst this is not an issue that concerns me, in the past I would say that some of my fellow female colleagues have been overlooked. I wouldn’t say it has affected my learning as such, but I have often doubted myself. I doubt my own abilities and whether or not design is the right career for me. As with the majority of industries, I do think those who are male and successful are promoted far more than those who are female. Despite this, everyone gets on really well and I have a really great network of friends at uni. Additionally, I think the same issue could be applied to other creative disciplines, for example fashion. Course publicity and marketing for fashion related subjects are often lead by females, which I think can be a deterrent for some students.

What are your impressions of the industry? How are designers and makers represented?

Personally, I don’t think that enough recognition is given to designers and makers. I have had people ask me, “how’s your course in colouring in?” If only they knew how hard us design students have to work! I think more emphasis needs to be done to recognize the work of designers and makers, even for the seemingly simplest of pieces- months of researching, drawing, prototyping, and testing sometimes results in ideas that don’t work, to which we need to start all over again!

Have you experienced any sexism or setbacks during your course or work placements?

The only incident that really got to me was during my first couple of weeks at uni. It was the second or third time in the workshop and I was re-adjusting the guard on the band saw. Guard in place, safety specs on my head and hair tied back I was ready to go. Then I heard someone behind me say, “Girl, are you okay?” At first I ignored them thinking they can’t have been speaking to me. They then tapped me on the shoulder. As I turned around I saw it was one of the technicians who repeated, “Girl, are you okay?” I felt that it was a little condescending. If I’m unsure of something, I will always ask for help- I’ll follow them around the room if necessary. So, maybe he just didn’t like the fact that a woman knew exactly what she was doing?

Do you think these courses could be promoted to women better? If so, how?

Definitely! All the photos used on the website under the course pages seem to be male dominated, which might be just be a reflection of the current student demographic, but to a girl wanting to apply to one of the design courses, it might be a little off-putting.