Having participated in the Furniture Makers Student Industry Tour this year, I have been fortunate enough to meet some like-minded individuals from Kingston University, and through the powers of social media, my networking abilities have been greatly extended. Drawn in by the profile picture of a toy dinosaur, I found myself scrolling through the Instagram of Kingston second year furniture and product design student, Poppy Booth (https://www.instagram.com/poppyclementine/). The similarity of our names: Harriet Poppy and Poppy Clementine, along with her witty illustrations and photographs of timber projects compelled me to contact her and find out more about her work.
As I read through Poppy’s response, I found myself a little envious, as she explained that her dad is a furniture restorer. “His workshop is in a yard of makers that backs onto my home in Dorset: a basket weaver, a stone mason, a letter cutter and a furniture maker.
“I have always spent time in my dad’s workshop, he’s my private technician. There has never been a project that he can’t find a solution to or the perfect tool for. I am always making in my spare time. I’m not really content unless I am.
“People have said to me, ‘you won’t make much money working with your hands’. But I feel passionately that the consumer values of the modern world are a mistake. People spend their time doing boring jobs to earn money, which they spend on things they don’t need. I don’t want to live like that”.
And, I couldn’t agree more!
As I read on, I found Poppy’s experiences of design and technology during secondary school aligned with what I suspect is ‘the normal’ education for many students across the country: basically non-existent, and a real shame.
She described how she thought it was art that she wanted to do; a response to the lack of making and design education within the school’s curriculum. “I applied to universities to study art, but not feeling 100% about it, and I ended up turning down my offers. Just about the time when Alice Blogg moved into the yard, Mum said, ‘Well, why not furniture design?’ Alice Blogg exposed a whole new possibility that was always there under the surface – but I had never really seen it as a possible career”.
I was impressed to hear how much experience Poppy had gained prior to starting her studies at Kingston, as she told me, “I did a short furniture design and making course at the Boatbuilding Academy in Lyme Regis, and after that, I was completely hooked. Furniture design tied everything together for me: problem solving, meticulous work, process, a functional finished product, satisfied people and machines. I went to Paris to study ‘Ebenisterie’ (cabinet making) for a year at the Ecole Boulle. Having gone from being the only girl in the workshop at the BBA, I was shocked to see times were different in France: there was only one boy in the workshop of my class of 36! There was definitely a more tense and competitive environment among the all-girl class in Paris than in the all-male class at BBA! Whether that is to do with girls in general or French girls in particular, I don’t know. Now I am at Kingston University in my second year and my year is 50/50 male to female. There is absolutely no conflict – if anything, I think it lacks a bit of thrust”.
Following these last comments on the balance of males and females on furniture courses, the discussion turned to the roles gender play within the industry. “I have never really been that affected by sexism in a workshop. If anything, I have always thought of being a girl as having some advantages. I look to Alice Blogg and she puts any man to shame, yet in an entirely feminine way. She’s a complete inspiration with her plank lifting, beautiful designs, machine maintenance and strong business head. For me, she is the most dynamic maker in the yard. Last summer I worked for Halstock furniture. There were only two girls in the workshop, myself, and Ruth in the veneer department, but I could not have felt more welcome to use their huge machines or to join the community at their tea breaks.
“I am sympathetic to those who have been affected by sexism- perhaps this is the older generation – people now in their 30s and 40s maybe caught the last of it, but I would say that the millennial boys are more likely to be scrolling Instagram than stopping any girl entering into a workshop”.
It was great to hear how enthusiastically Poppy described her course at Kingston, giving reassurance that there are still positive opportunities within education for those who want it; despite the prolific closure to furniture departments and ruthless cuts to creative funding across the country. She said, “It has opened my eyes to the world of design. The course is exactly what it says it is: “thinking through making”. Going to Kingston is like play-school: three years of designing solutions to project briefs and making prototypes. I would say the making education was secondary to the design education, which I really value. It allows us to think bigger in our designs and not be constrained by what we can make in the workshop. I have learned to spend more time on designing and less time on the finishing touches”.
As our discussion came to a close, I asked about what Poppy had planned for her future, and felt particularly driven after hearing her answer.
“Once I have finished my course at Kingston I would like to do an apprenticeship in a workshop, a year to practice my making skills. I know that I will always need making, if anything just to satisfy my love for it.
“I am interested in design. But I feel reluctant to design products for the sole purpose of selling, without considering the detrimental effects that they have both on the planet and also on our wellbeing. I would like to counter passive consumerism and to share what I consider a more fulfilling lifestyle with those who are unaware of its existence. I believe that design is a tool for this. In my own experience, happiness is measured by what one has created, rather than what one owns”.