This time last week I took a train from Oxford to Banbury. I was due to be collected from the station by Helen Lauder, workshop manager in the D&T department at Bloxham School, where I was due to spend the day.
Helen and I met at the Young Furniture Maker’s Exhibition in October of this year. After explaining to her my HINNY reading chair design, Helen and I struck up a conversation about where she worked. Having experience as a furniture designer in an upholstered furniture company, where she also did a stint as workshop manager, she now turns her knowledge to teaching. She was at the YFM event with some of her sixth form students studying design at Bloxham School.
Having not previously realised that I was visiting a private school, I somewhat taken aback when Helen pointed out the different schoolhouses and the school’s swimming pool. Although worlds away from the school I attended in Northumberland, feelings of nostalgia began to surface, as we made our way over the design and technology department.
A relatively new build: ground floor workshop with benches and CAD suites, with a first floor balcony that overlooked the design area below. Lots of natural light and space to be creative. ‘What a lovely place to work’, I thought. It was then that I was introduced to Sian Westbury, their head of department, and Nick the workshop’s technician. Both of who were very friendly and made me feel incredibly welcome.
First period was with sixth formers, students in their final year of A-levels. I made my way around the room asking the students what they were designing as part of their projects. There were students creating tables, boxes, chairs and even a found object drinks cabinet, as a stripped out piano arrived halfway through the lesson.
I had brought a large selection of my sketchbooks, from my very own A2 product design coursework to my most recent project at Rycotewood. Spreading them out over a series of worktables, some of the students came through to the CAD suite to have a flick through them. “What’s an art foundation?’ some of them asked, as we then entered into a discussion about how beneficial the art foundation diploma courses are, having done one myself after leaving sixth form; as had Sian before her studies at university. By then end of the day, I had hopefully persuaded at least one student to consider enrolling on one of these courses. As I would recommend any other person- young or mature- to do, as it is one of the most exciting years; rotations in fine art, textiles, fashion, photography, graphics, ceramics and 3D, with the opportunity to specialise in one discipline. They are free to those having just left school, and provide an engaging stepping stone into higher education.
I got a little buzz when one boy asked for help with his chair design, which was an exciting concept of flowing laminations. As I am still a student myself (but I mean, the learning never ends, does it?), it was a real confidence boost to feel as though I was perhaps providing the students with even just a small amount of help. A few technical questions about jointing, the practicalities of outdoor furniture and upholstery, I was able to provide some fairly sufficient answers to.
Over lunchtime I sat with Sian, Nick and Helen, and we discussed many things relating to furniture and design. One of which was of course how many women are in the industry, and what was really great to observe was how balanced their subject was; with two men and two women working in their department. However, as I saw throughout the rest of the day, there still remains a discrepancy between the ratio of male to female students.
During the moments that the students were busy working on their design drawings, I had the opportunity to reflect on perhaps why this is. If I think back to my own experiences at A-level, what I can now recognize is perhaps how much the classroom environment affects our approach to the subject. Deciding not to take Art A-level, as I wished to learn practical skills and technical knowledge, I think what I probably then lacked was the benefit of an energetic and inspiring setting. What I saw at Bloxham, as Helen and I walked past the art studios, which are located in a picturesque, old stone building with softly glowing lights, was the typical ‘art department décor’ of sketches and paintings lining the walls, with past students’ sculptures suspended from the ceiling.
Why is it that design is married with technology, but divorced from art? Surely design is the perfect union of these two spheres. And without artistic thought, how are engineers and designers expected to solve problems creatively and innovatively? From my own experiences, it is no wonder to think of why I struggled so much with coming up with six completely different design ideas as part of the exam boards specification, when I was sat in silence in a cold room with only health and safety posters for visual stimulus. I remember there being no encouragement to sketch and carry out observational drawings, but just the memory of a weighing guilt that I was not competent enough to pick up a set of tools and make something from no where.
The ability to feel inspired is not exclusive to the creative industries, so why do we not incorporate art more cohesively into other fields of study? Recent changes to the product design syllabus however mean that ‘traditional subject boundaries have been removed to allow greater freedom of movement with students able to work in different materials and with different technologies more easily’. So perhaps with these new changes, students will feel more compelled to take the subject. I commend Sian and her team for their commitment to the subject. It is frustrating to think that within some secondary schools, the design and technology education is too restrictive or just insufficient due to lack of funding, and that there is likely to be a huge proportion of students with untapped creative talent, which would no doubt have huge benefits to society, as well as their feelings of self-worth as an individual.
Some of the students upon my questioning responded that they wished to pursue studies in economics or business. Clearly I am so out of touch with the information age, because I found myself asking, ‘when did young people stop wanting to be butchers, bakers and candlestick makers?!’ I am joking. But in the face of the digital age, it is important for me to defend my role as a craftswoman, artist and furniture maker, because when the robots do eventually take over, I’ll have something they won’t: love for what I do!
The school bell rang, and by the end of my day at Bloxham, I had a head full of ideas for future workshops and #thisgirlmakes events, as well as new friendships and motivation to help me keep going.
I’ll leave you with this: “D&T supports a wide range of careers! Design and Technology teaches young people to ‘think with their hands’. The ability to use tools and materials to solve problems is vital, and is as important in medicine and surgery as in the jeweller’s workshop or the sculptor’s studio. Now more than ever, D&T is a crucial subject for every young person.” – Professor Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science, Imperial College London.