Training with Williams & Cleal: Meet Jan Lennon

How did you get into design and making?

I think I’ve always been interested in all aspects of the arts, anything that gets me using both my hands and my head holds an attraction. When you’re small, playing and making are pretty much the same thing and I don’t think I ever grew out of that phase – just swopped the toys out for bigger ones.

What previous experience have you got in the creative industries, what do you think this will bring to your practise?

In the last years of secondary school I had planned to go to furniture school in the west of Ireland but was lured away to do a degree in Industrial Design in Dublin instead. I learned a lot of practical design skills here and was almost drowned in design history. I’m glad for this now as I think it’ll be an advantage in my practice. Afterwards, I moved to Glasgow to study for a masters in 2D/3D animation and CGI at the School of Art there.

In the years since, I’ve worked as a cgi animator, 2D artist, and designer and visualization artist. A lot of my work has been in the advertising and television industries and I think it has been pretty helpful to have worked commercially.

The experience of being creative as a job, interpreting and filling a brief and, above all, striving to deliver a product that makes both your client and you happy is one I think I’ll likely draw on in my future practice. It teaches you, as much as possible, to be able to create on demand and de-mystifies the often damaging belief passed around that creativity is sporadic and can’t be forced or relied upon. I think there’s a certain amount of truth in this, but it most definitely is possible to learn structures and habits that help when trying to generate and develop ideas. Also, the ability to quickly produce sketches and 3D models to illustrate an idea is going to be very handy when getting design approval from clients.

Learning to take and apply good, constructive criticism is also a difficult thing to do. It takes time and experience. Working in the visual arts industries teaches you to have high standards for what you’ll accept from yourself and recognize when you haven’t met them. When my family sometimes tell me “you’re your own worst critic” I say “I’m not. Trust me, I’ve met them”. They’re normally people whose work I admire and opinions I respect. Learning to take criticism as a lesson is very valuable.

I’m still a newbie to the furniture industries though, so if you ask me in a year or two how my past experience has actually helped, I might give you a completely different answer!

What is your favourite thing that you’ve made/designed?

At the moment, it’s the last project I finished – the Meala dressing table. I think this is pretty natural as it’s my first fully self-driven furniture project and it tested and developed my skills more than anything else I’ve done. As with any recent project, I think I love and resent it in equal quantities!

How are finding your course at Williams & Cleal? How do you think a private course compares to a university/college course?

Williams and Cleal run a great course. The expertise available to draw on is second to none, they embrace the different learning patterns of students and the concentration on completing self-driven projects to professional standards makes you up your game very quickly! The expectations are very high, encouraging rather than chastising and the one-on-one attention of the tutors is, in my view, an absolute necessity when learning a craft. You can find yourself producing very high quality work much quicker than you would think possible. Also, they’re a really nice bunch of people and are great to have a laugh with at break times.

On the different courses, I think both types of course are, from an educational point of view, equally valid and useful. In the end, it’s the quality of the work you can produce which will deem it a success or not. But, depending on the student, one or the other might be more personally suited. For more mature students who’ve had the University experience and are more time constrained, a shorter more intensive course might suit best. They generally know what they want from the course and tailor their year towards that. For younger students, I could see a longer multiyear course being more suitable. Having the time to develop as a designer and a maker would be a great advantage. Letting the skills develop and knowledge seep in over time is also a very good aspect of a longer course.

Who were/are your role models as you pursue a career in craft? Is it important that you have other females to look up to? 

It’s extremely important to me to have other females I can look up to. I’m not sure you’ll find many women in male dominated industries who would disagree with that. Representation is so important in changing the way we perceive the “normal” state of things. Especially when trying the see past the traditional role that craftsperson has fulfilled.

It’s hard, as a young woman or girl, to imagine yourself as a furniture maker when the normal images of furniture makers you see are young burly guys or older masterly gents. It’s hard enough to get over our own doubts about your abilites without adding all of society’s too. In this way, I think having Jane Cleal as one of the founders and principal tutors was greatly encouraging. I know it was for some of the other females on the course too. It made it seem more concretely possible, not just theoretical, to pursue this as a career. Hopefully, I can add to the new normal for a craftsperson.

That being said, I think, as crafts people, we also need to have role models of all types if we’re to really learn from those with the skills. When you can understand that it makes more sense, economically and morally, to judge any worker or professional on their abilities and not their packaging then it becomes obvious that you should have the same approach to those who inspire you in your craft. You want the best you can find, not the best-that-fill-my-preconstructed-rules

Do you think there is enough exposure for female makers, or enough incentive for women to pursue a career in furniture?

I think it’s changing and that’s a great step forward. Social media has an awful lot to do with it. Blogs like this are a great help. Just hearing the voices of other female makers is greatly encouraging. I really like Instagram for this purpose too. I’ve come into contact with other female makers I never would have known existed. We may be in the minority, but you wouldn’t know it from my Instagram feed.

Print media is starting to catch up too. I now often see books and articles by female makers in mainstream publications. It’s a start and we have a long way to go. But it’s difficult to visibly represent a section of the industry that is, in reality, quite small still. Do we overexpose in order to rebalance the damage stereotypes do? I think that’s a difficult question that needs to be examined more by the media and industry bodies.

In the real world, I think the amount of female makers I see at exhibitions and on courses is definitely increasing. When I was working in CGI, if I met another female artist working in the same studio we’d immediately get excited and usually arrange to meet for coffee or a pint. It was just such a novelty that it was a cause for celebration. Don’t get me wrong, but I hope this doesn’t happen in the future of furniture making. Not because I’m massively antisocial and want the rest of the craft to follow suit. I just hope that the sight of other women in the industry becomes so commonplace that we don’t even remark on it. I’m sure the coffee and pints will go on regardless.

I think there’s a widespread misconception that girls in education just don’t like subjects that involve them getting dirty or using physical strength – that they just naturally do not like woodwork. I really don’t accept that explanation. It’s certainly not stopped the female majority of ceramicists and potters.

In the past, woodworking tools and machinery were designed to suit the size and strength of men. Working as a female woodworker would, genuinely, have been a struggle. But we have better designed hand tools now (they actually fit our hands!) and power tools which are used by both genders. The stereotyped gender specific rules don’t apply any more, but breaking the illusion is taking more time than it should.

Where do you see yourself within the furniture/craft industry?

I’ve always enjoyed problem solving that involves the use of disparate skills and technologies and I think that I’ll be trying to incorporate that into my furniture. I’m not a skills purist, I think that the new technologies and techniques of today are the traditional skills of tomorrow. If I can use CNC, CGI, 3D printing workshop machinery or other technologies and materials to help develop and visualize a design, or solve a design problem in a practical and economical way, then I’m all for it. Combine that with more hands on craftsmanship, which I love, and the design/make world is your oyster. Craft versus technology doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

What advice would you give to others following a similar path to yourself?

Well, I’m aware that I’m still very much starting out on my career as a craftsperson so I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to give any weighty advice to others. But here’s what I think. It’s what I would have told myself when I was deliberating whether to do this or not.

Go for it. Take with you whatever skills you have from other areas and find a way to make them helpful to you as a furniture maker. Find a good school that suits you and has tutors with high standards. Listen to them and learn to interpret their criticism as helpful advice. If you’ve chosen the school well, then they’ll know what they’re talking about.

Also, start sketching. When you sketch an idea you also rework it. It’ll save you a lot of time that you can use on the crafting of the piece.

Finally, never be tempted to take that one extra cut without measuring first. I guarantee you’ll regret it.

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