Why the Furniture Industry is just one Piece of the Puzzle: Thoughts from Harriet Poppy Speed

It has been several posts since I have actually sat down to write something myself for the blog, but in light of recent events, I feel it is now necessary to write a personal reflection.

The Observer magazine article that Dr Lynn Jones and I responded to, although written by a woman, demonstrates how without giving equal exposure to male and female furniture makers the perception bias that all furniture makers are men will never change. And perhaps I am demonstrating perception bias by claiming that there are plenty of women in the furniture industry, because I actively surround myself with them. But without those that are in a position to do so, giving women an equal platform to men, then I feel it really is an opportunity wasted.

This leads me on to my first point. Whoever you are, and whatever your role in society, I feel we all have some form of power or responsibility to help make change or to help others. My conversation will be limited to the UK, where we are extremely fortunate to have freedom of speech. But of course, even within the UK we are all born into our own positions of privilege, for example working class compared to middle class. But my point is, whenever possible, we should all be agents for change, even in the smallest of ways.


A few examples from recent months have proven to be:

Curating an exhibition (a public display of works of art or items of interest, or a display or demonstration of skill). Responsibility falls on curators to show talent from as diverse group of people as possible. Of course this carries added efforts, but the impact this will have on changing public perceptions within, and of the craft and design industries is invaluable.

Hosting a panel discussion, and inviting guest speakers. In these situations you are quite literally giving someone a voice, and for the sake of diversity of ideas, thoughts and discussion, it is in everyone’s interest to hear from a range of individuals. The Future of Making Event that Rycotewood students held at Oxford Brooke’s Glass Tank Gallery is an example of this (https://this-girl-makes.com/2017/11/26/the-future-of-making-in-the-digital-age-panel-discussion-with-tomoko-azumi-gareth-neal-lucy-kurrein-and-rick-mower/). We made special efforts to have equal representation of men to women, as well as inviting a speaker, who originates from outside of the UK.

I will also take this opportunity to commend all the university lecturers and members of staff who are currently doing their part by giving craftswomen and female designers a platform to speak, by inviting them to their institutes. Hearing from a woman in industry can be as inspiring to the men, as it can be for the women. Remember that.

Judging panels for competitions. Within the past week, I had an experience where I had to pitch one of my designs to a panel of five white males. A phrase I heard recently was “Pale, Male and Stale”, which did make me laugh. When I asked, “Are there any women on the judging panel?” I was met with a reaction of “Well, why does it matter?” and almost annoyance that I had even dared to bring it up as an issue. At first I was lost for words…

‘Why does it matter?’

Well, here’s a question. Why, in 2018, one hundred years after some women were given the right to vote are there no women on a judging panel for a competition? Why should it be such a novelty to see a woman in this position? With respect to the judges, I did ask them ‘had they considered making their panel more diverse’ and their response was that they would have liked it have to been, however it largely came down to who was available on the day. But even still, was it really a case that every single woman that they asked was unable to attend? Was it more a case that they asked the first five people that they thought of, which no doubt happened to be male.

To all of these examples, plus others, the response is often, “but we can’t positively discriminate”. And I am sure that no one would wish to be asked based on anything other than their ability, achievements or talent. It is almost an insult to assume that by including a woman, or anyone who defies the ‘pale and male’ standard must be an act of inclusivity riding, as opposed to the fact that they are actually capable of the job. Being conscious and admitting that there is a gender and racial imbalance is the first step. Having an awareness of the problem means you are far more likely to spot when it is prevalent. And when it does present itself to you, don’t feel guilty and don’t feel ashamed, take it upon yourself to do something about it. Even if you attempt and fail, it is better to have at least tried.

And there have been many times, this week included, where people have questioned, ‘what inequalities have you faced?’ As a white, middle-class woman with a wonderful support network around me, there are very few times that I have faced obvious sexism or discrimination. But that means I am one of the lucky ones. For me to therefore consider that there is not still to be a problem, would mean turning my back on all those who weren’t born into a position of privilege like myself. When I interviewed Miss Tani Fasih in December 2017 (https://this-girl-makes.com/2017/12/03/craft-practise-to-surgical-practise-meeting-miss-tani-fasih/), I remember her saying, “you have to be the voice for the people who don’t have a voice”.

For those who are not so aware of the concept of privilege, here are two short videos that will help demonstrate it for you.




And again, there might be those who think to themselves, “But why is the furniture industry so important, are there not more pressing issues in the World?” And of course that is a valid point, but one to which I would respond by saying furniture is only one piece of the puzzle. This is an arena that I understand and am personally invested in, therefore it seems reasonable to assume that I could actually help make some change. By dismantling sexism, and barriers faced by women and minority groups in one industry, means it is far more likely to happen in others. I feel just as empowered by what is happening in the film industry at the moment, for example listening to Frances McDormand accept her Oscar at the 2018 award ceremonies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DCH4y5CgTo), as I do by the many craftswomen that I meet through THIS GIRL MAKES. But at the same time, the inequalities that are present in the furniture and design industries should not be undermined, and without recognizing that they are real, and experienced by many women, there will be no ‘press for progress’.

Within a ‘lefty, liberal’ social circle or work environment, sexism may not seem a pressing matter. But, as I discussed with Katie Treggiden in late last year (https://this-girl-makes.com/2017/11/05/design-herstory-meeting-katie-treggiden/), it is easy to spot someone being obviously misogynistic, see previous blog post ‘An Open Letter to David Savage’ (https://this-girl-makes.com/2017/07/31/an-open-letter-to-david-savage-a-personal-response-to-his-view-on-double-standards/) for an example. However when it is someone who is highly regarded, in a senior position to yourself, or in fact a friend or partner, it is far harder to call them out. And that is why I am always grateful that Michael Buick, a second year student at Rycotewood, always picks me up on some of the sexist language that I sometimes use; more often than not it is something along the lines of ‘silly boy’. However this demonstrates my point, our gendered view of the world is so ingrained into our culture and language, it proves hard enough just to spot when it is present, let alone trying to dismantle it.

To conclude this short series of thoughts, I would like to point out that the fine furniture industry in particular is white-dominated, another aspect in which it lacks in diversity, but I am interested in addressing. Although it is harder for me to relate to, as I am not a woman of colour, but hopefully through the continuation of the THIS GIRL MAKES workshops and events, this will be part of a plan to outreach and engage with communities that will provide them with new opportunities and support.

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