I recently had the honour of presenting the opening speech at the inaugural conference and exhibition of Studio Woodworkers Australia. SWA is a recently formed group with the aim of becoming the peak body for Australian men and women who are professional artists, designers and craftspeople in wood.
I took the opportunity to be pretty blunt about the state of woodcraft in Australia. The time has passed when we can be as uncritical and all-encompassing as we have been. As craft professionals, we must be realistic about the way we are perceived and what our cultural role is.
From the feedback on the day, the speech was well received by my peers, despite some of the pretty strong opinions that I aired. The last two years has seen an unprecedented decline in the number of professional wood artists able to survive economically. Those who are still in business are not making money beyond simple survival.
As a craft, we need to be clear to the public about who and what we see as “the best” in our field. Otherwise, how can we guide and educate the public? If we were selecting an “Australian Woodworking Team” it would have to be done with the same rigor that the Australian Cricket Team is selected (possibly a poor analogy, given the current team).
Anyone in Australia can say they are a wood artist or a furniture designer. There are no formal or legal qualifications required nor standards that must be met. Anybody can call their work fine furniture or claim to be a master craftsman. These terms only have weight if other craftsmen call a maker or a particular piece these things. The woodcraft movement has a responsibility to set the standard. The public would probably be pleasantly surprised to hear how the core of the woodcraft movement sees some of those individuals and companies that make outrageous claims about their work.
You can’t simply claim to be on the Australian cricket team; you have to be selected by your peers.
Following is my speech as it was presented on the day (it has not been edited). It was written to be “spoken”, so please forgive some elements of the style. When in doubt, read it aloud- it might flow better.
Inaugural opening Speech presented at 12am, Saturday 19th 2013 at the Sturt School for Wood, Mittagong, on behalf of Studio Woodworkers Australia.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the inaugural gathering and exhibition of Studio Wood Workers Australia. As you know, this gathering is all about how to cut a better dovetail, which glue to use and what the best finish is for red gum. And if any of you actually believe this, it is time for you to leave now.
We are here for the sole reason that we are trying to find a commercially viable way to pursue our passion and talent for woodcraft. At the most basic level, no member of SWA really needs help with their woodwork. Nor is their primary need an excuse to give each other a call, or a chat room or a machinery exchange. What we all need is help finding our own path financially and to promote the industry as a whole.
Now, we are currently facing the perfect storm; the retail economy is broken, costs across the board have skyrocketed and as a group we are woefully out of fashion. Professional craft is out of fashion. Worse, viewing the craft as a whole, we are in danger of losing sight of what we are actually all about. Unless we take stock, and critically review our industry, with the same passion and detail that we would review our dovetailing technique, then we will crash and burn.
Some of the problems faced by the craft are beyond our control, while others we must take collective ownership of. And before I get stuck in, I would like to make clear that my observations and concerns are far broader than the membership of SWA. SWA has been formed to combat the difficulties we face. I apologise in advance if I offend any practicing maker here; that is not my intent. You can rest assured that I am every bit as guilty as anybody in this room for the many short comings that I will touch on today. I am simply describing the conditions and difficulties we face, as I see them (you can throw rocks at me later).
Firstly, we must be realistic about where we currently are. Do we have an industry, and if so, what is that industry? Now I’m a little bit precious on this point, but here we go; I want to see wood crafts people able to make their primary living from fine wood working; not teaching, writing, demonstrating, or doing more general work like kitchen making or sash window fabrication. Don’t misunderstand me on this point; I have absolutely no criticism at all of individuals who, with malice of forethought, chose these other career paths, but it feels to me like these options are currently a refuge from the storm, rather than the result of free choice.
I’m sure that if we all sat down with some butchers paper and marker pens, we could eventually come up with a list of the top twenty wood craftspeople in Australia. If we then winnowed out their incomes from teaching, writing, and doing general work and focused just on the fine work they make and sell, what would be their gross turnover? Would it be 5m? I doubt it. Would it even be 3m? What if we got really brutal and focused on net incomes from work done for those top 20? Would it average out much above 40K each?
Look around this room; How many makers here made a personal taxable income last year of 40k or more from making and selling their work? Once, the core of our craft was making and selling, while all the peripheral activities where valuable off-farm income. Now the peripherals rule the roost.
Now, if we bring back those teaching, writing and demonstration incomes back into the mix, we start to look more like an industry; is it the industry to which we aspire? Are we still primarily makers? Are we living as craftspeople? We facilitate those who sell equipment, tools, timber, tuition and publications to non-professional enthusiasts. That’s actually a reasonable sized show that generates a lot of turnover and also generates jobs. What’s more, the hobby industry needs a few “heros” to help sell all its wares, so we have an ongoing role. I would suggest that if you wanted the ear of a politician in the current climate, this is the only concept of industry that will get any traction with them, given our current performance.
How has it come to this? Where is my generation of professional makers? We have had more than 25 years of wood school graduates from a variety of institutions, heaps of grants and emerging artist programs, national and state bodies purporting to represent us, but precious few success stories. I know I am not the best maker, designer of business man in this room; why am I so professionally lonely?
I am 44 years old and have been a maker since I was 25. Dunstone Design employs 3 highly skilled craftsmen full time and we have another two other artists who we deal regularly with. We only make fine furniture. I teach occasionally as an indulgence. This should not be a success story; this should be a relatively normal story. There should be ten or more other Dunstone Designs in Australia. Why aren’t there?
I fear that collectively we don’t think and behave like professionals. We describe ourselves as professional craftspeople, but we tend to talk about everything except the business side of our craft. We choose heroes who are not commercially viable. There is a fear of investment and of taking real commercial risks. You can do a diploma in fine woodworking and learn nothing about commercial viability. You can get a certificate 3 in cabinet making and have never felt the pace of commercial work. There is even a sense within the craft community that anyone who is commercially successful has somehow sold out.
Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, Alan Peters, Edward Barnsley, Martin Grierson, John Makepeace, Wendle Castle, I could go on; Who on this list sold out by being commercially viable? You could have sat down with any one of these makers and had a frank discussion about the business of fine woodwork. They would have seen it as natural to employ craftsmen, to own a workshop full of equipment, to expect a profit, to look for a return on investment. All of them would have found the going tough; that’s just the nature of the game we are in. You will never make any money quickly in fine furniture. If you haven’t got 15 years to get established, you’re already in trouble.
As a group, we break the golden rule that a businessman should love the deal more than the product. We have all, myself included, under-sold our work in order to make something that we really wanted to make. Just as bad, we have spent far too much time doing “extra” unpaid work for free, so that an object meets our own standards, rather than the expectations of our clients. On one level this is hardly surprising, we are all perfectionists in our own way. We are all driven by the love of doing and exploring.
But what other industry does this? How often would a plumber put in an extra week’s labour for free, even when the client doesn’t value the extra effort? We constantly over-make for our own indulgence.
Of course sometimes, especially at the beginning of your career, this underselling is absolutely required; you are either too slow or not good enough or both. The saying goes that “the job you are doing now dictates the client you will get next”. We are all trying to make special work, with each piece building on the success and knowledge gained from the last. It’s actually a perfectly legitimate decision to consciously undersell you skills to one client in order to learn a new technique or develop a design, or develop speed, as long as you can put that knowledge to paid use later. It is only a failing if you don’t recognise or accept what you are doing; You must always work ever upwards.
Then there is the problem of high overheads. Furniture making in particular is very overhead heavy. I envy wood turners their low overheads. I imagine instrument makers are similarly blessed. Furniture making requires considerable equipment, space, expensive materials and insurances. Realistically, these overheads should be divided among as many workers as possible, but there is a cultural bias amongst craft woodworkers towards working alone. This makes no economic sense, and is more a reflection of our collective uncertainty than it is of a problem with hiring the right people.
Collectively across the craft, our pricing could only be described as erratic. Because so few makers, especially “emerging artists”(a term and concept that I detest) have a realistic acceptance or understanding of their actual costs, combined with a poor appreciation of commercial pace and little market experience, it’s hardly a surprise that pricing is such a hit or miss affair. I’m sure we have all been to exhibitions where we are equally appalled by either the low price of an item or the high price of an item.
Time is our Bete Noir. It is largely inevitable that we will be paid for a combination of time taken plus materials. Very few of us will be able to charge a premium because of our name. I know I can’t. We therefore have to appreciate that workshop speed and efficiency is fundamental. There is basically a balance between speed, quality, artistic merit, materials and price. As a craft, we are singularly poor at teaching time management. The biggest criticism we face from the broader furniture industry is that we are painfully slow to do to the basics. We deserve to be paid for our special skills; we don’t deserve to be paid to be inefficient at simple tasks.
As a clumsy analogy, consider the person who has a passion for food and cooking. This person spends much of their time and energy cooking for family and friends. People admire what they do and they have a wide network of appreciative supporters. Perhaps they will enter Master Chef one day. Now consider the life of a professional chef. Both have a love of food, but the Chef must bring a completely different attitude to his or her work. Not less creativity, just a different starting premise. The expectations of friends eating for free are completely different to the expectations of clients paying for restaurant meals. The chef, like us, is constrained by real world costs, responsibilities and expectations. I would argue that in recent years, the woodcraft movement has been attracting lots of cooks, and precious few chefs.
Fundamentally, we rely on our work being “better” than the high-street stuff to survive. Most of our prospective clients will initially approach us with a real-world need; a dining suite, a cabinet to store something precious, a bed. There is space for whimsical work, but our core work will have a practical element. We only have a viable place in the market if our work is better than the high-street, because it is sure going to be more expensive!
Consider my challenge as a chairmaker; In terms of performance, it’s hard to beat one of those ubiquitous plastic garden chairs that you find all over Australia. You know, the ones that are a plastic interpretation of a Windsor chair. They are light, flexible, stackable, comfortable and dirt cheap. They even look ok. Bunnings sells them for next to nothing. For my chairs to sell, they must be at least as comfortable as a cheap plastic chair. My cheapest chair is $1200. How would I sell them, if a $20 chair outperforms them ergonomically? All the other stuff, craftsmanship, timber, aesthetics, can enhance the price from this base point, but if the primary performance, that is as a tool for sitting, fails, then so does the design.
We have some musical instrument makers here, I’m sure. How many $8000 guitars would they sell if their work didn’t sound at least as good as a generic store bought $400 guitar? Why are we any different? If our drawers are too small to be used, our chairs uncomfortable and our beds impractical, or our hall tables wobbly, why do we deserve to make a living from making them? Who do we expect our audience to be? Now, I am absolutely not suggesting that members of SWA are guilty of such failings, or that you will see such work here, but you don’t have to look too hard within the broader scene to find some shocking examples of underperforming furniture. Every time a potential client sees a piece of contemporary fine furniture and thinks that looks uncomfortable, or, what on earth would I do with that, or, will it break if I use it, then the whole craft suffers.
Clearly there is room for purely artistic work and sculptural interpretations of furniture, again, I am not arguing against it, but our core business is usable work. Precious few of us will pay the bills by making only interpretive work. And remember, we are trying to be professionals, not amateurs.
Another obstacle we face is that it is relatively difficult for third parties to make money directly from our work. Unlike those selling tools, timber and services, galleries and other outlets selling fine wood work are just as endangered as the makers themselves. This is not in our interests. It would be far healthier for the industry if there was more room for third party profits. If a whole host of allied business were making money from us doing our core work it would help keep us on the tools. Unfortunately, I know that in my own business, which I know has an unusual cost structure, I would actually go backwards if I sold more than 10% of my total productivity at wholesale. Established makers quickly get trapped into a cost structure that requires them to get paid for selling their work as well as making it. The reason for this is simple; as a very rough rule of thumb, a furniture maker needs to sell about $100,000 worth of work a year in order to pocket about $40,000. A gallery therefore needs to sell $165,000 (including GST) of that maker’s work, for the maker to get his or her $100,000. Even a combination of galleries from around Australia will struggle to sell $165,000 of a maker’s work, so it is inevitable that the maker must do at least some direct marketing. As soon as this marketing starts to work, the cost/benefit relationship for wholesale declines. Believe me, this is a handicap to our industry unfortunately I have no answer to this dilemma.
Are we looking at the right role models when we choose to pursue woodcraft as a living? Who are our heros, and have we chosen them wisely? James Krenov, who described his approach as basically that of an amateur, has had a huge influence in Australia. His third book, published in 1979 was titled The Impractical Cabinet Maker. It is no coincidence that in riposte, four years later Alan Peters published Cabinetmaking- The Professional Approach. We can hardly sight the likes of Krenov as an influence and motivation, and then complain about a lack of commercial viability. It wouldn’t do us any harm to focus on those role models who offer us hope of financial stability within the “doing” side of our craft.
Very oddly, one of our biggest failings in recent years has been to lose sight of what it means to design for craft. There is an increasing trend towards industrial design, at the expense of craft design. I find this frankly perplexing. By definition, craft design allows for the hand of the maker to be seen. Most of you will be familiar with a Tony Kenway dining chair. This is a great example of a craft design. No two chairs will ever look exactly the same, but then no two sets will look the same either. If Tony’s team makes six chairs in blackwood for one client, and six in blackwood for another client, you will end up with twelve distinct chairs, but two distinct sets. This is craft design. We mustn’t lose sight of our core strengths; it is where our appeal lies.
Now, it is a sad truth that, with some glittering exceptions, our audience is pretty illiterate. Australia does not have much of a furniture culture or, for that matter, a fine wood working culture. We have all experienced clients who really don’t understand what they are looking at, even when they have paid the big bucks for something special. There is a danger that we start to see each other as the audience. The Highstreet retailers understands what Mr and Mrs Average sees in a piece of furniture and they have responded to it. Disturbingly, the result has been a race to the bottom, which is frankly not a good sign for us. That tells us that the broad audience is happy to throw away quality in pursuit of price. Our audience will always be a very small percentage of the broad audience, but to date we have so far failed to fight back successfully.
Consider the Matt Blatt phenomenon. You can buy a really poor reproduction (perhaps approximation is a better description?) of a classic chair for peanuts through Matt Blatt. We might jump up and down about this, but we really should attempt to analyse it. What is the purchaser actually seeing when they buy a dodgy wishbone chair? Clearly, there is some perceived “value” in the original, or else why bother approximating it at all? But why don’t more people actually value the merits of the original? It is hard to imagine that an equally weak copy of a Ferrari would be so openly and uncritically received by car enthusiasts.
Now, our problem is quite different with the Ikea phenomenon. Our problem here is that their stuff is dirt cheap, but also very well designed and made. Unlike the poor rip-off of the wishbone chair, an Ikea piece actually represents pretty good value for money, if fitness for purpose and longevity is matched against cost. Ikea spends a heck of a lot of time, brains and money getting their products right, and it shows.
Fortunately for us, Ikea is not fine furniture and never will be. It will not appeal to the wealthier end of town because it is too uniform and industrial. Nor will it appeal to the special interest end of town. There is a significant sector of the market out there who are potentially looking for something more individual. Our challenge is to meet this need and to carry our audience so that they understand and will pay for the difference.
This is the same challenge currently facing most fine art groups in Australia. Live theatre, opera, ballet, classical music, literature, poetry; all are facing the challenge of diminishing audiences and less educated audiences (I’m sure shortening attention spans are involved as well). We have the additional handicap of beginning from the bottom of the cultural list to start with. For example, Craft Australia disappeared at the flick of a pen almost without trace last year. Who was impacted? Really only a small number of practitioners and vested interests.
I think our sorry status is reflected in the awards that are available to us (or should I say unavailable to us). We have no national awards of any significance to the broader public. In 2012 The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ( a category within the NSW Premier’s literary awards) went to Gig Ryan for her latest compilation New and Selected Poems. The prize was $30,000. Imagine a national woodworking prize with that sort of clout. I have nothing against poets, but it is obvious that they pull a bucket load more cultural weight than we do. We must do our best to redress this.
I have not really focused in this address on just how weak the current retail economy is. There is nothing we can do to improve it, so we must simply tend our owns gardens and wait. As a friend of mine said recently, our current task is to not lose too much money until things improve. That is the only advice I can give.
More broadly, we must hope that SWA will be part of the fightback. I confess that it was a bold move by the board to invite me as the opening speaker, as I am not even a member yet. I am not a great team player when it comes to boards. I’ve even thrown a few rocks at SWA in the last 12 months, constructively I hope. In some respects, I would have been comforted to see this group as a subset of a bigger body; the Furniture Industry Association of Australia, or perhaps Manufacturing Australia, anything to show that we see ourselves as chefs not cooks. There is always the danger that such a group evolves into a club rather than a real industry body, and we need an industry body.
Our authenticity will be the key to the future. More and more people will react to the mass market by wanting to find independent, talented artisans who are lovingly making special things. This will be our place in the sun. And how lucky are we that, in addition to the normal advertising channels, we now have the online facilities to explain our work to a much broader audience, in a way that we can control? I am shockingly inept at all things computer, but I can see what all the fuss is about and how powerful the online opportunities are becoming.
We have better tools, better texts to refer to, our material is better understood and we have the whole history of woodwork and furniture to refer to. If we fail to capture the public’s imagination with our work, then that will be our failing, not necessarily their ignorance. The public will be as ignorant as we allow them to be, because we are the custodians of the knowledge. It is our flame to keep alive.
I love this craft and I love fine furniture. If I wasn’t a maker, and therefore impoverished, I would be a collector. Who wouldn’t want a Matthysen clock or an Adrian Potter or a Neil Erasmus? And for the first time in a long time, there are some young makers coming through who look like they might just have the right stuff, although we constantly loose them to better paying industries. Despite my at times harsh assessment of the craft, the amazing thing is just how much we Australian makers punch above our weight, all things considered.
Yes, we are in a perfect storm, much of it beyond our making, but it’s time to sober up and face the problems rationally. Perhaps this gathering is the beginning of the recovery process? We need to focus on making really good work that connects with people on a visceral level. We need to present exhibitions that make the average person sit up a take notice. We must remind ourselves that we are Chefs, not cooks. We need to find our voice as a movement and make a clarion call that can’t be ignored.
Please enjoy the inaugural gathering and exhibition of Studio Woodworkers Australia. I declare the exhibition and gathering open.”