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Education by decline?

Until recently, furniture design education was the purview of art schools and polytechnics. Faculty with a range of art, design, industry, science and technical experience developed the curriculums over many decades. Teaching centred on studio-workshop courses where students built what they designed. During a four-year program, students in classes of 10 to 15 received increasingly complex design briefs for development from rough sketches to working drawings to hands-on production. More than just classrooms, studios functioned as learning crucibles, where students learned from their own projects and from exposure to their peers' different solutions to the same problem.

In the past decade(s), many art schools and polytechnics morphed into universities. Results of this "higher-learning" approach include a decreased emphasis on studio courses, more "academic theory" courses and a move toward "virtual" products developed with sophisticated 3-D rendering software. In some cases, students can now graduate from degree-level design courses without having produced a full-size furniture prototype.

Furniture designer Scott Klinker, a strong believer in the future of "custom-mass production," instructs at Cranbrook Academy of Art. In 2006 he told VCR, " . . . students still have to be trained in making things; they just can't make images, because a computer rendering has nothing to do with gravity or structure."

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Chairs designed by Scott Klinker using CNC technology

Neil Austin, contemporary furniture design course leader at Bucks New University in the UK, echoes Klinker's views. Commenting in a 2014 Dezeen article, Austin states, "[Universities] aren't interested in the type of education that is needed for creatives." He added, "Creative courses are a little bit messy and a little bit big — they need workshops, they need facilities and they need space to play."

When furniturelink publisher Stephen Harrison attended Bucks New University in the 1960s (then High Wycombe College of Technology and Art) courses were free, terms lasted nine months, class size ratios were 12 to one and classes ran 9am to 5pm three days a week and 9am to 9pm two days per week. Over the past decades, encouraged by the cost-cutting mentality of governments worldwide, the "technocrats," not the "artists" or "craftsmen" (defined by Patricia Pitcher in Artists, Craftsmen And Technocrats), rose to power in educational institutions. It's cheaper to cram 200 students into a lecture theatre or place them at computer desks than provide one-on-one design critiques or state-of-the-art machine workshops.

Many countries introduced this short-sighted educational policy, which favours service-industry jobs over those in manufacturing and design. As a result, many companies (with the notable exception of military hardware producers) chose to move production off shore to access lower wage rates and skilled artisans.

The long-term folly of this approach has become obvious — governments try to tackle rising youth unemployment (exacerbated by local moth-balled factories) and manufacturers try to repatriate production (faced with rising labour costs in Asia and unreliable supply lines), without an experienced and skilled workforce at home.

Furniture producers committed to local production recognize the importance of incorporating new technologies, like CNC routers and saws (see CNC), to develop their designs. They can then "mass customize" products and ship them faster than offshore competitors. To accomplish this, local manufacturers need design graduates with practical mass-production experience, respect for the environment, knowledge of new materials and sensitivity to the needs of today's consumers.

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