About Dunstone Design

Dunstone Design is one of Australia's most respected bespoke furniture makers, and caters to those who appreciate beautifully crafted and well designed pieces. At the heart of Dunstone Design is designer, craftsman, educator and writer Evan Dunstone. Evan is a 2001 Churchill Fellow in contemporary chair design and manufacture. He has travelled widely and worked with some of the finest craftsmen in the English speaking world.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Crafting a Life: Episode 1

Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.  I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast

Episode 1, Who on Earth is this Guy?

The Dunstone Design podcast is about woodwork, furniture, the craft of the professional furniture maker and furniture design generally. I’ll be casting a wide net over all these subjects, so if you are a client of craft furniture, an enthusiast or a maker, there will be something here for you.
Throughout this series I’ll be focusing on the work of professional furniture makers and bring to you the craftsman’s perspective. This will not be a how to pod cast, nor will we spend much time on the work of amateurs. Instead, this is a celebration of professional craftsmanship and the quest to make beautiful things in a commercial setting.
Down the track we’ll get to the meat and potatoes, but first, here’s a little background. Before I became a furniture maker, I was a commercial pilot. I specialized in agricultural aviation, that’s crop dusting and cattle mustering in light aircraft. And yes, it was a lot of fun and I got to see a lot of Australia.  I know that flying the outback seems a long way from furniture making, but stick with me.
Despite the fun and adventure, the problem I had with flying was that it was very temporal. At the end of the week, I had nothing tangible to show for it, except some penned cattle or a cotton crop that was safe from bowl weevil for another fortnight. It was only going to get worse as I climbed the greasy pole towards the airlines.
I had an urge to make things. I wanted to point to an object at the end of the week and say “I made that”. I wanted those things I made to have voice. While I was working in the bush, I was surrounded by interesting man-made objects, some of which had voice, but most of which didn’t. I particularly remember an old set of stockyards near Bourke that were beautiful, whether you flew over them, walked up to them or used them to muster cattle. They were made from the local timber and were pretty weather beaten by the time I saw them. One of the old stockmen commented to me that the farmer who had made them, and whose name I completely forget, was a real craftsman. I didn’t understand the full implications of this comment at the time.
In my mid twenties, I walked in to the Bungendore woodworks gallery and had my first real taste of fine woodwork. The rest is history.
 I’d like to stress at this point that I was not and am not a hippy. I didn’t come to woodwork for an alternative lifestyle or to be closer to nature. I have always wanted to be a professional craftsman. Furniture is how I make my living, and I work for the benefit of my clients, in the same way that a chef prepares a meal for his or her clients. I obviously love what I do, but it is not my hobby and I don’t work wood with my personal satisfaction as the primary goal.
Now, I consider craftsmanship and design as equal partners. To put it differently, I see craft and design as two sides of the same coin.
Craft is not a trendy term and many people think that craft is what your Nana does for her own amusement. To me, craft is all about a relationship with material. Craft is the ability to read a material and respond to it. Craftsmanship is the ability to bring to life an object through a sensitive relationship with material and through personal technique.
Design is the practical response or answer to an articulated problem, or design brief. Design is a much more fashionable term than craft, because people don’t think of their Nanas as designers, and the term sound somehow more exotic and exclusive. We’ll be talking a lot about craft and design over this series.
Dunstone Design is all about making excellent objects for people who want those objects and are prepared to pay for them. Nothing pleases me more than a client who wants something special made and who has a clear understanding of what they are asking for. I see myself as a furniture architect, and as the coach or conductor for the other craftsmen who work with me. This is essentially what all professional designer/makers offer.
If I have a goal for this podcast, it’s the hope that I’m helping  people to re-engage with hand-made objects. Many people love what we and other craftsmen are doing, but surprisingly few truly understand it. Think of this as a crash course in how to approach a man-made object.
You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

An identity crisis in the Australian craft movement?

There has been an identity crisis in the Australian craft movement that has been amplified in recent years by the downturn in the retail economy. The term “craft” has been un-sexy for some time, so in recent years there has been an effort to re-lable the work of craft makers by tacking on the word “design” to what they do. Craft centers and bodies are now “craft and design” centers and bodies. It won’t be long before the word craft is dropped all together in favour of the more palatable word design.
The difficulty with this concept is that craft practitioners respond to the strengths and limitations of specific materials, and they “design” within these constraints. It is essentially a conservative field in this respect. Most craft practitioners actually enjoy the limitations of the material they are working with. The true craftsperson has a visceral relationship with a specific material that does not necessarily transfer across materials or to different methods of production. To many people the word “design” has come to mean a fully resolved object that can be manufactured reliably ad-infinitum, while “craft” just means something that is made slowly, self-indulgently and with an unpredictable risk to the purchaser.
Craft is popular to do as a hobby, because it is personally satisfying.  It is unpopular to buy, because it is relatively expensive (due to the high personal labour content), and too “accessible” (doesn’t “everyone” do craft? Couldn’t I make that?). There is also the assumption by many that craft makers are stubbornly hanging on to some medieval method of production for reasons of self-indulgent enjoyment.
Design is not a hobby in quite the same way as craft; it is something that a “professional” does. Designers have their work made by big industrial organizations. Design is even seen as some how democratic, by bringing cheap quality goods to the masses.
The tension between craft and design can perhaps be demonstrated by exploring the tension between  theatre and cinema. Theatre and cinema are superficially the same thing; telling a story to an audience using a scrip and actors, yet there are some big fundamental differences.  Theatre has all the downsides of craft; It is a popular hobby, it is labour intensive, each individual performance (even of a “successful” play) can “fail” unpredictably and disappoint the audience. There is an intrinsic limit to the number of performances that an individual can make and there is a limit to the number of people who can physically see a particular performance. The biggest difference between craft and theatre is that a successful craft piece is enduring, while a piece of theatre is ephemeral.
Theatre has some of the upsides of craft as well. A play can be relatively cheap to put on initially, and can be scaled up (within limits) in proportion to its success.  When a piece of theatre is very successful, the audience has a disproportionately powerful experience. By comparison, craft practitioners can usually work from very modest spaces initially and make things that have a much stronger connection with people than broadly manufactured work.
Cinema, by contrast to theatre, requires a comparatively large amount of money to produce. This largely excludes it as a hobby, keeping it “special” and “out of reach” (although technology might be changing that). Almost everyone has been in a play at some time in their life, but how many people have been in a film? Even a “small” budget (professional) film is significantly more expensive than most large budget live theatre. The economy of scale is much greater in film than theatre because of the potential audience. An individual actor or director can spread their value, thus focus their income. When successful, a film can generate a lot of money for investors, out of all proportion to theatre.
In further comparison, it is generally accepted that professional theatre actors “work harder” are “more dedicated” are “better actors” and are “paid less” than film actors. Again, the parallels between craft designer/makers and industrial designers/industry are strong.
So why does professional theatre endure? Why don’t all actors work in film? Why does society care about theatre? It will endure for the same reason that craft work will always endure; it is such a human thing to do.
Craft work is undergoing the same economic and cultural shock that theatre went through at the introduction of film. All the previously “good enough” participants are falling by the wayside (hurried along by the general malaise in the retail economy). It currently looks like a landslide, because so many are falling. All that will remain will be a small core of very dedicated, very hardworking and very good professional craftspeople. Ever so slowly, there will be a gradual return to an appreciation of craft work. Gone will be the “jobbing” makers, but the remaining craftspeople should gain more respect within society.
The crafts have much to learn about pricing philosophy from the theatre/cinema example. Show for show, cinema has always been significantly cheaper than theatre. Interestingly, cinema has always been a “fixed price” (attending a movie in a specific cinema is the same price irrespective of the movie you actually see. Only an individual’s age and the chosen session times will affect price). By contrast, theatre has a sliding scale of admission pricing. Theatre ranges from free through to very expensive, with every price point imaginable in between. No one expects every show held in a particular theatre to be offered at a uniform price. At some point, theatre got over worrying about comparing its cost price to cinema and started pricing itself relative to other theatre. In other words, the price of theater tickets now gives people a pretty clear indication of the level of theatre a punter is about to see. The crafts need to be less worried about pricing against industry and more concerned about comparative pricing within craft.
Craft and theatre usually comes from the practitioners up, and thus can carry many agendas. Like Theatre practitioners, many craftspeople (mostly non-professionals) think that craft work can be a “cultural good” and they want to “share it with everyone”. Cinema, like industry, comes from the investors down, so their priority/motivation is to make money; they don’t want to “share” anything! Cinema and industry have much clearer agendas than theater/craft. Theater and craft practitioners are notoriously difficult to work with as a collective group, because their agendas are often so complex and contradictory. Cinema and industry have much clearer and more common needs.
Just as good theatre often makes bad cinema, good craft design often results in bad manufactured items. It is a fallacy to think that craftspeople will make good designers for industry. A craftsperson has a relationship with material that does not necessarily translate to industry. A craftsperson battles with the idiosyncrasies of material, while industry strives to eliminate those idiosyncrasies. For craft schools or bodies to try and switch midstream to becoming design schools or bodies is as sensible as the Royal Shakespeare company switching to cinema.
Craft and industry, like theatre and cinema, are separate approaches to the same basic problem, but the overlap is marginal and often misleading. Simply sticking a camera in front of a theatre performance doesn’t make it cinema. Asking a craftsperson to forgo their relationship with material and focus just on form and function is to misunderstand the nature of craftsmanship.
We in the crafts must stick to our guns and keep making work that connects with our audience through our understanding of material.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Opening Speech for inaugural conference and exhibition of Studio Woodworkers Australia

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.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Riverstones sideboard

The Riverstones sideboard was commission by a couple who are long-time clients of ours. They first bought my work a decade ago and now have an extensive collection of Dunstone Design, from some humble Waterfall stools through to some of our most technically challenging work. Designing and making for this couple is an absolute delight; we all know each other so well. It is a truism that the best clients get the best work, simply because we know (and care) who we are making for and can respond delicately to their taste.

Riverstones is made from exquisitely figured river red gum with rock maple drawer internals and adjustable shelves. The handles are made from African wenge with intense red gum burl as the feature timber. The foot detail is also wenge.
Riverstones was crafted by Rolf Barfoed, with calligraphy by Shannon Henry. The single large drawer will house a cutlery tray (not shown in the images) and the drawer will therefore be relatively heavy. Rolf developed and installed double muntin runners for the drawer. Instead of the drawer running off the sides of the drawer cavity, the drawer is guided by a pair of runners set in line with the handles. The action is exquisite

Red gum is an extraordinary timber to work with; hard, cantankerous and unforgiving but oh-so-rewarding when handled well. Rolf is the master of the crisp line and the soft curve, and his detailing on this piece is sublime. Every surface and edge is a treat for the fingers. No other timber has the almost stone-like quality of red gum. When my hand first ran over the curves of the top, the surfaces felt like river stones, hence the name of this piece.

Designing a piece like this is an interesting journey. The configuration is neither radical nor daring. The function is mundane; to store all the paraphernalia of dining. It is not a re-interpretation of storage, nor even centre-stage in the room. The commissioning couple have one of the best collections of Aboriginal art in Canberra, as well as an extensive collection of our work spanning a decade; how could I allow this one piece roar above the rest? The design required this piece to function, to be beautiful in its own right and to work within a greater scheme.
Then there is the material; it is exceptional. In one breath it is technically challenging and visually dazzling. How to play with its strengths and side-step its limitations? 

I consciously chose to design this piece within the constraints of “craft”. The construction of Riverstones is a combination of traditional solid timber and re-sawn veneer techniques. It is not an intellectual piece, as there is no higher message or hidden theme. It is not technically innovative, as there is no process or use of material that a 19th century cabinetmaker wouldn’t recognise (and, I hope, approve of).  

At the commencement of this piece, Rolf and I looked at all the options for the composition of the grain. We flipped boards back and forth, skimmed surfaces looking at colour, held up sections horizontally and vertically to watch how the light fell differently on a piece of timber.  We discussed the feel we wanted from the piece, the context, the direction from which it would be approached in its intended location and how it would look in a different location. We considered previous work for the same clients. We mocked up the size and detailing of the round-overs and edge treatments. We had collegial arguments over grain patterns.
All this was part of the “design” process, but hardly any of it was done with a pencil and nothing was done on a computer. We didn’t apply the Golden Ratio or use the Fibonacci series. Rolf and I used craft, material and experience to arrive at a piece that, I think, has simple integrity.

A final word on craftsmanship and design; I would have arrived at some different detailing if this piece was to have been made by a different maker to Rolf. At this level of work, each maker has a “voice” that cannot and should not be masked. Rolf approaches the process of making differently to me. As a practical example, on the side of Riverstones, the re-sawn veneer panel meets the round leg with a “kiss” joint. To pull this off, the kiss joint has to be perfect; of even depth and visual weight across four joints. Though apparently simple, this is a very technically difficult detail to command (at least, I think so). Had I been making the piece, I would have inset the panel by 2mm, creating a shadow line and a subtle change of level. I would have justified it by saying I was reflecting elements of the floating panel on the door; in reality, I would have been avoiding a detail of which I was uncertain. Such is the nature of designing for craft and the integrity of the individual craftsman.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"The Grotto" and the Waterfall Stool

Many people tell us how lucky we are to work wood professionally and how relaxing it must be. Well, sometimes it’s all hand planes and chisels, while at other times it’s just hard work and dust.

Our workshop has a sanding room called “The Grotto”.  It is in this room where the really hard yards take place, and in this series of shots by Bronwen, you can see the grit more than the glamour. 

The Grotto is a sealed space with its own dust extractor and lighting. The rule is that any serious sanding takes place in The Grotto and there is no bigger sanding job than a stool run. In this series of images you can see the hard work it takes Alex and Dan to put the “love” into thirty blackwood stools.
Alex is the undisputed champion of the Dynabrade random orbital air sander. He uses the Dynabrade with the same skill, flair, dexterity and confidence that any classical woodworker ever applied to chisel work.  
Alex working the Dynabrade random orbital air sander.

Dan works away in tandem with Alex.  They work as a team to do the final shaping and finish sanding. Dan is the bloke you want on your right hand side in the shield wall while the barbarians attack. Dan doesn’t get ruffled, never stops and never backs down.
Dan works on a stool in "The Grotto"

This is hand work at its rawest. Make no mistake; Dan and Alex are in competition with each other. Like two gun shearers trying to ring the shed, if you get in their way they will steam right over the top of you. The game is to do the best possible job in the shortest possible time; its is more about professional pride than anything else. These two know that they can do a better job than anyone else and in less time than the next-best person. This is what it means to be a professional craftsman. This is what a day’s work looks like.

Waterfall stools are still our most popular pieces. The design is 12 years old and we sell about 85 of them a year. From The Grotto they go to the oiling room where they get four coats of oil (with 48 hours between coats). Dan and Alex have seen the stools through from a pile of rough lumber to the finished product. 

A pair of finished Waterfall Stools, in blackwood (left) and jarrah (right)
A finished pair of blackwood Waterfall Stools
The saddle of a jarrah Waterfall Stool
Finished Waterfall Stool in jarrah

Waterfall Stool in blackwood

The last thing they will do to this run of stools is place the Dunstone Design maker’s mark on the front left leg of each one. A team made these stools.

The Dunstone Design makers mark on the underneath of a brand new Waterfall Stool in blackwood

Monday, July 30, 2012

Glitteringly special. The Oxbow Suite.

Last week I had the daunting task of photographing the Oxbow Suite.  It is without question the finest piece here in the Showroom at Dunstone Design.  There are clients in China that are interested in it, and we needed to send photographs across.  We don't currently have a studio set up, and so photographing a piece like this in a pure showroom setting is a compromise, and made me worry about doing the piece justice.  It still deserves to be done absolutely properly, and we do intend to do so, but for the time being, we got by with what we had.  

It may turn out that pieces like this, in about a month's time, are no longer available here in the Australian Showroom, with future pieces of this quality likely to find their way overseas to China.  The Oxbow is made of a rare and special tree, that was nearing the end of its life on a property in the Otway Ranges in Victoria.  Evan has written it's story below:

The Oxbow Suite

"This Oxbow dinning suite is made from a single log of highly figured Victorian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). This particular log came from the North face of Mt. Sabine in the Otway ranges, Victoria. The North face of Mt. Sabine is the “dry side” (the wet weather comes from the South, off the ocean) so this was a very slow growing tree.

The tree was selected and milled by Mr. Denis Brown of Corsair timbers, Yackandandah.  The blackwood was approximately 180 years old and had reached the end of its life at the time it was felled. The bole of the tree had rotted out in the middle, and only a relatively small amount of timber was salvageable. Mr. Brown expertly milled the log and seasoned the timber for 11 years before selling it to us. The highly figured nature of the wood is very rare and is only found in the biggest and oldest slow-growing trees. It is exceptionally rare for a whole dining suite (chairs and table) to be made from solid timber out of one special log.

Mr. Brown has been milling blackwood out of the Otways for more than 20 years. He has various “in-house” grades for his timber that go beyond the normal designation of “select” and “fiddleback”. The highest grade he has is super fine dark fiddle back. This log is one of only four logs that he has ever given this designation to. Dunstone Design has hand crafted furniture from three of the four logs with this designation.

Timber of this quality is usually made in to very thin veneers, which can only be used on flat or gently curved surfaces. It is not possible to make the shapes such as those found in the Clearwater chair or Oxbow leg design from veneers.

The detail timber on the suite (seen on the legs and as the slats in the chairs) is a West African timber called wenge (Millettia laurentii). I have used it to highlight the colour and grain of the blackwood. 
The Oxbow suite took nearly 300 hours of labour from our master craftsmen to make. It consists of one table and ten chairs and will only be sold as a complete set.
The price for the suite is AU$55,000 including GST."