One of the books I am most excited about publishing is David Savage’s “The Intelligent Hand,” which is supposed to be in my hands for editing by the end of the year. As many North American woodworkers are unfamiliar with David and his work, I asked Kara Gebhart Uhl to write this profile, which covers David’s life and work in both art and furniture. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
— Christopher Schwarz
“The story of my life is a whole series of failures in lots of ways,” says David Savage, an artist, designer, maker and founder of Rowden Atelier, a furniture design school and workshop in North Devon, England. “You don’t look at how you fall over, but it’s kind of how you get up again, the whole process.”
And David did get up, again and again. Some may call that a solid work ethic, perseverance, moxie. Or, when a young family is in the picture, survival. Perhaps, though, the getting up again is simply the root of being a maker.
David says it took a visit from Christopher Schwarz in 2015 to define the culture of Rowden. It was then that Chris noted a strong line of identity coming from the Arts and Crafts Movement to Rowden students.
That, says David, is what Rowden is. “It’s not the celebration of the flowery wallpaper of Arts and Crafts, but the celebration of who a craftsperson is — the treatment of a maker not just as a pair of hands to manufacture stuff but as a genuine contributing human being making something that’s worth having. The celebration of that is what we do here at Rowden.”
Every time David faced a challenge or failed in some way, the act of starting over came from an acknowledgement of worth. Sometimes it took an outsider. Sometimes the realization came from within. But it was the title of maker, with all its history and meaning, and the innate desire to make something worth having, that pushed David to get up and create, not just a piece of furniture, but a life, and one he deemed worth living.
Art in the Place of Speech
Born David Binnington in 1949, David grew up on the Yorkshire coast in post-war Bridlington. Both his parents were entrepreneurial and relatively prosperous. His mother, a hairdresser, owned several shops in town. And his father, an importer and manufacturer of soft drinks, owned a small factory.
“My childhood and youth were afflicted by a stammer,” David says. “Have you seen that movie, ‘The King’s Speech?’ Then you appreciate a little bit of what it’s like to have a stammer. Being inside that person with a stammer is awful in that you know where the problem lies, you know that words beginning with ‘b’ are a nightmare because you’re blocked with those. You can see those words coming up in the sentence ahead of you so the tension gets even worse. I describe it as being like trying to talk and eat a very droob-ly bacon sandwich at the same time. It’s just awful.”
David grew up quietly, rarely speaking but always listening — a skill that has served him well. “One of the great arts of being a designer is to be a very good listener so you hear what the client is actually telling you,” he says. “Most of us don’t hear. We only perceive a certain proportion of anything. I was a good listener because I didn’t say anything.”
With conversing being nearly impossible, David was drawn to art, which required little to no speech. His dedication and strong portfolio earned him a spot at The Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in 1968.
“It was unlike a lot of the current art schools in that it was very requiring of you to gain skill in drawing, especially,” David says. “Mid-Atlantic expressionism was the happening thing. So you have studios filled with dry ice and naked bodies. This is the liberated 60’s and everybody is having a gas. They’re all on acid and weed and it’s a blast. But I didn’t go that way. I wanted to learn. Something told me I needed to learn how to do this. I needed to have a skill in order to be expressive. What was being thrown out at that time was the very idea that you needed a skill to be expressive, that skill was an inhibition to expression. I think that’s nonsense.”
The school, originally called the Ruskin School of Drawing, was founded by John Ruskin in what is now the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. (In 1975 the school moved to its current location on High Street.)
“So I went to this very fussy old art school, which was in a brilliant place,” David says. “It was in a few rooms in this fabulous museum. … It has all kinds of things from Egyptian sarcophagi to Samurai armor to Greek sculpture. Fantastic Greek sculpture. So if you’re me and 19 from Yorkshire, this is a mind-blowing experience.”
Much of what David learned wasn’t necessarily taught, but rather absorbed through the skin. “If you want to go out for a cigarette you have to walk from the studios through the Greek sculpture collection to sit right outside the door so it just becomes a part of your day, looking at genuine Greek sculpture from 400 BC carvings.”
David describes the school’s teaching methodologies as old-fashioned: You couldn’t draw the life model until you spent the better part of three months drawing Greek casts. “You were asked to use your eyes,” he says. “You used drawing as a means of looking very hard, because that’s really what drawing is: It’s looking very hard and exercising your eyes and your hands and actually coordinating them.”
Learning how to draw this way has allowed David to see better and that, he says, is the key to becoming a good maker.
“The thing I teach my students now is if you want to be a really good maker you really need good eyes and you need a hand that draws well enough. You don’t have to draw like an artist. You just have to draw well enough.” This, his says, provides you with another tool. “Drawing enables you to work out the inside of that joint and how those two parts come together. You can sketch it out, you can draw it, you can think it out, you can X-ray the joint in your head and sketch it out immediately. It’s a tool.”
This tool allows makers to create their own visual vocabulary, outside of images found online. And this, David says, he learned way back in the 1960s.
“When you sit down and you draw something, some of it you like the shape of it,” David says. “It may be a seashell or a bit of a twig or maybe the shape of a woman’s leg. You sit down and you draw it and you put down five or six well-observed honest lines. You don’t need to draw it anymore. That image goes into the back of your head, into your visual vocabulary. It becomes part of your visual vocabulary and you build up that visual vocabulary in your lifetime. And so you sit down 30 years later to draw a table leg and what pops off on the end of your pencil in your complete unconsciousness is something observed maybe 30 years ago. This is part of your visual vocabulary, it’s the stuff you internalized. This is very different from Pinterest or Instagram, which is external, not internal. So I learned to draw, which is a very powerful thing.”
After earning his undergraduate degree David says he had another amazing stroke of fortune: He won a postgraduate place at the Royal Academy Schools in London. Centered smack-dab in the middle of the art world on Cork Street and Bond Street, among all the galleries, was David, “this guy from Yorkshire who stammered a lot,” he says. He was given a grant, a studio and the pick of teachers for three years. “Crikey,” he says. “It was a wonderful experience.”
After graduating from the Royal Academy of Schools in 1974, David teamed up with a fellow student, Desmond Rochefort, and together they created The Public Arts Workshop. It was after living in, what David calls, “the guts of the art world,” he became more interested in something that didn’t exist in Britain at the time — public art. “I didn’t want to get involved with the galleries or selling the commodities of paintings,” he says. “But I wanted to be a painter.”
“In 1939, an organization called the British Blackshirts tried to march through a very largely Jewish area in East London,” David says. “They tried to have this march down Cable Street, and there was a huge riot. They were stopped from marching — the local uprising actually prevented them from doing that march and it became very famous. It was called The Battle of Cable Street. And it was one of those events that prevented the growth of fascism in Britain in the 1930s.”
Beginning in 1977, David raised money and worked on designs for a 70-foot-high mural depicting the battle on an old wall of what used to be Stepney town hall on Cable Street. He had hoped to have two assistants, but there was never enough money for that. So for three years David ran up and down the scaffolding that covered the wall, drawing and painting.
And then, a right-wing organization vandalized it.
“I crashed and burned,” David says. “I was left damaged and with no confidence and thinking, I don’t want to be a mural painter anymore. If I go back to Oxford on a scaffold, it’s going to kill me. So I pulled out. And I’m not greatly proud of that, but I knew that I had to, to stay alive.”
The project was picked up by someone else and completed, as David says he knew it would be. But then he wondered, What next?
The Origins of a Furniture Maker, in the Style of Gimson
David liked being physical. He didn’t mind running up and down that scaffolding — he knew it was good for him. He wanted to use his brain. He wanted to use his hands. “I wanted to use all of me and I was fed up of not making a living out of this.”
In the meantime, he made some furniture. “When I say ‘furniture,’ this is just four bits of wood held up with screws,” he says. He made something for the garden, using pine, screws and glue. This led to a new train of thought: “Maybe I could make things,” he says. “Maybe I could use my hands and my knowledge. I wanted something to use my aesthetic sense and what became particularly inspiring for me was the Arts and Crafts Movement.”
Particularly, Ernest Gimson — trained as an architect he set up a workshop in the Cotswolds countryside where he made what was at the time (he died in 1919) modern English furniture. “I thought that was a role model that I could follow,” David says.
David also looked to Edward Barnsley, another key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, along with The Edward Barnsley Workshop. And then came Alan Peters, author of “Cabinetmaking: The Professional Approach” and former apprentice of Barnsley. David visited Alan and enrolled in a short, two-week course with him.
“He was instrumental in turning me into a functioning furniture maker,” David says. “It was his example that I very much took to heart. I wanted a workshop like Alan’s. And I wanted to be a craftsman.”
There were other influences. David was inspired by James Krenov’s aesthetic. And John Makepeace’s clear idea on how to run a business. “His example was you needed three legs to stand on and I thought that was interesting,” David says. The legs? Technique, design and business. “And I thought, Hey, that makes sense.”
At this point David was still living in London, living on social security. “They didn’t think very much of my retraining myself but they had a kind of tolerance of it for a little while,” he says. That tolerance, along with the bit of money people began giving him to make pieces, allowed David to learn.
“I read a lot of books,” he says. “I read Charles Hayward, anything by Hayward I could get a hold of. I read back copies of The Woodworker magazine. I was very good at using the library. My local librarian was my best friend and she would get me books from all over the country.”
Around this time David also met someone, a friend of his first wife. “He was a wonderful craftsman and he didn’t want to teach me anything,” David says. “So I said, ‘I’ll come work for you. You don’t have to pay me anything.’ And he thought that was very unusual. So I’d go and spend time in his workshop when I could and he had a very Japanese way of teaching in that he would completely ignore me. And then when he saw me in a desperate trouble he’d throw a scraper blade at me and say, ‘No! No. You do it this way’ and walk away again. But his example was very powerful.”
Upstairs in David’s house was a small studio, which David turned into his workshop. He struck deals. He told family and friends that if they bought materials and paid him enough to buy a new tool, such as a router, he’d make them a piece of furniture. “It was a step,” David says.
His client list, and reputation, grew.
Then, the IRA bombed London. David’s wife at the time had just finished training to become a teacher and was looking for a job. So they looked outside of London and ended up in Bideford, a port town in north Devon.
“Everybody that spoke to us said you’re crazy moving out of London,” David says. “You’re crazy moving away from anybody who might want to buy anything you want to make. And that was true. But it also made some kind of sense. We actually needed to get out of the bloody city and now I know why. It was actually the requirement to be in the countryside.”
(We’re skipping ahead now, just for a moment.) Rowden overlooks a meadow, a lake and trees. It’s not far from the beach, shells and water. David needed to be rooted in the countryside, in the same way Ernest Gimson did. It wasn’t until years later that David made this connection of craft and place — of what’s required, for some, to be a maker.
A Change in Name, Success and Failure
In Bideford, David says a very curious thing happened. His first wife’s surname was Savage. Although not married at the time, they had lived together nearly 20 years and in Devon, while looking for a property to buy, David would tell agents his last name was Savage. “I couldn’t say my own name, because it began with a ‘B.’ Binnington is still a word I would rather not say if I could.”
That was a name he could say with confidence. For the first time in his life, David could finally introduce himself. “And it was a new town so no one knew us,” he says. “And curiously, it kind of unlocked things. If you can say who you are, if you can introduce yourself, then it kind of became slightly easier. So that rather changed things.”
David legally changed his name to David Binnington Savage. And with his new name, his stammer began to lessen.
In 1983 David established David Savage Furniture Makers in Bideford. He found a big building that needed a lot of work, and he rented it. He also began writing for magazines. He would teach himself how to sharpen a scraper or use a hand plane and then, he’d write about it. Between 1983 and 1990 he wrote a monthly column in The Woodworker magazine called “The Craft of Cabinet Making.”
He made furniture for clients in London and assembled kitchen furniture for a builder on a monthly basis. Then a local furniture maker who was teaching students wanted to stop teaching. He asked David if he would take on two students who still needed to finish out their course. David said, “No.”
“And then I went back and started assembling these kitchen cabinets and I thought, Maybe it would be easier than actually doing this.” So he agreed to take on the students, who had only made a bench and an oilstone box in their first six months. “They came and they started to pay me money,” David says. And he taught them things he, himself, had only just learned how to do.
This, too, David realized, tied back to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Over the next few years he established a system where he allowed students, but always had more craftsmen than students in the workshop. This resulted in him being able to choose his best students as employees. “None of this was my great plan,” he says. “It just evolved that way.”
By now David was making pieces every day, and every single piece coming out of his shop was his design, his imagery.
One of his early students and a former PR executive, Malcolm Vaughan, taught David the art of writing a press release and the importance of nice photographs. “It was almost that not a month wouldn’t go by when a piece made by David Savage wasn’t in the magazines,” he says. “One of them went viral and boom! We were making Camelot chairs for everybody and everyone.”
The first Camelot chair was for now longtime clients Mary and Derek Parks.
David had made a large walnut reception desk for a corporate client in London. “A few weeks later I got a phone call saying they’ve sold the building [what was then the new Covent Garden site] and I said, ‘Horray!’ But they didn’t want one of my desks.” The new owners wanted a different desk, and David says he was heartbroken. And then mad, when he learned that the desk had gone to the managing director’s country house in Dorset.
“I tried ringing up this woman and I was not happy that it had all gone wrong,” David says. He finally got a hold of the managing director’s wife, Mary Parks. She loved the desk and wanted David to build more furniture.
David was bitter. But a few days later he drove to the Parks’ residence in Chelsey. “Money was pouring out of the whole place, you could see it,” he says. David met Mary and the two discussed design options for a dining room table and chairs. “And then her husband, Derek, walks in and he’s three sheets to the wind, totally pissed,” David says. Derek invites David to his house in Dorset. “And I was thinking, Christ. These people are going to be my clients and I hate it.”
Two weeks later David met Derek at his 15th-century Dorset manner house. “Derek was then a totally different person,” David says. “He was in the process of restoring [the house] in the most exquisitely sensitive way.” But more inspiring to David was this: “He took me around and he introduced me to all his gardeners and his chauffeur and the guy who polished his shoes, and he’s speaking to them, telling me about their children and about who they are and what they were doing. And he blew me away because I got the sense that this guy was operating on a totally different plane from me. He was an extremely high-functioning man. He was able to deal with people in a way that I couldn’t conceive of dealing and I was blown away by that.”
Derek and Mary spoke to David about their wants and needs, and David listened. And that, David says, was the first time he thought, “I can actually do this.”
“If I can find people that want to have really good furniture, I can do this,” he says. “I can do this and I can make a profit out of it.”
David hired a photographer to take a picture of one of the Parks’ dining room chairs and it struck a chord: “That photograph of that chair was in every color supplement of every glossy magazine for the next two years,” he says.
David had made it.
“It’s those kind of steps which are invisible, in that you don’t know you’re going to do that but then you do,” he says. David didn’t intend to build a furniture business, but he did. In 1984 David became a member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen followed by the Fellowship of the Society of Designer Craftsmen in 1992.
He was happy. “Happy as a clam!” he says. “Totally involved. Totally engaged. I didn’t know where we were going but I was making furniture and getting more confidence in dealing with people.”
“Things are flying along really well,” David says. “I made a great mistake in buying another workshop.” At the time David and his employees were in a 2,000-square-foot workshop and they were simply out of space. Fifty yards down the road was a 3,000-square-foot workshop — well insulated with three-phase electric. For years it was for sale but David could never afford it. Eventually the price came down to a point where he could no longer resist. He bought it.
“And that was a disaster in that you no longer have one workshop, you have two,” he says. Employees argued over who got to work in the new shop. “It was not a cohesive unit in that everybody could sit around the fire at lunchtime and they could have a conversation. They could have two conversations and that was a nightmare. That was a big mistake.”
Around this time David was coming out of the recession. He had laid off staff, but things seemed OK. Until, “I got in another classic mistake,” David says. “I got a big customer. A big customer that wanted a lot of furniture, really liked my work, his wife really liked my work.”
The customer was a city trader. He had just come from the United States and bought a house in London. “I did a load of drawings and made the mistake of saying, ‘Yes, we can do all of that,’ which mean that I pretty much had one customer for a period.”
The work, which was spread over four or five benches, was intended to be done in three stages. David and his employees completed the first stage and they were paid. “It was the second stage that got me,” David says. “I went up there and he wasn’t there. The house was closed up and he had gone back to America. I couldn’t get a hold of him in any way. I couldn’t get a hold of him through his company. They wouldn’t let me speak with him. So I was left with a pile of furniture I couldn’t sell. No money coming in and bills to pay. My only option was to go bankrupt, which I did, which is a bit of a life-changing experience.”
David closed the Bideford workshop. “I was thinking, What the hell am I going to do now? I’ve got a young family, a baby of 18 months, and what am I going to do now?”
He says the experience was akin to stepping off the conveyor belt of life. “When you’re on the conveyor belt of life you’re moving and this time you can take a step off it and you can observe the conveyor belt and see what is happening.”
Sometimes, though, it takes someone else to push you back on the conveyor belt. And for David, one of those people was a client, Maggie Rose.
The Value of a Craftsperson, Both as Maker and Human Being
David’s tools, benches and furniture in process were all slated to be sold at auction. Maggie called and asked if she could buy the unfinished pieces of furniture and then give them back to David for finishing.
“Then someone rings up and says, ‘I really like those chairs you made for me and I’d really like a desk,’” David says. “And I knew all these craftsmen in all these workshops so I was all set up doing drawings for clients and selling furniture and having it made in various workshops around me.”
This worked for 18 months.
“That was really quite good,” David says. “I hadn’t a workshop but we were actually functioning. We were doing the jobs of meeting clients, doing drawings, taking orders, getting furniture made, getting paid. Everybody was happy. Until my second wife, Carol, said, ‘David, you know that room you’re in in your office?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Well, you can’t have it anymore.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I’m pregnant. I’m going to have a baby.’”
So then David was faced with putting his foot back on the conveyor belt, the one that required a workshop. He was tentative, but knew he had to take the plunge. He wrote an advertisement for the local paper: “furniture maker looking for barns to convert.”
“I wanted to be out in the countryside,” he says. “I wanted the green fields around me. So I found myself at Rowden.”
David met a maker, Nick Chandler, who he employed. For four or five years the two of them worked together, and David calls that time a period of great liberation. Without having many employees to support, David was able to take more risks with his designs.
“My wife encouraged me to be more free,” David says. “She was saying, ‘Go on. You can do all sorts of stuff. You’re a crazy artist. That’s what you should be doing.’ And we did all sorts of pieces that are important now, things that are central pieces.”
In the end, bankruptcy, David says, was “an enormous blessing.”
“Change is a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s always energizing. It’s always a great thing to embrace. Moving out here and working with Nick was a great thing. He was a wonderful guy to spend time with.”
With time, Rowden developed into what it is today: a furniture design school that offers classes in drawing, design, woodworking and business. David is mostly retired, having delegated teaching to former students (with the exception of head craftsman Daren Milman). Fellow furniture designers and makers now on staff include Ed Wild, Jon Greenwood, Jonathan Walter and Lakshmi Bhaskaran.
Although Rowden’s focus is almost primarily on education, David will occasionally make a piece of furniture for someone he knows and cares about — currently that’s a desk and chair in pear wood.
“It’s great,” David says. “It’s a great thing now.”
David and his wife, Carol, live in the oldest continually inhabited house in the county. It’s since been split into 13 units, and they live around the back “in a courtyard and I think cows probably lived where lived or it was a dung heap,” he says, adding that it’s great fun.
He has two children, a daughter who recently earned a degree in psychology and a son who is in his second year of university. For now, they’re not interested in making.
“When I was quite young it was kind of expected of me that I might follow my father’s direction and I didn’t want to do that,” David says. “So I’ve never in any way laid this on them. I want them to do what they want t to do. So it will be here, hopefully for them when they need it, or hopefully it will provide them income after I’m long gone. But we’ll see.”
And so Rowden exists, not as a factory for employment or as a means to an end, but in celebration of craftsmanship and making things, and a testament to the life David lives.
“I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve lived a varied and challenging life,” he says. “It’s been great. I’ve been having a great time. Yeah, very fortunate indeed. Very fortunate.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl