Considering how wistfully many adults talk about youth, you’d think it really was carefree.
Was your youth carefree? Mine wasn’t. Aside from the usual complement of jobs, household chores and emotional Sturm und Drang, I was beset by concern about ecological devastation from the age of about 8, and about war and violence of all kinds. How can your heart not be broken by news of people being killed at a wedding or while having a pint at the pub, or wild animals dying in a human-caused conflagration?
Beyond this, the clear horizon of seemingly endless possibilities that causes so many adults to wax nostalgic about youth felt more like a burden to me. How should I plot my course when I had no idea what I “wanted” to do? What would be an ethical and meaningful way to make a living? As I went from one job to another, I quickly got a feel for the work that didn’t suit me. But it was far more difficult to imagine a line of work I might be capable of pursuing over the long term that would give me a sense of contributing, somehow – and one that wouldn’t quickly become depressingly routine.
A recent conversation with a young furniture designer-maker in England revived these memories and reminded me how glad I am to be (gulp) 61. Harriet (“Hattie”) Speed contacted me after she read Making Things Work – she wanted to interview me in connection with her project This Girl Makes. I looked up the website; it was clearly a worthwhile endeavor with which I’d be glad to help out. But when she sent a list of questions, each carefully related to an excerpt from the book, I was blown away by her thoughtfulness and how keenly the book had resonated with her. For example:
“Did you go through the mid-twenties crisis (as I am experiencing)? E.g. doubting yourself and your chosen career, questioning if you are ‘enough,’ losing motivation, falling out of love with making, feeling disenamoured with the ‘scene’/the ‘industry’?”
Excerpt from Making Things Work: With this change came a creeping return of the perfectionism I’d cultivated during my City & Guilds training. “Is this good enough?” I’d asked Mr. Williams in those days, handing him my latest effort at a dovetail or miter. In his soft Welsh accent he always threw the question back to me: “Do you consider it good enough? If you need to ask the question, you most likely know the answer.”
Perhaps you were expecting something technical: “Invest in a SawStop” or “Tails before pins.” With me, it’s always more existential.
I couldn’t help thinking this person would make a great career counselor (or shrink). And I was intrigued by what she’d revealed about her situation. As someone who gets her share of correspondence from woodworkers of all ages asking for my thoughts about going into furniture making as a livelihood, I sometimes feel like a therapist saying it’s OK – and in many cases, better – to save woodworking for your spare time. Fortunately, Christopher Schwarz agreed that as a thoughtful young person with formal training and an impressive list of awards, who is finding her way in the world as a woodworker, Hattie would make a good profile for this series.
Hattie was born in Hexham, Northumberland, a town Wikipedia describes as dominated by Hexham Abbey, a Gothic confection constructed in the 12th century. The youngest of three sisters, she came along in 1995. For her A-level studies (the rough equivalent of junior and senior years in high school in the States) at Hexham High School, she did Product Design. Her first project was a light; the second, a chair. It was the chair that hooked her. She wanted to make furniture.
She started working toward this goal with an Art Foundation Diploma at Newcastle College, specializing in 3-D design. Next she considered a cabinetmaking apprenticeship with Robinson-Gay Fine Fine Furniture, but the principal, Stephen Robinson-Gay, told her to further her design education, specifically at Rycotewood Furniture College, in central Oxford.
She took his suggestion and went through a three-year bachelor’s of arts training in furniture design and making. To cover the course fees (each year of tuition at Rycotewood cost her £6,000-£7,000), she got a student loan. Hattie was one of three women in her year, some of them mature students (i.e., older than the typical students, who were recent high school grads or in their early to mid 20s). “I think that’s why it was such a positive experience,” she remarks; “there was such a mix of ages and backgrounds.” She learned as much from her peers as from the tutors.
She describes the training as “very traditional.” Hattie was particularly influenced by tutor Dr. Lynn Jones, who’s best known as the designer of a chair for breastfeeding women. “Her approach is so specific to each person she works with, she really listens and tries to understand who you are and what you are about,” she says of Dr. Jones. “She would often give me advice on projects I was doing alongside my studies, which meant her guidance was really holistic and I was able to benefit from resources outside of the college. It was also one of the first times I had met another woman in furniture, who shared my aesthetic style and love of resourcefulness! I guess we just clicked. She is now a very good friend. I must say though that all the staff at Rycotewood were VERY good and very committed to my learning – [it’s] worth mentioning Joseph Bray, the course leader; John Barns, the machine-training tutor/jig maker extraordinaire; and Drew Smith, CAD and design tutor.”
The training was also quite competitive. “I felt I really had something to prove,” she says. “College taught me resilience, as I hadn’t done furniture making before,” she wrote for a testimonial on the Rycotewood website. “I kept trying, and eventually got up to a good standard. The tutors and staff are really amazing.” She spent the summer holidays following her first year at Rycotewood gaining work experience at Robinson-Gay, and told Stephen that he had changed her life.
The training at Rycotewood focused on hand tools to start, after which students added small equipment such as biscuit joiners. Following this basic training in techniques, they moved on to projects that involved designing and building to briefs. Her projects included bedside cabinets, a pair of reading stools called “HINNY” and “Corkey’s Cabinet,” her final design-build project, which she partnered with a related 5,000-word dissertation.
“Corkey’s Cabinet” explored how craft can help those who have been bereaved, a subject with which Hattie has personal experience, having lost her father when she was just 14. She designed and built a collector’s cabinet for keeping mementos of a loved one, the whole thing constituting a kind of therapy. “It ended up winning quite a few rewards,” she says, adding modestly, “so that was quite good.” Quite good, indeed. Rycotewood has its own annual award for graduating students; she won best in show. She also won best in show for the Young Furniture Makers Award that year. Following these exhibitions, she showed the piece as part of a show of furniture and artworks in wood at Messums Gallery, a contemporary arts center housed in a jaw-droppingly lovely 13th-century tithe barn and adjacent dairy barn in the rolling hills of Wiltshire.
After this series of high-profile exhibitions, the prize-winning collector’s cabinet currently lives in her room, where the frame serves as a clothes horse and the top stores makeup.
Hattie lives in a shared house in Oxford with three others. In a few weeks she’ll be moving to a larger house with 10 occupants that she calls “a sort of art commune-type thing. I met the girl that set it up when we started a punk band that ended up being quite short-lived, but I went on to meet other people in their community.” When a room became available, Hattie jumped at the chance to be part of the household.
For now, she has two part-time jobs. One will be familiar to many graduates of furniture making courses: on Saturdays she teaches furniture design and making to young people at her former college, Rycotewood. Her other job is less typical: three days a week, she does therapeutic woodworking with patients at a neuro-rehab center that’s part of the National Health Service. She’s typically working with in-patients who have suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries, as well as working with out-patients who experience other neurological conditions, such as MS. “There is a real mix; some patients are in wheelchairs and have good cognitive function, whereas others may have good limb function, but might struggle to communicate or have difficulties with vision or spatial awareness.” The workshop is in the ward; she collects the patients from their rooms and brings them to the workspace. They have a few set projects – a bird box, for example, a trinket box and a picture frame – and are encouraged to be creative in how they personalize them. Those who wish to customize their work are free to do so. They use a hand-powered miter saw for the cutting; the frame ensures it’s well within the capabilities of even those in lower-functioning cognitive states. “It’s pretty impressive what you can achieve,” Hattie remarks. “I find it really interesting as a designer-maker. You’d think it would be repetitive, but each person’s different, and the way you go about doing things is different for every person. It’s a form of therapy, so you get to learn about [them] and talk with them. It’s really social.”
But let’s go back a bit. After graduating from Rycotewood in 2018, Hattie took a job as a design engineer at Ercol, one of England’s best-known furniture manufacturers, which has been around since the 1940s and is still a major provider of home furnishings today. Ercol is a big supporter of Rycotewood; they do a lot of live projects, which says something about the company’s interest in staying relevant as tastes and ideas about furniture change. The chairman and head of design were at Hattie’s graduating show; she caught their eye because she won three awards. (It’s hard not to make an impression when you keep being called up to the stage.) When she saw a job opening in the design team, she applied, a move for which she credits a furniture designer friend, Alys Bryan, whom Hattie met during her first year at university; Alys, too, was a student of Dr. Jones.
By way of illustrating the gulf between what many imagine the job entailed and its reality, she offers the following: “’Oh, you’re a designer!’” friends would say. “No, actually, I’m a design engineer,” she’d reply; “I’m looking at what kind of screws we’re going to need.” As middle-person between the designer and the production team, she prepared technical drawings and did modeling on CAD, helped with bills of materials and sent them to the purchasing department. If the company was putting on an exhibition, she might design stands for the pieces, or help lay the show out.
“I definitely felt like, reading the job description, I could do that role,” Hattie reflects. “I went into it knowing I was going to learn a lot, but it was out of my comfort zone and what I would expect of myself. The skill set I thought I had – it was going to teach me the skills I didn’t have.”
As she settled into the job, the compartmentalization of the industrial work context chafed. “I like the holistic approach of doing every single part of the process and seeing it from start to finish. Although you did get to see the furniture being made, you weren’t involved in the making.” She’d spent three years in college making every day, always feeling she had something to prove. “When you’re a woman, people think you’re going to be a designer. So I worked really hard at learning to make.” And now she was in a job where several layers of intermediaries stood between her and the making.
On the other hand, she says, “they were really supportive in giving me opportunities and supporting projects I was doing outside of my job.” For instance, when she had an exhibition, they paid for printing for the exhibition, including postcards and artwork. They provided sponsorship so she could participate in the Young Professional Industry Experience, a three-week tour around furniture factories and showrooms, most of them larger operations but some smaller shops with 10 or so people on the shop floor. When a Design Technology teacher from Didcot Girls’ School approached her to ask whether she would run a workshop with her students, Ercol allowed her to do it on company time and provided two members of staff, as well as materials (“we used their waste components,” says Hattie – and what better use to make of waste than teaching people to build things?) to run the project. “That was probably the best thing I did while I was at Ercol. It made me realize that I enjoy being in a learning environment and working with people to create their own designs. Because the school was same-sex, we were running the workshop for approx 15 GCSE students (ages 14 and 15). Seeing that many girls in the workshop cracking on with the design-and-make project we had set was so exciting! It was a stark contrast to the factory floor.”
Feeling a bit of burn out, Hattie took four months out to reset. “I had no other job lined up. But a friend, who I studied at Rycotewood with, told me he was planning on leaving his job (the NHS role) to go travelling, which just so happened to be around the time I was thinking of leaving Ercol. I had already heard of the hospital’s workshop when the workshop manager had visited Rycotewood in my second year. And I had been in contact with him when I was doing my research into craft and bereavement, as I referenced a study the hospital carried out with its patients in my final essay. Whilst waiting to hear about the NHS role, I also contacted Rycotewood and asked if they had any work suitable for me, which resulted in the Saturday Club role.”
The lockdown proved a time for Hattie to do a lot of thinking and working through emotional stuff. Her job with the NHS has continued – she wears full PPE: mask, goggles, apron, gloves. But there has been no teaching at Rycotewood since the lockdown began. (She points out that those Saturday classes wouldn’t have been happening during the summer anyway.) At this point, she hopes to apply for a full-time role at the NHS and teach evening classes at Rycotewood on the side. To get there, she needs a teaching qualification. So she decided to do a post-graduate certificate of education through the City of Oxford College, where Rycotewood is based. She’ll be studying part-time over the next two years, while keeping her current jobs.
Taking on the bigger picture: This Girl Makes
Hattie started This Girl Makes in 2016, during the second year of her degree. She’d visited the London Design Fair at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane and spoken with the women makers; all agreed there should be a blog promoting women in craft. “You hear about all these men and you can reel off the names,” she says. “But not women. I did a lot of it for my own personal interest because I wanted to find other women who were interested in what I was interested in.”
She decided to put on workshops that would encourage women to get involved. Lacking her own workshop, she couldn’t have people come to her, so she went to them, approaching galleries and museums, community spaces, with proposals to engage members of the public. To save time during the events themselves, she put together kits of parts in her room in the shared house. The first project was a three-legged milking stool; the second, a toolbox made of plywood. In a two-hour session, participants would assemble these kits, as an introduction to the satisfactions of building something useful and practical for themselves.
It’s important to Hattie that the events be inclusive and accessible. For some of these events, she has managed to obtain funding, which allows low-income people to participate. Others are ticketed. At this point she’s done more than 20. They’ve gone really well, she says; she often fills every spot available. “There are a lot of schools where you can learn to make high-end furniture [that] cost thousands of pounds,” she notes. In contrast, these two-hour courses are accessible to kids and complete beginners. “There’s definitely a demand for it. I want to keep doing it as a side thing.”
Parents tell her schools don’t offer this kind of teaching any more. Their workshops aren’t well resourced, or they’ve been entirely shut down. There’s a lack of teachers who can teach these skills; everything has shifted to digital. “Everyone at school will learn to use a laser cutter, but won’t necessarily learn to sharpen a chisel or set a plane.”
Reflecting on where she stands at this moment, Hattie is keenly aware that she’s on a road less traveled. “At formal furniture training colleges you’re going to learn to make fine furniture so you can get a job making furniture for the 0.1%. It’s unlikely this furniture will ever be used. It’s superficial and made for people to show off. But there’s a market for that. There’s [also] a reduced middle class, and therefore market, for bespoke, handmade furniture. Some people are totally fine with that, because they just want to make what they want to make and they don’t question the ethics. But that didn’t sit comfortably with me.”
She was training to be part of that scene, but she didn’t want to be part of it. She thought that working at Ercol, which makes well-designed furniture that is more affordable, more vernacular and functional, would align better with her values. But various aspects of that work jangled, too.
She’s quick to acknowledge that she’s pursuing a different path from many furniture design students. “Having studied on a bespoke furniture making course, you don’t do design for industry!” There are different standards and materials – the whole perspective is far more commercial. Having been trained to use hand tools, she was now designing for CNC production. It was also her first experience in a corporate environment. “Because my parents are both self-employed, it was my first experience of being in a pecking order. Also, the office environment – that was totally not me. So that was a bit of an education. A lot of positives came out of it, but it was a very tough year.”
A few weeks ago, Hattie and her family observed the 10th anniversary of her dad’s death. “When I had my exhibition last year…the last line of my thank you speech was ‘thanks mum and dad, for bringing me into the world.’” She’s grateful for opportunities her parents have given her. “My mum is very tough-love. In her not being a typical mum she’s made me more independent… It’s a silver lining of something that could be viewed as more negative.” She describes her dad, a quantity surveyor who worked with architects to calculate materials needed for given jobs, as “a man of real integrity. Very honest. He had a very big heart. Even in business, he had really good relationships with people he worked with. He had his own business, working in construction…but approached everything with a real sense of humor and playfulness and would always find ways of incorporating creativity into his days. I definitely wouldn’t have achieved as much as I have had he not been my dad, and had he not died. If you lose a parent when you’re younger you grow up quite quickly, and you also learn the value of life.”
I, for one, will be watching with interest where Hattie goes.
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.