My year-long fine furniture designer-maker course has come to an end. It has been one of the best years of my life – but that doesn’t make it immune to criticism. Below is my critique of the school followed by David’s response. Rather than entering into a lengthy ongoing rolling debate, it will be left up to you, the reader, to make your own judgement.
“So how did you hear about the course?” was one of the questions put to me as part of a piece of marketing material in this YouTube clip David put up for the school. “Google” was my simple answer. I would’ve liked to have given a more intellectual response, but truth be told it was exactly that. In fact, it was actually my wife who found the course online and before I knew what was happening, I was having a Skype interview with David. I then found an ex-student who has his own successful company called Bark Furniture, and asked for a testimonial. Based on the strength of those two pieces of due diligence, and not much more, we uprooted from Australia to commit to a more than a year overseas in the UK.
You could easily argue that I could have done more research or considered more options – this review is my way of trying to give others who are interested the information I would’ve liked to have known.
Would I recommend the course? Yes.
Perhaps that’s all you need to know to tip you over the edge. However, many of my positive feelings are interlinked with aspects that aren’t directly tied to the quality of the course. The context of my situation bears some consideration as this without doubt taints my disposition. Consider how you might feel going from working in a city office for six years, looking at a screen for eight hours and standing on a crowded bus for 2.5 hours each day, to then move to the North Devon countryside where you get to ride to work along arguably one of the most beautiful cycle ways there is – you then arrive at the workshop where you are encouraged and supported to use your hands and imagination to make wonderful objects. I’ve written at length in previous blog posts about the wellbeing that arises from this type of shift in work type, so it was important for me to understand this bias when trying to distill out the quality of the course alone.
The good stuff.
Let´s begin with an opinion that’s not mine but someone who might know a thing or two about not just woodworking but more specifically woodworking schools. Chris Schwarz is one of the leading figureheads in contemporary woodworking. Former editor of Popular Woodworking magazine in the US, he now owns and runs his own publishing house that focuses solely on woodworking. Chris is also a designer-maker and runs his own short courses in various woodworking schools around the world.
On a recent trip to the UK where he taught his Anarchist Tool Chest course in partnership with David´s school, he gave a strong endorsement of what the school was doing. “They push students to do a high level of work that is rarely seen today,” he said. “They prepare students for a lifetime of making with classes in handwork, machine work, drawing, design and business… If you are looking to design and make furniture, it’s worth the trip. It’s worth the money. It’s worth your time.”
The high level of work is something that without doubt I can confirm. If you let the teachers push you and you’re not afraid of honest feedback, then you’ll achieve not just great making but, more importantly, great designs. For those with serious undertakings to become designer-makers, it’s the designs that will be the make or break of your success. And this is where the strength of the course really lies – the quality of the teaching.
Daren is the head teacher and maker at the school and he taught the other teacher, Ed Wild – who I also had direct experience with – over six years ago. I found both to have an unwavering commitment to quality of the craft. Very quickly you learned to calibrate what was acceptable and what wasn’t, and this only further increased the satisfaction of getting it right. I found, however, that the most important quality of their teaching was how they challenged you on your designs and made you thrash out details until you hit the mark.
Daren has made so many pieces of fine furniture and studied other designer-makers to know what is fine and what isn’t and so often it’s this esoteric quality of ‘fineness’ that we are chasing in our work. His ability to quickly sketch out ideas in perspective never ceases to impress and this combined with his deep understanding of the mechanics of the craft gives you that rare and valuable confidence you need as a novice maker.
Ed, while not having as much making experience as Daren, has not only the same level of discipline for fine tolerances in craftsmanship but also teaches from the angle of a designer-maker as he has his own successful business and knows first-hand how much effort, despairing iteration and hair-pulling is required to get it right. Unlike Daren, he has much less filter and will tell you much more readily if you’re design looks crap, which can be refreshing – in the same way as a cold shower.
Most of my interactions with David were usually in group teaching formats, which were generally useful, if sometimes a little verbose. Outside of those sessions I found David to be an amicable person who was easy to talk to. Separate to his character, I found it to be a continual source of inspiration to be working at David’s school, to learn about both his career and how his career fits into the broader history of the craft. You get a true sense the school is embedded firmly into the roots of the craft.
A couple of notable highlights.
- The workshop is open 24/7 (except the machine room which is only open normal working hours) so you can put in as many hours at the bench as you like. Having a partner who worked in an adjacent town meant it wasn’t practical for me to live on site but many did and they benefited all the more from the easy access.
- David holds one or two ‘open days’ per year which are extremely valuable opportunities to meet people from the industry and listen to their insights and experiences.
- Most days at the 10:30 tea break David or one of the other teachers will present for half an hour on all things woodworking, design theory and business theory.
- When David has a commission being made in the school, it’s a great insight into how high-end challenging pieces can be made. It helps keep the teachers up to date with their making skills too, which they clearly enjoy.
The ‘could be improved’ stuff
Rather than listing out lots of small petty things, I want to focus on two large areas I believe pack the most punch when affecting the overall course quality:
- Design teaching
The notable exception when earlier talking about the quality of the design teaching was David himself. Let me say from the outset that there wasn’t anything particularly bad, the worst thing is that the school’s design teaching could be so much stronger, and easily so.
David encourages students to see him with their designs and ideas, and I did this on a couple of occasions. The short discussions proved useful, but they weren’t deep interrogations like they needed to be and I think David could’ve been more confident when expressing his thoughts.
Students are often coming to the school with little or no understanding of design. Some of the daily presentations are aimed at providing introductory understandings to the fundamental concepts of design, and are for the most part a good start, but when students have an idea at hand that they want to make into a piece of fine furniture, they need a huge amount of work to get it to a standard that both the student and the school would be proud of. Too often this task falls mostly to Darren and Ed to do, which while they do a very good job, David, with his fine art education, 35 years experience and world-renown designs could do even better.
What´s needed is a highly structured program that each student follows from concept through to detailed design that helps massage and refine the idea into something that is indeed ‘fine furniture’. The first six months of making has this structure, but the support level ends abruptly when it comes to arguably the most important stage – design. This will need time invested from David which I´m unsure he has, or would like to give. Which leads me to my second point.
I´m quick to lament my previous corporate career, and mostly unfairly so probably, but one of the many good things I have since learned to appreciate is how important culture is to the effectiveness of a workplace. Culture is hard to define fully, but everyone can appreciate a good one and a bad one. Large companies respect the effect of good culture but small companies are often too busy with the minutia of keeping the company running to see the forest for the trees.
In David´s case, this meant that the culture was in many ways weak and somewhat transient, often being heavily affected by the one or two students with domineering personalities. David is approaching the end of his career and unfortunately it doesn’t take long after starting at the school for this to show in the time or energy he has to invest in the school. Not long before I started, he moved his bench into his own building where he is completely physically removed from students. I can understand this desire for quiet separation for many reasons but it has isolated him from the day to day dynamics of the school and also eroded his position as head of the school.
Culture quickly wobbles if it’s not kept in check day to day with a strong figurehead and unfortunately David is not fulfilling this role effectively. This means that rather than spending time teaching woodworking, it’s left to Daren and Ed to try to navigate what the right culture is. Without a strong culture and set of standards, the school’s positive atmosphere lacks robustness to withstand problem students. David being isolated from the daily dynamic doesn’t help by often caving into unrealistically demanding students (who are often on short courses), who waver dramatically from the syllabus and in doing so put a huge burden on the teachers who have to bend over backwards to make it work. I saw this happen several times and each time it significantly increased the tension through the whole school, seemingly unbeknownst to David.
If the culture was strong then I wouldn’t feel like anything more to say, however the number of students being accepted each quarter seems to be rising from the stated three to four to five or six. The school, I feel, is already operating at maximum capacity, and often above – particularly when David has a big commission in the workshop or a short course class is under way. So much of the important making skills I learnt in the early months were a result of regular, spontaneous teacher input. With a 40 per cent increase in students this valuable asset is very much diminished.
To summarise, I want to reiterate that I would recommend the course and that I want the school and for David to continue its success and its deserved reputation as one of the premier schools in the world. This review is to help manage exceptions of potential students and to hopefully improving the quality of the course through better informed students asking the right questions of the school.
David’s Response (unedited)
Thank you Paul for the comments, both praise and criticism. We are always moving to evolve and improve at Rowden, and improvement often comes from listening to honest comments. The problem with a web review of this nature is that it is a shot at an evolving moving target and will remain current on the web years after history passes it by. But, its still helpful. In response can I say your comments on culture are helpful. Firstly at 66 I have no intention of retiring or removing myself from the workshops. I have a new studio but that is twelve paces from Darens bench. I am delegating lots of stuff to great, often Rowden trained makers, just so the culture is strong. My role is to be here as an artist making and selling at the top of the market and hopefully inspiring young people to have the courage to do what you have done. Yes, I could be more clear on culture, its not my style to tell people how to behave, maybe I should. Yes we have learnt NOT to allow students on three month courses to go “off piste” This happened by following our culture of enabling you to make what YOU want. It was on reflection a mistake that is not happening again.
We have a culture of technical and professional competence that is tight and well defined. This is clear, we also have culture that is loose and baggy this is the very nature of the creative side. We could easily structure a second six months that would be filled with pre determined solutions. We don’t do that. We say O K what do YOU want to make, you have some skills now, and we can support you in your decisions. I do not think you Paul took full advantage of the design tutorial sessions we had when you were here. And you found it easier to go to Ed or Daren for design criticism . You cannot say I wasn’t here, or unavailable to see and help you. Having said that, there is always more that I could do, and I am always willing to try and get this better . Getting people developing their design potential, the loose and baggy, is always going to be more challenging, but its what we at Rowden have always attempted to do. Its what makes us different.
Your piece incorrectly suggests that we are growing without also growing our teaching staff . You make no mention of Jon Greenwood, a great maker and patient teacher, who has been with us over year now. No mention of Phil Mayle our Digital Artist who runs a 14 week design tuition program and a 16 week Computer Aided Design both in small groups of 4 students. No mention of Rachel Hudson our administrator whose arrival has allowed me the freedom, now, to tackle many aspects that you raise. We are also budgeting for another maker tutor, still to be appointed. This will keep our student teacher ratio slightly better than the best, Cambridge University. Also you don’t mention because you would not know that we are planning to open a post graduate studio with its own machine shop for three small businesses to develop here under our mentoring. Oh, and one last thing .. a Design Studio , Photography set up permanently, three marquetry donkeys, life drawing studio permanently set up, four Apple i Macs permanently set up for CAD Cam training.
I hope you both have a great time when you get back to Australia. Keep in touch and contact me if i can be of any help
with kind regards