The strange phenomena of memory can easily lull you into thinking that places and people you leave behind remain static – sadly, the news to shatter that illusion this time was the passing of David Savage in late January.
David owned and operated Rowden Workshops which is both his own fine furniture business and a woodworking school – the latter the reason my wife and I moved from Australia to north Devon for a year in 2014.
I didn’t know David better on average than any other student who has passed through the school over the decades, but I still feel an urge to share a few words because of his role in such a formative experience of my life.
From early high school, my education was heavily biased towards STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering & Maths) and this continued into my first career as an engineer. Having had practically no teaching in the creative arts or exposure to the design profession, my first real window and direct experience into this world was through David. I’ll be forever grateful to him for this fate as he helped fan the embers of a latent love and appreciation of design and the aesthetics, which I doubt would have grown in a more traditional learning environment.
When I met David on the first day of the course he was wearing one of his characteristically loud shirts and walking through the workshop and the yard in only his socks (usually equally loud) while muttering to his old Labrador. His demeanor at first didn’t quite marry with the idiosyncratic attire but this was shortly dispelled when he got up in front of the class and waxed lyrical about the art of fine furniture design and making. This was his domain and he relished the opportunity to speak to every aspect, from the (sometimes brutally) pragmatic, through to the intangible and diaphanous. Speaking with passion, openness and a unique head-rubbing whimsical flare, it was so refreshingly different that it opened me up to new way of seeing the world. For instance, David had a unique way of energetically personifying things to explain how we were trying to express some aspect of the human condition through our work. It was easy to sometimes lose focus and/or become cynical during such episodes of oration, but over time as he talked about the challenges he’d faced over his life – a stutter, broken marriages and bankruptcies – it added depth to his message, perhaps because if nothing else it demonstrated how the craft had kept him so enthused and provided an outlet of expression of his humanness.
When you combine this vignette of David with the devotion, expertise and heavy lifting of his teachers and the hands-on and hard-won application of what you’ve been taught at the bench, it’s clear in retrospect how I and many others got hooked on this craft.
Rowden Workshops – Now and the future
In my review of the school, one of the main critiques I had was that David didn’t capitalise to his full potential on design teaching when it came to more personal mentoring. Along with other students, I was often motivated by David’s talks about the qualities of good design and chasing the ever-retreating concept of “fineness” of fine furniture, but we were often left wanting for a more thorough interrogation of our own ideas and designs. Since then, I’ve learned the school has evolved. According to Ed Wild, my tutor at the time who continues to teach at Rowden, the school has been different in many ways for some years now. It appears there is more focus on individual design tuition, in addition to the continuing daily group presentations, and this is attested to by students from the school having gone on to win a range of awards at exhibitions. There is also now a more structured approach for the other aspects of the craft such as CAD classes, technical drawing and business tutorials with more teachers of specialisation. The school has also grown its infrastructure and amenity and so I can only imagine that this has yielded a more productive environment.
I hope the school continues to grow from strength to strength as it offers something truly valuable and rare. It never took long for most people to find the occasionally maddening side of David’s eccentricities, particularly for those who worked closely with him – but for all those frailties, I sincerely hope the school maintains a strong link to his legacy as someone who distinctly furthered the craft and inspired many to take up the plane and paintbrush.