Do woodworkers need the Furniture Society?
I recently attended my fourth Furniture Society conference, and as usual I left full of new ideas and inspiration, itching to get back out into my shop and be creative. But attendance was down significantly (below 400), and so is overall membership (below 1,000), and all of that can’t be pinned on a bad economy.
Frankly, I’m not surprised at the falloff.
I’ll give you my take. But I’d like to hear yours. What would convince you to join the group? Where should the group focus its efforts going forward? Let me know, and I’ll pass your thoughts along to the board. I might even join one of the group’s boards or committees and become your advocate there.
Here’s my take. I won’t pull punches. There are two basic types of furnituremakers: those who feel more comfortable building than designing, and prefer to copy or at least near-copy pieces they see in magazines and books; the other group likes building and problem-solving, too, but they want to design their own pieces. As the second type of woodworker, and one who is touched mostly deeply by contemporary designs, I have always had high hopes for the Furniture Society. And I’ve always enjoyed their annual conferences, being lucky enough to attend. The events offer a nourishing mix of high-end how-to and deep dives into the nature of our art and craft.
But the Society has always seemed schizophrenic to me, toggling between a longing for full membership in the art world and the fact that most members are woodworkers, people who don’t need to categorize what they do (art or craft!?), but just love to design and build beautiful furniture. Unfortunately (says me), the Society has favored the former group–unfortunate because the Society’s potential for growth lies with the latter group.
Here’s why: Furniture academics are few, and Masters students in the field of design come and go, but from our readership surveys at Fine Woodworking, I know there are at least 50,000 furniture-makers out there who favor contemporary design, preferring to attempt original work or at least re-interpret the classics in a significant way, as opposed to copying them. I can also estimate that at least 10% of that group make furniture for a living.
Also, if makers aren’t at the center, then who are the stars, who are the thought leaders? Academics and their students are full of ideas, and unencumbered by financial concerns they are able to challenge convention in a very important way. But I want to hear fom the Picassos and Monets out there, those whose work has struck a chord with people, those who have found a way to make a living. I want to know how they find inspiration, refine their designs, market their work. Like many serious woodworkers, I dream about being able to get paid for my art/craft, so I can devote more time to it, and the successful makers know how to do that.
There is a home for the most passionate fans of period furniture: It’s called the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM), and their name tells you all you need to know about them. They welcome academics, grad students, and antiques experts, but makers form the heart and soul of the group. You can also tell a lot about the two groups (SAPFM and The Furniture Society) from their publications.
SAPFM holds annual events, like the Furniture Society, but they realize not all members can attend, so they also produce publications and resources for their members, the main one being a glossy quarterly that focuses mostly on techniques. Makers need techniques. Members also have access to an array of furniture plans online. Reproduction makers need plans. You have to know who you are, and SAPFM does.
The Furniture Society has one annual publication, and only new members get it for free. It focuses mostly on the academic and art-based seminars at the annual conference. That gives it a small audience, and sure enough the Society is sitting on stacks of these past annuals, unsold. Instead of, for example, creating a design book, full of pictures of members’ best furniture, creating a sourcebook for potential buyers such as interior designers, and giving members fresh ideas and inspiration, the readers of Furniture Studio get mostly text, largely academic and stuffy.
If I ran the zoo, those essays and reports would go on the Web site, where they can find their small audience, and the annual publications would be design books, with some business advice mixed in from the Society’s many successful studio furniture makers. And I’d give it away to all members, and to any designers who ask for them.
What do you think? Check out the membership benefits on the Furniture Society’s Web site. Like all small non-profits, they have a very tight budget, so try to keep your ideas cost-effective.
Fine Woodworking magazine has a broad audience to keep happy, and we can’t focus solely on modern furniture, but The Furniture Society can. What can they do to become an organization that you want to join?
This year's Furniture Society Conference included the raucous and popular Strut Your Stuff evening session, where attendees had a chance to put their slides in the carousel and get instant feedback from the crowd.
The feedback is both humorous and hard-hitting, but the mood is always celebratory. Derrick Method was ready.
The Members Gallery is inspiring. Michael Cullen showed off his textured, painted, and burnished MDF surfaces.
Michael Puryear's bubinga and wenge cabinet has a powerful stance.
Andrew Pitts made his "Pedestal Cabinet" from cherry, white, oak, walnut and beech. The carving and door handles gave me great ideas.
Society members never fail to see furniture in new ways. Thomas Shields joined antique chairs to form a bench he calls "Family."