The end of skills?

Like most people I am reluctant to change, not actually opposed, but throwing out tried and tested methods in favour of the new and unproven can be difficult. In the field of furniture design and especially within manufacturing, development is ongoing and whilst we welcome developments that make life easier and improve the quality of our products, not all progress is necessarily an enhancement. Where we fully appreciate technological development is where it allows us to realise new and interesting constructions and quite often a new material or a variant can be the catalyst to designs that would previously have been impossible.

It is though quite apparent that much of technological development is about reducing the cost of manufacture not necessarily improving its quality or its design. Quite evidently much of mainstream product follows the celebrity policy, of a simple subject with superficially exciting finishes. Mass production of furniture has seen huge changes with the introduction of automated production lines, removing the need for traditionally skilled furniture makers, and creating a new breed of specialised programmers for the highly sophisticated computer controlled machinery. Whilst this has certainly increased productivity and also accuracy the immense cost of such machines requires that they maximise production and minimise down time, which can remove flexibility and variety.

What is now apparent in the furniture industry is that we have two very different sectors, one that has fully embraced new technologies and have developed a highly efficient production based business, which employs a few very highly skilled machine operators and a large number of semi-skilled staff to assemble a kit of parts or merely pack the parts. The second sector strives to retain the principals of design and craftsmanship producing small ranges and/or individual commissioned pieces. Here the influence of technology is less evident and its adoption is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Driven primarily by the requirements of design the desire to produce innovative products provides the impetus to incorporate new materials and seek out specialist companies that have the sophisticated equipment and skills in a wide range of disciplines.

There is an interesting dichotomy between the two sectors. The production line sector has seen a significant up-skilling of parts of its workforce to provide highly specialist single discipline operators. Yet in the bespoke market there has been a significant de-skilling not because of a lack of demand for the skills but the inability to find suitable staff. The industry has an ageing workforce with far to few young people entering and quite often of limited ability. This stems from the decimation of vocational courses in both schools and colleges over the last thirty years and results in many companies being unable to satisfy demand in either capacity or quality. It is hardly surprising therefore that more and more companies seek to replace skill with technology and whilst in some cases this provides new and exciting product it does appear in the main to result in product by ‘numbers’.

The ability to produce a beautiful piece of furniture with traditional techniques is still the mark of true craftsman and unfortunately the opportunities to do this are becoming less and less. The twin pressures of cost and timescale continually force us to look at new ways of producing products in less time and at less cost. Mdf has become the mainstay of much of modern construction, whilst it is a cheap alternative it to timber, it is still a fabulous material used to its best advantage. Strong and stable it provides an excellent base for veneering and has become the main material for carcase construction.

The technology of jointing is one were major change has taken place and continues to evolve and to a large extent it is the area that upsets me most. Being able to de-skill such a vital area by the use of simply fixings and sophisticated glues may reduce cost but it takes a great deal away from the integrity of the work. The ability to accurately cut two pieces of wood by hand so they interlock seamlessly is one of the truly timeless arts and yet it is a skill that is rapidly dying. The cost of hand dovetailing a drawer is significantly greater than by using a machine and in essence it is no less functional, but a beautiful crafted Georgian dovetail is a thing of beauty and a regularly machined dovetail is a soulless method of holding two bits of wood together. This is when the debate about furniture as a art comes to bear, should we do something merely because it looks good even if it provides no additional functionality or stability. How do we convince a customer to spend double to use joints and techniques that in the main they won’t notice?

The invention of applied films and direct printing that can replicate the effect of timber on cheaper material has given consumers the effect of wood without all the attendant costs of material wastage and preparation. The techniques now go way beyond the poor laminate facsimiles of kitchen worktops. The once bland lifeless grain patterns can from a distance easily resemble real wood and the advent of grain and texture have furthered improved the product. Whilst we would not advocate its use for bespoke products in general, the harsh environments of modern kitchens are certainly areas where these products come into there own. The consistent quality and economical use of material has certainly aided the ability of companies to mass-produce furniture at incredibly low prices.

There has been a great wave of inventive methods for quickly and easily jointing wood, from magnetic screws to plastic dovetails. The most ubiquitous of recent years has been the biscuit. We resisted this interloper for many years seeing it as merely a temporary method for constructing shopfittings and exhibitions. This highly compressed oval of beech has though won us over, it is like all products excellent for specific tasks and we use them extensively throughout the workshops, simplifying construction for carcases and reducing cost. The on-going development of related products is continually adding to opportunities for constructional development. It is a constant reminder that we must be open to new ideas as many of them have great merit.

Development is obviously a good thing and without it we would still be designing on slates rather than cad and preparing timber with an adze. I do though feel that we should be enhancing our environment with quality rather than quantity and where technology can help to achieve this we should all embrace it wholeheartedly.