A career as a furniture maker

 4 July 2013

Gareth Neal is a furniture designer and maker who rose to prominence for his traditional furniture with contemporary exteriors. He discusses his career and reflects on the furniture making industry.

"If you break it down and know what your outgoings are, there is no reason why you can't survive as a craftsperson."

Gareth’s furniture has been exhibited internationally in places such as the V&A and New York's Museum of Arts and Design. He also has commercial buyers outside of the crafts world, including the retail industry. 

Although he supplements his craft with teaching at the University of Brighton, making furniture is his primary career.

“When I’m in the studio, my mornings involve emailing, responding to press enquiries, sending out technical drawings for commissions and developing new work.   

“In the afternoons, I'm cabinet making or doing other woodwork.”  

Training in furniture making

“My journey began in school. I did woodwork, a little bit of metal work and art. I wasn't very academic, so it was a natural progression for me to take Photography, Design and Technology, and Art at A level.  

“I loved them all. However, I decided you can be an amateur photographer, but not an amateur woodworker.

"I didn't do a foundation course; I went straight into a degree in Furniture Design and Craftsmanship. 

"You can be an amateur photographer, but not an amateur woodworker."

"I wouldn't recommend specialising so soon to others if they don't know what they want to do. 

"A foundation course would be better to give a broad material experience, especially if you are into 3D work. 

"Every course has its positives and its negatives. Mine was not so good on business skills or design. But I came out with really good woodwork skills. 

"Now I teach on a broad materials course, which is fantastic. However, people doing these sorts of courses can be dependent on doing a Masters to get specialised, whereas my undergraduate degree was specialist in principle."   

Developing skills in furniture

"After I left university, I worked for a cabinet maker called Rupert Williamson for six months. 

"When I started to sell things, I rented a bench in a workshop, where I learned lots from just being in a shared space with highly experienced people. 

"This helped me to learn about the industry, in particular the importance of networking, attending events and being up on trends for your creative field."   

Getting financial support  

"At first I had no idea about financial assistance. Then a great opportunity for an exhibition came up and I got in touch with Business Link – now part of GOV.UK – which put me on a New Deal scheme

"A few people have consistently supported me: 80% of my business comes from 20% of my clients."

"This meant going on the dole, where the unemployment office helped me get a Princes Trust loan to make three objects for the exhibition.

"I sold these and went from there. I also won a few grants and awards from organisations such as Hidden Art.

"Entering competitions is always good because they raise your profile – even if you don't win."

Getting business support  

"Business Link provided lots of business plan guidance and forecasting. It was helpful to a certain extent. 

"However, organisations like Hidden Art provided really tailored support, which was more helpful. 

"When thinking about business planning, you can find hundreds of different business start-up guides online – it's hard to know which to choose. Design Nation and their business start-up guide is really good."

Key issues for the industry   

"Entering competitions is always good because they raise your profile – even if you don't win."

“A key issue for the industry is the role of hobbyists who don't need to make a living. They often undervalue their work, which makes it harder for those of us who live by our craft.

“Also, makers undercutting galleries and selling objects at two different prices is another issue. We need to work with galleries, not cut them out.”  

Tips for making it in furniture design  

1. Take it seriously 

"Try and get as much experience as possible. Look at objects. Go to exhibitions. Be business minded, but do it because you love it."  

2. Have another income source

"Creating a career is very hard. I get stable income from teaching. In my experience, selling through galleries provides an erratic and irrational income.

"It is very important to have a bread and butter range that is affordable to buy. This can sustain the more creative stuff.  When the creative stuff sells, that's great too, but this tends to be less reliable."

3. Be business minded

"I've learned the lessons the hard way. For years I was struggling, popping my head out of a vast sea of debt for what felt like very brief breaths. 

"If you break it down and know what your outgoings are, there is no reason why you can't survive as a craftsperson.  It's not a doom situation. More people buy craft than buy art – there is a huge marketplace for it."

4. Find your clients

"A few people have consistently supported me: 80% of my business comes from 20% of my clients. 

"That's mainly commissions, but I also sell through galleries, auctions and fairs, like 100% Design, Tent and Collect.

"I work with sustainable principles, which ups my price. There is no point in me competing with cheap furniture produced in South America, so I target clients that buy into sustainability."  

Visit Gareth Neal's website for more information about his furniture.

Are you a furniture designer? What would your advice be?


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