An amended version of a talk given to the Northern Contemporary Furniture Makers
29 October 2011
The bigger picture: history
Chris suggested I talk on ‘The impending crisis – a furniture maker’s response’, but I have retitled it, to absolve myself of the responsibility of saying anything too useful, ‘Every crisis has a silver lining’.
The play on words is of course intended, and less comforting than it might first appear: the silver lining is both the proverbial one and, by way of (perhaps unfair) example, the well known furniture-making company of the designer-maker sort, which, apparently, and I would say symptomatically, feels no need to join associations such as this, or as its nation-wide fellow, DMOU, or FDMA.
I know nothing much about Silver Lining, but I do see that their website says that they create furniture – and I
quote – “for superyachts [don’t bother applying if yours is just a yacht], embassies, museums and private residences worldwide”. William Morris, where are you? Do your customers (clients?) describe their homes as their ‘private residences’?
Well, enough of this. I don’t wish to pick on them, and it may be that my picture is out of touch with their actual fortunes. I’m trying to illustrate something about public presentation and marketing.
When Chris asked if I might give this talk I initially hesitated, wondering whether I had anything to say that could not be picked up elsewhere, and I should begin by saying that I have absolutely no expertise in the economic or political arena. I simply look around me and wonder which way the wind blows and what effects it might have on us as furniture designer-makers.
I might instead have titled this talk ‘The Direction of Travel’. What I wish to convince you of is that the world around us is not something inherently stable, subject to ups and downs but returning sooner or later to the norms and practices we know. We do tend, as we write our business plans and financial projections for the next five or ten years, with the strategy for weathering the recession and then for exploiting the ‘post-recession opportunities’, to assume that there is a background state, old comforts to which we will, at some point, return. In my view there is a direction of travel, it is less civilised than we wish to recognise, our trajectory is accelerating, and we will not be going back to the past.
Back to the present and to the crisis: nobody says any more “Crisis, what crisis?”, as James Callaghan
|James Callaghan tells it how it is|
famously did not say (well, not quite) in those far-off, cosy days when the IMF had to bail out just individual countries, not the whole, globalised, tottering financial system. Crisis is the new normal. We know we are living in one: we just – rather like the residents of San Francisco – expect it never to implode, or at least not to happen this week. We’re here still, still making furniture – well, some of us to judge from reports from the recession-hit north that have recently been received down at FDMA. But, in general, there’s always a new fix in sight, a new global rescue plan about to be unveiled once the French and Germans have settled their
|Sarkozy and Merkel make it up|
disagreements. We still seem to be waiting on that duo. But, despite Sarkozy telling Cameron in the past few days “You missed a good opportunity to shut up”, Cameron is tight – we’re n this too. Meanwhile the dealers, the bondholders, the financial analysts (much the same cast playing multiple roles) are always saying it’s not enough. But there’s always another fix just around the corner – for the time being. It seems actually that the latest fix is going to be only a two-year or so fix to create a period in which it can be decided which European banks are going to be allowed to go bust and which saved. And for bond-holders and bankers to organise their positions for maximum profit.
And the strange thing is that we still find the prospect of these fixes comforting, even though we increasingly realise that we are the ones who are going to pay a high price for them. In Greece they feel a little differently
|Greek exchange of views|
and perhaps we shall too, in time. But meanwhile, we are like the politicians – too scared to tinker with a system on which we depend and which is on the brink of collapse.
Optimism looks increasingly shaky. European banks are clearly set for a sorting of the sheep and the goats, in recent weeks the large Franco-Belgian bank Dexia has had to be nationalised by unsuspecting taxpayers (it was close to collapse in 2008) and as the Financial Times remarks, “the fear is that it is the canary in the
|Dexia on ice|
coalmine” – it may have been lucky to get its rescue claim in early. The US is faltering with its property market still sinking, unemployment stubbornly high and now rising. the peripheral European countries are incapable of meeting their debts or of resisting yet further ‘bail-out’ loans and predatory privatisation packages: their austerity packages are enough to enrage their citizens but insufficient to satisfy their would-be rescuers or their creditors. International trade imbalances are as high as ever (the Chinese are recurrently
|The way they (some of them)live in China|
spoken of as the hoped for new rescuers of Greece – and of Europe beyond – of course they already effectively own the US economy, but now they look a little shaky themselves, with their own problems as well as their reliance on the markets of the declining West).
|Chinese trade flows|
But the Chinese know the solutions to our European woes. Recently the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund told us that “The root cause of the trouble is the over-burdened welfare system, built up since the Second World War in Europe – the sloth-inducing, indolence-inducing labour laws. People need to work harder, they need to work a bit longer, and they should be more innovative. We work like crazy.” He must have been talking to David Cameron, and the IMF, who share his prescription.
The current European rescue package is like something in a fairground hall of mirrors – at one point too small, then grotesquely enlarged by leverage, then slimmed down again as those who would have to put up the funds seek to argue that less and less is actually needed. However, as we read in our newspapers, they’ve got there now.
Yet it does increasingly looks as if it is in Europe that things are beginning to unravel (that the world will have its new ‘Lehman’s moment’) as the United States government has begun rather stridently to warn. Unrescueable Greek, Irish, Portuguese and now (to everyone’s dread) Spanish, Italian and Belgian debt –
brings into the light the parlous and deliberately hidden insolvent state of national and international banking. So we pile in more money, and all that money (trillions already) is unavailable for the productive economy, and for the consumption of stuff like furniture.
There is of course a world beyond, where people who already spend 70 or 80 per cent of their income on food are simply incapable of coping with something approaching a doubling of the price of staple foods.
Let me step back for a moment into a historical perspective. This isn’t the end of capitalism, but it may be the end of the current phase of it. The dynamics of capitalism are not about to be denied if our particular manifestation of it reaches a point of collapse. Collapse is part of capitalism, as western nations used to know before 1939, but we have since exported the experience to the developing world. Nothing lasts for ever, and capitalism, by virtue of its essentially expansionary nature is inherently unstable. The bicycle goes faster and faster until eventually the rider falls off. We all know that societies are complex and unmanageable systems, and that they do collapse through the weight of their own internal instabilities, perhaps accentuated by a change in some aspect of their external circumstances, which may have been thought quite insignificant. It is the ability of the social organisation to cope with or exploit those changes that fails. And such failures of societies usually take place when some part of them reaches unprecedented heights, draining or subverting
|New heights - capital|
the capacity of the rest of society to flourish. The society appears to be attaining new levels of achievement just as it is at the point of collapse. The plant flowers gloriously, fades, seeds and dies. Our own society may be at such a point. Not only has our globalised financial system grown in just a few decades to such a size and complexity that it is now in danger of collapse through any small perturbation, but our society as a whole has reached unprecedented heights of technological achievement out of balance with the natural world from which it springs. The accelerating concentrations of enormous wealth and power in a small social elite may be signs, not of new dynamism and potentialities, but of impending collapse.
To return to more recent history: our present bike ride, of dramatically growing wealth in the developed countries, began in the nineteenth century with the industrial revolution of genuinely new and more efficient modes of production. It was fuelled first by the exploitation of cheap labour and new forms of energy; it was
|New depths - labour|
stoked up by the exploitation, on an unprecedented scale, of natural, mainly non-renewable, physical resources. The western economies expropriated the resources and labour of the colonised or settled territories. In effect it was free fuel for the capitalist engine. We didn’t have to pay for it: we simply seized it
|Congo Free State|
from nature – or from natives. As the colonised territories gained formal, if not effective, independence and the natural resources ran down, the system was rebooted in the late twentieth century by a western dominated system of international trade that we now call globalisation, entrenched and enforced by democratically unaccountable international agreements and organisations. It amounts to a kind of ‘colonialism lite’. International trade between independent states, especially as conducted by transnational corporations, was quite deliberately turned into a system to transfer wealth from poor to rich nations.
That was the system that underpinned at first the remarkable growth in the standard of living in western societies that prevailed until a decade or two ago, and brought about the society and economy in which we, as designer-makers, can sell expensively, individually made furniture to our comfortably off (not even
|Mitre chair by John Makepeace|
necessarily conspicuously rich) fellow citizens. The British Craft Furniture revival is a child of its time – o the late nineteen sixties and seventies. It could not have happened in other decades. It needed the historical moment as well as the man.
Paralleling the international system of globalised trade (from which we have benefitted) was, and still is, another system (from which, ultimately, we are not likely to benefit) of the financialisation of capitalist economies. This it was that turbo-charged the system just as globalisation was beginning to hit the buffers. Those buffers being the dissent of developing countries whose economic mass was too great for the western world to ignore their realisation that they did not have to accept terms of trade constantly weighted against them in favour of the western world.
Financialisation is built upon the foundation of the long-established system of fractional reserve banking, whereby the vast majority of money in circulation is created not by governments but by commercial banks, which are authorised to create money as debt in large multiples of the funds they hold as reserves. The
system requires a constant expansion since the money created is only the capital of the debt, but it has to be repaid with interest. As the money for the interest is not created in the issuance of the loan it has to come from subsequently created debt-money and so on, indefinitely and increasingly. The banks are enriched as the system expands. That may sound complicated but, as the economist J K Galbraith observed, ‘The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled.’
|J K Galbraith|
Financialisation gains added vigour and a new dimension, or a new order of magnitude, with the realisation that vast nominal profits can be made through complex financial trades related to, but not constrained in volume by, physical or near physical commodities – property, minerals, energy sources, food, anything that could be bought, sold, insured, hedged, securitised – traded anyhow In the past few decades financial interests have secured the virtual abolition of all state regulation or restriction of these trades, which have
grown to exceed, by orders of magnitude, trades directly related to physical need or consumption. Even manufacturing companies now may make the bulk of their profits from financial trading. And financial corporations in total have liabilities several times the size of their host nations’ gross domestic products. It is all of course meant to balance itself out and In a well-ordered world that might be workable, but, because the ‘asset’, the ‘security’, the thing of value on which the financial instrument is based, has become, not just so small in relation to the financial trades built upon it, but so complex, so divided, so conditional upon other ownerships or on externalities, and because the greater the complexity and obscurity the greater are the possibilities of profit, it has become difficult for assets to be soundly valued, or even for ownership to be clearly defined and limited. In the Us nobody really knows who now owns vast numbers of houses when the original owner defaults on the mortgage. In such a financial environment the possibility not only of failure in one area but of that failure triggering systemic collapse grows, largely unseen, until it becomes inevitable. That was what happened with the ‘credit crunch’ in 2007/8. Since then banks and finance houses have been patched up with both direct and indirect public subsidy and put back on the road. The process of course still continues; the bolstering of insolvent banks is the purpose of imposed public austerity and asset sales. Neither the structure nor behaviour of banks has been reformed by regulation or significant change of personnel. Despite every commentator and politician saying it is the opposite of what we need for survival, there is now more debt and more complexity in the financial world than there was in 2007, but of course vast quantities of debt have been transferred from the banks to nations and the mass of their citizens.
That alarms politicians, but doesn’t prevent them taking bank directorships on retirement or electoral defeat, appointing bankers to political or governmental office, or employing financial insiders as government consultants – in fact it encourages all that because politicians see no alternative means to run the economy. It is too complicated for any but those inside it to try to manage it. Yet ultimately financial interests are acquiring economic assets and political control to the detriment not just of tax-paying, voting citizens, but to the disadvantage of much corporate as well as governmental interest. Like all greed-driven developments, it contains the seeds of its own destruction, and in one sense that process is highly ironic. Our capitalist, supposedly free-market economy has been so successful in concentrating wealth and reward in a small number or corporations and individuals, whose power has so thoroughly infiltrated governments and administrations, imposing an orthodoxy of ideas and interests, that our economy now, at one level, resembles the command economies of the old Soviet block – and we know what happened to those. Actually the parallel is more closely with modern China, because below the narrow orthodoxy of those who direct our economy we have the uncontrolled cutthroat competition of rival commercial interests.
This process has resulted in vast nominal profits for financial interests without the creation of wealth in society. Finance is an extractive industry, like gold mining or petroleum drilling, and we are facing resource
depletion there as well. We have reached ‘peak credit’ just as much as ‘peak oil’. Finance has no product; it creates no wealth for society. It does serve to facilitate industry and commerce but it has rapidly (since the 1980s) left that behind as a small sideshow. When Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England described much of commercial banking as ‘casino banking’, he was not intending to write a headline for the Sun. He meant what he said: there is no product, no service, no wealth created, simply wealth abstracted and concentrated in the hands of a few. It is taken for granted that the chief executives even of those banks on the brink of collapse should be paid tens of millions a year, and that when the functionaries of the IMF and the ECB fly in to some ‘peripheral’ country to discuss the imposition of yet more public austerity it is appropriate for them to stay in five star hotels.
And yet the means proposed to achieve the ever larger bailouts required is now, more credit – on an international level. There is not the money available to bail out the banks on the scale now required and the solution proposed is to ‘leverage’ the IMF’s resources. First the commercial banks, then the nations, then the international funds. What next?
So wealth is being abstracted through a process of rent-seeking, from the general economy and the population at large, and concentrated increasingly in the hand of a small, exceptionally rich minority – a minority whose life styles, concerns and physical existence are separate from the societies within which it lodges. In the end these people are separate because they are afraid. You can find the startling statistics about this accelerating concentration of wealth very easily. For several decades after the Second World War
real wages in developed countries have not increased as previously they did. Corporate profits as well as finance-based fortunes, however, have increased. That seemingly impossible combination has been achieved by a massive extension of credit supplied to consumers so that they can continue to buy commercial goods. For the financial institutions this arrangement has the obvious added benefit that people pay interest on credit, though not on their wages. In fact, to compensate for the cost of credit to the consumer, a growing political pressure arises to cap or reduce state taxes so that the state is deprived of monetary resources as the financial institutions are flooded with it. How often do we hear these days that raising taxes is not politically possible? (Hence the motive for governments to introduce, and oppositions to unmask so-called ‘stealth taxes’.) How often do we observe that whilst there may (just) be public finance for glamorous infra-structure of value to corporate society (fibre optic broadband or high speed trains) there is none to maintain the local park that some Victorian magnate gifted to the people of his town?
In the 1950s large countries in the English countryside were often all but unsalable. They were knocked
down as architectural dinosaurs that no-one had the means to keep up. Others were sold for ridiculously low prices or suffered the indignity of conversion into schools or old people’s homes. Today such houses constitute the most resilient sector of the property market – Parnham is once again what Silver Lining would
|Parnham House - a private residence|
call a ‘private residence’. That tells us something about the concentration of wealth over the past several decades.
In some ways we are going back in historical time on more than one trajectory simultaneously. We are returning to the circumstances of early modern Europe (14th and 15th centuries) when emerging nation states depended upon private financial backing to wage war, consolidate administration, or expand overseas. Looking at it another way, we are returning to pre-Victorian Britain when the state had yet to take over from private commercial interests (or from complete neglect) such functions as policing, education, energy supply, sanitation, postal services, which we have grown up to think of as public gods rather than corporate profit centres.
The concentration of wealth depresses the economy generally because financial resources are increasingly placed in the hands of individuals who have relatively little need by volume for the mundane manufactures and
services that keep ordinary people employed and paid – and hence able themselves to buy the products of the economy. Assets inflate; the productive economy declines. The whole economy becomes sclerotic. The super-rich are the last to feel it but it comes to them eventually. But meanwhile the rich can indulge their
|Mr Abramovich's yacht - one of them|
appetites for land, football teams, castles, yachts, diamonds, fast cars, and expensive, very expensive furniture.
|Expensive furniture - by Silver Lining|
The smaller picture: history
My practical advice, as far as I have any, as the storm gathers, might be to get local, concentrate on your community. If your community happens to be international bankers and Russian oligarchs, that’s fine. But don’t imagine you can just go knocking on their doors. The luxury goods market flourishes conspicuously
|Keith Richards gets satisfaction from Louis Vuitton|
now as other commercial and industrial sectors decline. This is the silver lining. Some, but not many furniture makers sell to it. Until our system does implode, it will be the only market that is growing, because it is the only consumer sector where purchasing power is increasing, whilst that of the comfortably but inconspicuously well-off, to which many of us have been happily, if rather precariously, selling our furniture for the past twenty or thirty years, overcoming, without too much of an exercise of bad faith, the scruples that troubled the socialist idealist in William Morris – whilst that sector will steadily decline, on the lower edge of luxury.
That decline was confirmed in the recent organisers’ report on the furniture designer-maker exhibitions held over the past three years at the Millinery Works in London:
|The Arts and Crafts legacy|
"Sadly, though, [they reported] the sales seem to reflect the state of the economy and the huge drop in confidence of the buying public over the last 2 years. ...Having said that, we seem to be in a climate where the very wealthy are not that worried and are still spending whereas the middle income families are really feeling the pinch."
That pinch is being felt by the people from whom most of us have drawn our core market. We increasingly take mental solace from the fact that the very wealthy, like the poor, are always with us and the drift of the design work of the most regarded amongst our members is towards that market. Some exhibition organisers think they have to move their pitch further in that direction, whilst others go for hedging their bets with a few star collectable pieces surrounded by the modest coffee tables, mirrors and boxes with their more digestible price tags. Most of us, however, have not the temperament, the opportunity or the skills to access the seriously rich market. Increasingly the very wealthy do not attend such places as the Millinery Works or visit our websites. They inhabit a different world. Those who want to sell to the seriously rich have to do so on
|They live apart|
their terms and in their style – they live apart. Like Gucci, Kurt Geiger, Louis Vuitton, one is joining the luxury goods trade. It is a world away from the comfortably-off taking a friendly and educated interest in your struggle to achieve a conscious realisation of the ‘Arts and Crafts legacy’ – and it is why there is no silver lining in FDMA.
|Gimson cabinet - now in a museum, not a private residence|
The world is changing around us, as distinctly as it was four decades ago when the social-economic conditions developed that fostered the British 'craft furniture revival' on which most of us have ridden since. Our own little world has peaked. What we are doing with our collective promotion seems to me like fiddling while Rome burns and wondering whether our bow-work is as good as it might be.
Meanwhile established furniture designer makers increasingly supplement their income from actually selling furniture by selling professional training so that aspiring designer makers can join an already over-supplied economic field. Strangely, those who sell such training usually manage to present themselves as, and probably genuinely believe they are, acting for the general good, providing as we like to put it, to political applause, ‘training opportunities’. It seems to me to be a society as forlornly looking outwards, as the Easter Islanders.
|Easter Islanders looking out for the next big thing|
The bigger picture: quality
Is this new world of the very rich really so different, so detached from our own?
A whole system of international financial opacity (in the City of London and the state of Delaware as well as in the Cayman Islands and Lichtenstein) has been built to protect these wealthy individuals and anonymous trusts from the unwelcome attentions and tax claims of national governments. There the rich rub shoulders, or numbered bank accounts, with Russian oligarchs of criminal origins and corrupt dictators yet to be toppled. We are not exactly a mafia state like Russia – we wouldn’t like to see our journalists shot on the streets – but we are happy to have oligarchal money (not just to rescue football clubs and newspapers) and will gladly visit the yacht to arrange it, catching up on those contacts we made advising Russia and Eastern Europe on the privatisations that impoverished their public and created their new dysfunctional social order.
The system protects corporate wealth as well, and the extent to which mainstream corporate interests have escaped state control not just in impoverished African countries but in the nations of the west (and escaped any lingering wish or ability our governments might have to raise taxes to foster the old middle class economy in which we grew up) and the extent to which they have linked their fortunes with crime and corruption is quite staggering. It is soberly accepted that certainly major US banks (and probably others) have, over sustained periods, knowingly laundered hundreds of billions of dollars of drug money. Wachovia Bank in the US (now absorbed into Wells Fargo) was recently fined a few hundred million dollars – but not formally
prosecuted – for such practices. Indeed some observers believe that in the immediate aftermath of the credit crunch illegal drug money was the only source of funds that kept some banks going and that they actively sought it. And when RBS and Lloyds had to be rescued by the British tax-payer and their under-performing assets taken into public ownership under the Asset Protection Scheme (i.e. protection from going bust), the Public Accounts Committee reported that “Two of the UK's major banks could not provide basic information on their assets and sufficient assurance that their assets were not linked to fraud or other criminal activity.”
So remember that next time you have to take along your three forms of identity and utility bills to prove you are not a money launderer when you wish to deposit a few hundred pounds of cash one of your customers has given you.
Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, who famously declared the bank was ‘doing God’s work’ – one can see what he meant – was a natural bedfellow with the recently late Munamar Gaddafi. Both extort wealth from
|Lloyd Blankfein makes it up|
society and it was entirely appropriate when Goldman Sachs lost 98 per cent of an investment from the Libyan Sovereign Wealth Fund that Lloyd Blankfein personally should have authorised the issue of preferential shares in the bank to the Libyan government.
of resource depletion – this is the Rio Grande, and a crisis of energy supply – even if non-fossil sources have
the capacity, which some doubt, to meet our present demands, we scarcely have the time now to develop them before fuel scarcity seriously disrupts our economy and deprives us of the opportunity to make the change. We need fossil fuels, and major investment, to create the non-fossil fuel economy.
|El Paso - a dry state|
But it is, I would guess, the financial implosion that is likely to provide the trigger for radical change – though it may be the deeper problems of climate and resources that will prevent us from fully recovering from the damage. Nothing lasts for ever. Associated with the financial unravelling will be political changes, internationally as relative power shifts away from the west, and popular unrest topples western backed
|Abdullah and Bush make it up|
autocrats (how long for the House of Saud?), and domestically as political elites finally realise that their survival depends on their separating their interests from those of the financial elites. Or as new, more strident, political leaders come to the fore. It will be a messy, painful and much delayed process.
Although the relationship between political and financial interests is thoroughly incestuous, in Europe and the US, bankers are appointed to run state treasuries, banks fund any political party that has a chance of office, politicians accept remunerative positions in commercial banks as soon as they can get away with it, the two have not until recently quite coincided. You cannot, as an ambitious young man, aspire to be both Bob Diamond and Tony Blair (or even David Cameron), or Lloyd Blankfein and Barack Obama. At least not at
|Bob Diamond makes it up|
the same time. They are different coal-faces, albeit that the miners at each work in constant hope of breaking through. That is why they have to indulge in such absurdities as Bilderberg, where, behind the shower curtains, the tinted glass and the riot police, the genuinely powerful rub shoulders with B list world dominators.
Nation states have been described as ‘virulent’ survivors, allowing group prejudice, selfishness, irrationality and inefficiency to survive into a world of enlightenment and managerial competence: our problems might be solved or at least relieved if they could be submitted to the calm efficiency of international corporations (so obviously much more successful than national governments) and international governing bodies like the IMF,
|Hail the WTO|
the WTO. But those international corporations or organisations are only successful because they are following narrow sectional interests; nation states, even ‘undemocratic’ ones, are organisations that seek to balance (though certainly not always successfully) conflicting interests within society. The decline of the nation state, not just the so-called ‘failed states’ of Africa, but European states ceding powers to those opaque and unaccountable institutions of the EU, or the United States losing powers of taxation and regulation to trans-national corporations. This decline is not only retrograde in terms of the public good but also in terms of social sustainability.
Globalisation, I believe will collapse as it comes to be seen to disadvantage not just the developing economies but increasingly the newly vulnerable ones of the west – and as rising energy prices make it less economic to ship balloons and party poppers half way round the world.
The smaller picture: quality
So I would say there are big changes coming – not comfortable, but perhaps, in the longer term, not for the worse. I don’t suppose I would be any good at guessing when or quite how. How long is the longer term? It might well outlast as and allow us to struggle on much as we do now, but I don’t think it is going to get any easier for us in our particular section of the market place. It is probably not individually healthy (despite my having been doing it here) to devote too much personal energy to divining the way the world is going – unless you want to run an international investment bank (and I think there are more ex-bankers making furniture than ex-furniture-makers running banks).
However, this account does partly explain my aversion to what was not long ago described on the FDMA Forum as the ‘super-human’ immaculatist tendency in furniture designer making. There is a terrible temptation, particularly if we yearn for the status and high prices of the collectible art object, to go for the greater cleverness in our furniture, the higher finish, what I call a level of sophistication verging on the absurd. As David Colwell remarked after the Furniture Futures Symposium at the V&A (was that financial terminology deliberate – oil futures, grain futures, furniture futures?), collectable furniture, worthy of the attention of design journalists and metropolitan gallery owners needed to be, in his words, “unaffordable, unusable and, if possible, unmakeable”. It’s not what the arts and crafts makers had in mind, but the
unmakeable, once made, would certainly, I think, win a Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers Guildmark. Have you noticed the winning pieces of ‘bespoke Guildmarks’ that are not actually ‘bespoke’ at all? No individual bespoke them; they were conceived and made as trophy pieces to catch the award and they linger for years under their high price tags, first at exhibitions, then on websites, vainly seeking buyers. They are promoted as the apotheosis of commission furniture making, but, to my mind, they are more truly the antithesis of it. I don’t suppose Silver Lining make that mistake, but most of us are likely to be prone to it.
We seem to want to head towards the Frieze Art Fair (Silver Lining was there, or at least on the Fringe of the Frieze), of which one involved commentator, remarking happily on the proliferation of the super-rich there, said that art now had meaning only as a commercial transaction: the moneyed transaction turns the object into art and handily turns it into a non-currency denominated asset. He was referring to a yacht (a
superyacht probably) that could be bought for one price simply as a yacht, or for a much higher price with the designation that it was ‘art’, but otherwise identical. An instant super Duchamp. Art has become securitised, a Collateralised Debt Obligation.
Perhaps the immaculatist tendency, as well as being commercially driven in an effort to reach the high-net-worth market, is partly a reaction to, a protest against, a compensation for the essential mundanity of furniture
– utilitarian (‘Utility’ furniture was a proud official label after the War), consumable, middle-class. Little did Le Corbusier know what he was about to visit on the poor humble chair when he declared it to be ‘art’. Sofas, he proclaimed, are bourgeois, chairs are art. To me all Le Corbusier’s chairs, let alone his sofas, bear
|This is not a sofa|
an uncanny resemblance to sofas, but I have always thought there was something absurd and pretentious in the frequent elevation of the chair to the expressive art object. There is a word, “expressive” that we have recently enlisted in our search for greater saleability. Furniture now is said to be ‘expressive’ without our having any sense of what it expresses.
Surrounded by a plethora of commercial and cultural signs, we have lost confidence in meaning or significance: objects, including we hope furniture, are classed as ‘iconic’, without any sense of what they signify, simply because they are striking and frequently referenced.
There is an irony in the progression of meaning here. (Those interested in these points about linguistic usage can follow it up in the Jekyll and Hyde Dictionary on my blog.) An icon is strictly a representation, a portrait
of a sacred person, which becomes itself an object of veneration. It did not signify anything beyond itself, it simply was. Yet Iconic in modern times is used in the sense of signifying, referencing, epitomising a set of ideas or a cultural quality. But increasingly ‘iconic’ buildings, or furniture, for example, are simply modishly striking but culturally vacuous. It depends which way you look at it.
This is where I think I part sympathetic company with what I gather to be David Savage’s programme for designer-maker furniture, ‘furniture with soul’ as his new book title puts it. Modern designer-maker furniture
|Furniture with Soul|
sometimes seems more ‘gestural’ than ‘expressive’, typified by the ready resort to the extravagant curve or
|The extravagant or Savage curve|
the enveloping surface texture, offering a dramatic short-cut to distinctiveness, sophistication or soul,
bypassing the kind of design or cultural awareness necessary to achieve that sense of newness and rightness that dawns quietly on the observer rather than loudly assaults him.
The articulation of space, of volume, the province of the architect, of the purist three-dimensional artist and now of the furniture-maker, is necessarily about division, the relation of parts to each other and to the whole.
|David Chipperfield town (Berlin) house|
The extravagant curve and the enveloping surface texture do not lend themselves to division: they work in the opposite direction. ‘Articulate’ furniture, in the sense of furniture that expresses something, is also articulate in the other dictionary definition: composed of jointed segments; divided into distinct and significant parts. Decoration, if properly and thoughtfully applied, can be part of articulation, an expression of division and the relation of parts. I am never entirely happy with Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated ‘Less is more’: compelling though it may be, it begs the question, ‘Less of what?’ At least it does so now, when it is parroted outside the context in which Mies – in which he originally delivered the aphorism. Does all art now, when the idea of craft skill as an enabling body of tacit knowledge has all but been abandoned, or do all artistic careers, aspire to the condition of artlessness?
As designer-makers we continue to focus such design criticism as we indulge in (and we periodically berate ourselves for not doing more) not on individual works – paintings or pieces of furniture, not on the expressive, or the articulate individual item – but on the artist’s or maker’s complete body of work, on the creator not the created work. Such comment puts us in the realm of claim and counter claim, some doubtless more intelligent or discriminating than others but none able to validate itself, as individual criticism could do. It also, significantly, puts us in the realm of marketing, promotion and hype.
The immaculatist tendency also positions the furniture of designer-makers, to a degree, with that aspect of our culture whereby the manufactures and contrivances that are, more or less, essential to our full participation in modern society – computers, mobile phones, even modern cars – are things that we may become extremely adept in using and manipulating but whose making (and also serious modification or even repair) is totally outside our competence or experience. Modern designer-maker furniture is becoming a similar object of technological wonder – needing to be placed in an embassy, a museum, or, just possibly, a private residence.
That general tendency is in itself something that encourages the flourishing of a globalised, corporation-dominated economy, in which we the public, the consumer play happily and child-like in the gardens created for us by the evil giants of Google and Apple. And the more we entertain ourselves in these virtual spaces the
|Do no evil|
less aware and protective we become of the physical environment around us (with the exception of our breathless admiration of the design of high-end electronic goods), and the less understanding and
|The hands of Jobs|
appreciative of the physical qualities of artefacts. Can we distinguish between the computer generated image and the photograph of a piece of furniture on a maker’s website. Is our impression of the quality of an object on an internet sales site borne out when UPS delivers it to our door?
We gloss over the extent to which, as a society and culture, we have deprived ourselves, or at least deprived the bulk of the population in highly developed industrialised nations, of a fundamental means of self-expression, satisfaction, re-creation (the shift in the meaning of that word – from ‘re-creation’ to ’recreation’, the loss of the hyphen – is symptomatic).
One may counter that the Googles and Facebooks mostly started out in college bedrooms and suburban garages, but the successful ones rapidly lift off into the world of Goldman Sachs (for whom Facebook has recently been a focus of serious, salivating attention, and did I not recently read that Apple had greater cash reserves than the US Treasury?), This is the world at which most start-up entrepreneurs are consciously, if usually over-optimistically aiming. The glamour of new technology and the glamour of globalised finance have become complete bedfellows, and the ‘new thing’ has become a tradable commodity as much as those old things, oil and wheat.
|Another kind of apple|
Furniture is never going to be the ‘new thing’ and I believe that what we do, though it may be valuable and salutary for society, is economically and culturally marginal. I am very far from agreeing with John Makepeace’s bold and bald assertion in the recent Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers’ Guildmark video that furniture is the most important art form in modern society.
As I said elsewhere, not very many people do anything much in connection with purpose-made furniture, and I’m not entirely unhappy with that. I think the broad marketing, the comprehensive grouping, the one-stop internet shop, all those things that FDMA is so anxious to do under its new logo (that seems to have slipped off the radar), are inimical to the way in which the individuals, who, in their nooks and crannies, form, at least in my experience, our ‘core market’, in which they come to, participate in and actually enjoy the commissioning of furniture. As others have remarked in the recent Northern inspired discussion on the FDMA Forum of the current impact of the recession, it is best to focus on one’s established clients and contacts. Perhaps that is just my personal inclination, and it is not much comfort for the new entrant, to the graduates of those expensive workshop training courses, but it is the way in which I intend to carry on and which I think, ultimately, will fare better, in a changed world, than luxury goods and silver linings.
You will have noticed that I have said nothing about new technology in furniture making. In a way I don’t think it’s really central to my question, though it may be central to a question of more immediate practical importance than the one asked here, and I would advise adding a dose of it to any prescription derived from my observations. It brings to the fore once more, of course, all those considerations of the autonomy and integrity of the maker as designer that so troubled Ruskin and Morris, and that we have no more resolved than they. But that is the subject of another talk, or, if you care to look, of some of the postings on my blog.
'Designer-maker’: a problem peculiar to furniture?
Some reflections on reading Peter Dormer’s The Art of the Maker and The New Furniture
The idea of the ‘designer-maker’ is a much vexed and discussed issue among small-scale furniture producers. I doubt it is so prominent in any other craft; indeed the term seems to have been coined and kept alive by furniture practitioners.
We both insist upon it as our distinguishing quality – it formed the name of DMOU (where it wasn’t felt necessary to add the word ‘furniture’) and of FDMA (Furniture Designer Makers Association) – and are also conscious that we cheat on it. Indeed we are now so confident that we know what it means that we think it is tiresome to reflect upon its gaps and illogicalities.
Most furniture designer-makers get some or (not now uncommonly) even all their work made by others, and workshops that make almost entirely to others’ designs call themselves, and are regarded as, ‘designer-makers’. The most celebrated furniture ‘designer-maker’ does not make at all. Although he does not use the term to describe himself, and frankly addresses the fact that whilst he concentrates on design makers are better positioned to develop craft skill to greater heights, he is widely regarded by the public and the profession as one who established the idea of the designer-maker and trained a great many of the practitioners. He did of course make in the past and has an understanding of making deeper than many active makers. And yet, for those interested, and for readers of Peter Dormer’s books, there remains a problem.
Ironically, in The New Furniture (1987 – not so new now), Peter Dormer writes of John Makepeace, ‘Opinion as to the merits of his own design work is sharply divided, opinion about his craftsmanship is generally not’, an assessment that was perhaps uncontentious in the 1980s but is probably less so now. It is not that John Makepeace’s design does not show a continuous development from earlier decades -though one must also take into account the fact that in earlier decades he employed such distinctive talents as David Field and Ashley Cartwright as design assistants. I have no knowledge whether he continues the practice but my subjective impression is that he does not and that his his own distinctive design vein has perhaps gained in confidence in recent years. Perhaps he has won over more critical opinions. Given the paucity of published real criticism of specific pieces of newly produced furniture it is difficult to judge. Or it might be that the cultural climate has changed: there is now more acceptance of, even in some quarters, deference to, exceptionalist, hand-crafted, collectable furniture.
Peter Dormer withholds his own position in that division of opinion, but that, in itself, might suggest an adverse opinion, and in The New Furniture generally he seems to show a hostility to what he sometimes terms ‘handicraft’ furniture. That extra little ‘i’ seems less to intend any respectful allusion to CR Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft than a belittling suggestion – there seems to me to be a distinct whiff of raffia and hand weaving in the term. That is oddly contrary to the positive valuation put on hand craft knowledge in The Art of the Maker a few years later, and the only explanation is that Peter Dormer does not essentially regard furniture as a true craft, in the sense in which he examines the term – or at least that furniture making has in its most culturally significant manifestations been subsumed by industrial design, partly because the vocabulary of functional furniture has been extended by materials (plastic and to some extent metal) that can, in the main, only be processed industrially.
In The New Furniture Peter Dormer’s interests and sympathies are noticeably aroused by the products of industrial design, small or large scale, above those of craft furniture makers or of makers with an especial affinity with timber. He gives relatively little attention (or illustration) to the work of Scandinavian furniture producers who form a link between industrial design and craft furniture making, and whose furniture was commercially successful and culturally influential. Nor does he pay attention to the wooden furniture design in the United States, most significantly illustrated by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright that forms a counterpoint to the influence of the more Miesian school.
All this might occasion a little unease to the modern furniture designer-maker who looks for cultural and conceptual support from The Art of the Maker, with its robust and unfashionable defence of craft skill as being a form of knowledge inaccessible except by doing and practice, and inseparable from artistic expression.
Yet the craft in The Art of the Maker is largely the craft of the artist maker, and, although the crafts receive considerable attention, it is noticeable that furniture is hardly mentioned, despite its having been the focus of much of Peter Dormer’s earlier writing. That surely must be significant.
The crafts to which Peter Dormer apprenticed himself for the purpose of writing The Art of the Maker, lettering and figurative clay modelling, are strikingly different from the craft of furniture making in that they are, in their exercise, fluid and expressive virtually from the start. There has always been some fluidity in the hand processing of timber (most conspicuously retained in green furniture making), but furniture making is mostly hard edged – accurate lines, mating surfaces. Furniture is constructional and early decisions often pre-empt later design choices. You cannot rub out the line or remodel the clay in furniture making. There is little fluidity in flat panel veneering beyond the choice of veneer and exactly how to lay it.
In furniture, designing and making are usually, even with genuine ‘designer-makers’ largely split into separate processes. A design is drawn up and then it is made with usually only minor modifications. This is not the kind of craft that peter Dormer has in mind in The Art of the Maker. He quotes Michael Baxandall of the Warburg Institute, and referring to his Patterns of Intention writes,
'Baxandall observes that one of the reasons we value paintings – and I would add one-off handicraft items of many kinds, including ceramics and sculpture – is that they are not designed. That is to say that the process of making by hand allows the maker’s intentions to develop and change in response to what he or she is creating over a period of time. Baxandall says, “A static notion of intention, supposing just a preliminary stance to which the final product either more or less conforms, would deny a great deal of what makes pictures worth bothering about, whether for us or for their makers. It would deny the encounter with the medium and reduce the work to a sort of conceptual or ideal art imperfectly realised.”'
The ‘encounter with the medium’ is precisely the problem inherent with the use of machinery in furniture making. I don’t suggest we can or would want to do without it, but one cannot deny that there is a problem (one that I have discussed earlier on my blog). Machinery accentuates the rigidity of the furniture-making process. Once the timber has been fed to the machine there is no flexibility or fluidity, only success or failure, clean or torn machining. The CNC router, programmed complex shaping, safely taking place in an enclosed chamber, is machine-work at its most extreme, despite (or because of) the fact that it enables the realisation of complex design intentions.
So it seems that furniture designer-makers can draw little solace from The Art of the Maker. In Peter Dormer’s terms much of our practice can be regarded as ‘industrial design’, and our failure to immerse ourselves in that world results in our lowly ranking in The New Furniture. In Michael Baxandall’s terms, ours is a form of ‘ideal art’ where the designer creates a plan from which he or others directly or indirectly employed by him, concretely realise the ideal, making, possibly in quantity, near perfect objects requiring little or no modification during construction and which may not even require the designer to be on hand giving directions. I paraphrase there and slightly qualify Peter Dormer’s own description of ‘industrial design’. It also pretty much describes the process of computer controlled production.
Waywood’s chest of drawers, as I read it, uses the highly sophisticated techniques of CNC router and shaped veneering to mimic, in a controlled and stable result, the normally unwelcome and wayward effects of timber distortion. Indeed it is so controlled that the pre-production computer rendering is only with difficulty distinguishable form a photograph of the made item. The resulting chest is both striking and functional, but it illustrates, far better than any piece of mine, the point of tension I was alluding to in my catalogue entry for the exhibition in which it appeared. It raises – or does it? – at least philosophical questions about the nature of what we are doing; about what generates cost in our work; about what happens to our furniture in the years after it is made; and about that hoary old question of ‘truth to materials’, a maxim that we still honour both in the work of the Arts and Crafts makers and in modernist furniture, but are ambivalent about in our own work.
Many, if not most, furniture designer-makers do hope to sell repeat or batch products, amortising the heavy investment in designing to commission over repeated production. Designer-makers sometimes speak of one-offs as prototypes to be perfected in subsequent repeat production. It makes sense, but it is quite contrary to Peter Dormer’s line of argument, and, perhaps we should admit, contrary to the ideals and concepts of the designer-maker to which we continue nominally to claim adherence.
In other respects designer-maker furniture, as it is most successfully and conspicuously practiced today, veers towards industrial design – in its level of sophistication, its precision, its (normally) high finish, in some aspects competing with or emulating industrialised machine production. It is not uncommon for designer-makers to envy the quality of lacquer finish achieved in some mass produced furniture, and the envy increasingly extends to other technologies of highly industrialised furniture-making. It is often suggested, and welcomed, that those technologies are increasingly becoming economic for small-scale producers. That may be true to an extent, but only to a limited one.
Furniture is constructional, and so we have been more likely to align ourselves with architects than, say, ceramicists (despite their peculiar success in breaching the craft/art boundary), until recently, when increasing numbers of furniture practitioners have realised that the path to collectable status, even it is hoped to ‘art’, for furniture too can lie in the opposite direction. So timber is now, by the soulful furniture maker, moulded into deft shapes and interesting textures rather than constructed into articulated volumes. We will never quite summon the courage to bid the architects farewell (after all they design the buildings into which our furniture is inserted) but there is s definite trend away from the old approach, and away from the lineage of modernism.
Yet, as we as furniture makers increasingly aspire to the status of art, and John Makepeace claims that furniture is the most important art form in modern society, Peter Dormer tells us blankly ‘There is a distinction between the products of art and the products of design.’ ‘Design’ has had a free ride in the cultural lexicon for the past three or four decades and we are not yet entirely ready to give it up, but increasingly some of us are effectively abandoning it, as Peter Dormer obliges us to recognise.
Art is not simply a matter of ‘expressiveness’ – a loaded, or unloaded, term as it is increasingly used today – loaded with intended significance but unloaded of exact meaning. Furniture as representational art has difficulty representing anything but itself. There is a considerable body of furniture that does that, including some by recognised ‘designer-makers’. Such work prompts us to question our essential definition of furniture types through pieces of questionable or bizarre practicality. Ultimately, as I have argued in an earlier post on my blog, this is something of a one-card trick, that ends up reinforcing our initial definitions: a table is after all a flat horizontal surface held at a certain level above ground. That was not the way in which Cézanne altered our perception of mountains and the natural landscape through his paintings of Mont St Victoire.
However, when furniture does aspire to the condition of art it mostly follows the route of abstraction rather than representation, and in doing so inevitably leaves the precepts of modernism behind, including the anathematisation of decoration – something we are still hesitant to reject. When ‘designer-makers’ (I now have to use the term as a short-hand identifier of a group rather than as a conceptually meaningful idea) they almost always redouble their adherence to the highest standards of craft and making. Peter Dormer remarks that ‘much American craft movement furniture is a flight of ecstatic materialism’ (though he is perceptive enough to apply the same description for to some modernist industrial design furniture such as Ferdinand Porsche’s design studio’s 84 S recliner).
Yet always when furniture aspires to art as its primary intention, the question arises, why it should chose to limit itself by remaining furniture. Why should such work as art be any less slightingly regarded than pet portraits or flower illustrations? Is it not better that it should achieve art through the expression of function, than nod at function through art?
A colleague has remarked, amongst much other comment, perhaps not disapprovingly, that “in writing about John Makepeace and Waywood you have crossed that divide where we openly talk about each other's work”.
I was not actually conscious of crossing any divide, certainly not in any improper way. I do in fact have considerable admiration both for John Makepeace’s work as a whole and for the particular cabinet of Waywood’s on which I commented. In any case I did not consider myself to be offering criticism, in the sense of saying whether the work was good or bad. What I was attempting was to place what we do, as ‘designer-makers of furniture’ in the context of a currently live cultural matrix. I took John Makepeace’s work as a whole because he is so evidently the leading exponent of this type of work and the one whose output is both influential on other practitioners and most often commented upon by others. In some sense, willingly or not, he stands as elevated proxy for us all. That particular Waywood cabinet seemed to me to illustrate, better than any other individual piece of which I know, the ambivalent attitude we have (or might have – I do not know whether Barnaby Scott had in his mind any of the thoughts his piece stimulates in mine) to the principles of Arts and Crafts furniture, still our default cultural forebear.
At some level, as I said, it does not really matter: there is always a place for someone producing furniture without regard or deference to the culture around him or her. Yet culture is a collaborative enterprise, depending upon shared senses of what is worthwhile, although they need periodic refreshment or challenge.
It only makes sense, to take an extreme example, to talk of ‘morality’ in design in a context of shared cultural values. No-one is killing babies here. Any matrix of cultural values depends on acceptance rather than argument or logic. As soon as you question the foundations of such a matrix the whole structure above ground begins to look absurd, no matter how rigorously built.
It seems plain to me that we are designing and making furniture at a time when all of those cultural structures are tottering. Most of us, in our little community shelter somewhere near the ruins of the Arts and Crafts. Another group of designers and producers shelters in Modernism. Elsewhere numerous ramshackle structures, Deco and Dada, Constructivism and even neo-Classicism, have a surprising number of inhabitants, some a little shifty. But all of them have seen better days; none now looks entirely convincing. In this landscape of ruins some roam ever further afield, knocking on doors marked art, philosophy, technology.
Historically it is a relatively new kind of landscape. A few centuries back the artist craftsman (to employ a short-hand anachronistic term unsatisfactory at every time), whether he were making furniture or carving cathedral stonework, would have imbibed without deliberate choice or justification. Even later, when competing styles vied against each other, a continuity of basic cultural assumption underlay them. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that in the production of useful artefacts choices had to be made, about the way in which people worked and the nature of what they produced, that were seen to be acutely culturally defining. The Arts and Crafts and Modernism both had their distinctly moralising and missionary qualities, which we have neither shaken off nor entirely renounced.
In a curious way Modernism echoes the cultural certainty of the eighteenth century and its conception of ‘correct’ taste. If Modernism, from the beginning faced more cultural challenges than eighteenth-century culture it was not because its precepts were less self-confident but rather because no one class any more had a near monopoly of cultural expression.
Yet its day has passed and we have inherited its questions rather than its answers. I don’t believe we shall find new cultural accommodation for ourselves until many much wider questions of our social organisation have been answered (maybe even including in the great tide those hoary old things that troubled Ruskin and Morris). There are a great many contractions for us collectively to work though before we can hope to get to that stage. So, meanwhile, it might be better for us to focus our enquiring minds on what I have not – the actual workings and output of individual makers and making teams – but we do all in fact make it extremely difficult for that to be achieved, sometimes apparently thinking (perhaps in our commercial and socio-cultural anxiety) that the only communication worthwhile is the higher puffery.
1 July 2011 unpublished
revised 10 July 2011
Postscript 12 July 2011