There can be alarm when someone gives up the perceived security of a good steady job to do something creative — but where would we be without the crafty creative types among us?
Without chairs, tables and other necessary, and sometimes covetable, paraphernalia of domestic life, is where.
It’s easy to take it all for granted but at some stage the pieces you sit on or use, are the result of the designer/maker signing up for a furniture design and construction course, where they learned how to draw and make a scale model, how to source and use materials and, of course, how to make a piece of furniture.
This very thought is prompted by a visit to Cork’s Coláiste Stiofán Naofa, where I met some of the furniture makers of the future, (the online video shows it all), led by co-ordinator Fergus Somers, a trained furniture maker who, incidentally, gave up a career in IT where he worked for the company that invented text messaging.
“There was something in my head about making furniture,” he says, “so I took a leap.”
That leap included working for Nest Design whose work has an international following and can be seen in the Irish National Collection.
But while Fergus still makes furniture when time allows, (and he is a superb furniture-maker), he is now helping to shape the makers of the future who, like him, have come from other sectors and disciplines.
“The course has always attracted retrainers,” he explains.
“Some of the younger ones are on the higher education track to get on degree courses in Letterfrack, [National Centre for Excellence in Furniture and Technology] or to go on to architecture in UCC.”
Recession has also brought interest in the course.
“The sector has been depressed, so it’s been difficult to find an apprenticeship in workshops,” says Fergus.
“Others are looking to start their own business.”
Sitting at desks in a light-filled space, students are focussed on their final projects.
It’s a surprisingly peaceful environment —the only sound being the quiet murmur of participants as they draw, design, model, and assemble their work.
But it’s not all desk work and making things that absorbs their time.
The students are also exposed to the business end of the sector which includes a visit to Showcase at the RDS, the annual international market selling Irish crafted products.
“We took the students to the RDS so they can see what’s for sale,” says Fergus.
“And to Cork Craft and Design’s shop where the manager explained how to price products.”
There’s also engagement with established designers which includes guest lecturers like Nest Design, and others who have achieved success and are willing to share.
“The design community is very accommodating,” says Fergus.
“We were invited to visit Joseph Walsh’s studio in Riverstick and the students spent an afternoon seeing how furniture is made at Imago in Cork.”
At the end of the course, graduates gain a QQI Level 6 certificate which is the equivalent qualification of a carpenter or joiner, but while past pupils include working furniture-makers, there are others who service the sector in other ways.
One is a lecturer in GMIT Letterfrack; another is a forester who runs a sawmill in Ballincollig, Co Cork, from where the course sources its timber.
Among the pupils who will qualify this year is Ross Geoghegan who is working on a table that turns into a bed — perfect for a compact home, or where there’s a shortage of space for an overnight guest.
Ex-arts and crafts teacher Peter Keane is making a butsudan which is a Buddhist altar, but this version is an intriguing combination that draws on traditional making skills he’s been taught on the course, with Japanese influences like sliding doors made with paper screens and pattern.
He refers to it as “traditional Japanese furniture for a western setting”.
Musician turned furniture student Tom Healy is working with a detailed layering process to construct a table that requires precision and, it seems, a good deal of patience too.
But nearby sits another of his pieces, a table with a copper piping framework.
“Copper doesn’t have much strength,” he explains, “it’s quite soft.”
But he’s resolved this by crafting it into a complex structure which is topped with teak salvaged from a discarded window frame.
The result is inventive, attractive, and useful all at once.