In the second of three articles on modern woodworking, Anselm Fraser, principal of the Chippendale International School of Furniture, looks at changing patterns of living, and how our smaller homes are influencing furniture design. 

Anselm Fraser head and shoulders

Every woodworker that passes through the Chippendale International School of Furniture is taught that good design is either about beautiful creativity or wonderful practicality – and preferably both.

However, in my experience, modern woodworkers all too often fall into the trap of believing their craft should be based solely on their creativity – and creating fabulous pieces of furniture that have little relevance to the real world.  My view on creativity is more complex.

So, first, let’s have a look at the real world because it’s the place that we inhabit, and it’s because it’s full of people who need a bed to sleep in, a table to sit at, and a chair to lounge on.  A world full of people who need furniture.

But, according to the UN, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and, by 2050, about 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in towns and cities.

The current level of urbanisation ranges from 82% of the population in North America to 40% in Africa, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in their Safe Cities Index 2015.

Every day, over 187,000 people become city dwellers.   In 1950, New York was the world’s first megacity, defined as having a population of more than 10 million people.

Now there are more than 20 megacities and, by 2025, New York is likely to have dropped to sixth on the list – behind Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Mexico City.

All that urban living has enormous implications not only for infrastructure but for the size of homes that we live in.  For example, in 1920, average homes in the UK measured about 1,647 square feet.  Now they measure 925 square feet, according to the Institution of British Architects.

Research has also found that the average one bedroom flat is now the same size as a London Underground tube carriage.

Which (finally) brings me to my point: a UK 2012 report found “long- and short-term storage space” – for everyday stuff such as ironing boards and bed linen was one of the features people most wanted in their home.

As furniture designers, we have to recognise how our markets have changed and make furniture that is fit for purpose for the 21st century – markets that involve real people living in smaller spaces, but wanting creative solutions for their everyday needs.

Of course, there will always be a large market for those able to live in larger accommodation, but furniture design constantly needs to evolve to remain relevant – and creatively anticipating and meeting modern trends is a skill that woodworkers must acquire.

So, why not have a look around your home?  What about those stairs that do nothing more than allow you access to the upper floor?  Why couldn’t some, or all, of those stairs also be drawers for storage?

Or the coffee table cluttering up your living room?  Why can’t it also have storage space for books or clutter?  In other words, small spaces need furniture that is multi-functional.  Sofas than turn into bunk beds, tables and chairs that are also book shelves…the list goes on and on.

For me, good furniture design must fulfil a clear need, but do it beautifully.  Form and function should seamlessly work together to create furniture that looks good, works well, and is practical.

For example, last year we had a student whose big idea was to make fabulous bespoke furniture that could be easily dismantled.  She had rightly identified that over 50% of people aged under 25 have already lived in three or more homes.  On average, they’ll typically move three more times before they are 45 – and moving large pieces of furniture can be a hassle.

Too many furniture designers are still wedded to creativity making something for generous spaces: the large dining table or sideboard, for example.  These commissions, they reason, will generate a large sum of money and make their designs worthwhile.

For some, that may well be right.  But in my experience, older people who have moved up the property ladder to large properties generally have the signature or bespoke furniture they want – some, perhaps, inherited.  They might have the space, but not necessarily the need.

Also, older people often like old things.  They represent a collective market that browses in antique shops, and who wouldn’t necessarily think about commissioning a new piece of furniture.

But what about younger buyers, living in small spaces, and needing creative multi-purpose furniture solutions?  The maths is compelling, certainly for those in affluent areas.

The average UK salary is currently about £27,500.  In the City of London it’s close to £50,000, roughly double the UK median.  Other UK cities have the same disparity, if not on the scale of London.  That means that an average couple living together in wealthy inner-city areas are likely to be cash rich but property poor.

In other words, it suggests that woodworkers should be looking again who their customers are – or who their customers could be, and challenging their creativity to offer furniture solutions rather than just furniture.

In that sense, creativity should be more than just designing and making a beautiful piece of furniture.  Creativity should also be about identifying buying markets and designing for them – real people in the real world, with very real needs and expectations.

In his final article in the series, Anselm Fraser will address the perennial bugbear of how to price bespoke furniture.