Monday, 20 August 2018

Innovation is like a snowplough

Innovation is like a snow plough clearing a track with much resistance in a traditionally bound furniture market but once that track is cleared it is easier for others to follow.  

Exhibitions for designer makers have always been a rare and unique opportunity to innovate - to say something new about a chair or a cabinet.

Historically I would always sell from furniture exhibitions and was fortunate to have my work recognized by the Crafts Council from 1980 to my last major group show in 2002 (at the Charles Rennie Macintosh Centerary exhibition at The Hill House in Scotland. There some of my work was chosen for its subtelty or surprise - a cabinet that had no handles but relied on a degree of mystery.

Being under the wing of The Crafts Council, despite criticisms that it was elitist, was my only patronage - I was able to focus on what I do for over two and a half decades which is invent, create objects that are original and say something new.  As one of 26 furniture makers we were selected for redefining the boundaries of our craft amongst thousands of articulate craftspeople in the UK who at that time were more 'conservation craft' focused. 

But it wasn't an easy ride for me. During the 1970's there were no outlets; I was told by a local gallery to come back when I was famous and even hawked my rocking chair on the London Underground to turn up uninvited at the offices of Habitat in Neal Street. 'You don't have and appointment with the MD' the girl said but I replied 'he has to come out to the toilet some time today' and he did and he smiled as he saw me sitting on it and he gave me half an hours of his time. Much though he liked it he said my rocking chair was too upmarket for Habitat and I continued on my search for a sympathetic outlet, having put them in a local Persian carpet shop to show off their carpets in the window! 

Early examples of my High backed rocker were made from knotty pine, crudely dowelled. I just had an idea, a few hand tools, no machines, a tiny converted cattleshed workshop costing £3 per week in rent and I could not get a £50 loan from the bank. The chair went on to sell in its hundreds all over the world over several decades, well mostly in the UK from a tiny shopwindow on the busy London Road outside Bath that I called The Bath Carpenter. Deliberately anonymous because I felt good design should sell on its own merits and not on a name from an exclusive gallery. 

But from the 90's onwards people no longer bought on whim as they would spotting the chair from the traffic jams on the busy London road where my tiny shopwindow was. The climate changed radically. One local lady I chatted up in a tea shop brought her husband round to see a table I had made from timbers given to me by Kew Gardens from The Great Storm. He was mostly looking out of the window and she seemed cautious although she had always said she loved the table. So I offered to let them live with it for a week.

I had made two versions of the table and she was interested in the longer 5 foot long one. After a week she called me to say they would buy the table - for a few hundred pounds, well under a thousand, and she said what decided her was her next door neighbour liking it and then her father, a carpenter, liking it . It seemed the days of making spontaneous decisions were over revealing a lack of confidence and education then why should someone be knowledgeable to value  like something? 

But even the lack of education about common timbers by - say television experts who invited me to take my drinks cabinet onto the Four Rooms show and didn't know I had used maple or that it was not a particularly rare wood! 

Most large companies have an R & D department alongside marketing and branding. My finished pieces were virtually second prototypes such as my Caterpillar Rocking chair - the first prototype was made of chipboard painted red and black, the second prototype had to pay the rent that week and was the finished thing. Four were made.

 Recently I gave chair number four a facelift by finishing in it a stone lacquer.

The original chair appeared in Design magazine under the name of a 16 year old lad on a Work Experience scheme who passed it off as his design. He had made it from plans that had appeared in The Woodworker magazine in 1984.

To create a new chair today and market it successfully, finding a platform upon which to launch it would cost upwards of ten grand not to mention the cost of prototyping and then - who is going to buy it and importantly how do you price it?  You can go too cheap when you step outside the status quo market!

Caterpillar Rocker Mk 2 - Copyright Jeremy Broun 2018. Made of Brazilian Pine plywood with rubber lined feet. 


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