Monday September 17, 2012
Teamwork between top designers and craftsmen
BEHIND every successful designer is the craftsman. Sounds obvious. Yet not many of us know of the talented and assiduous craftsmen behind some of the world’s most iconic furniture pieces.
In fact, the teamwork between top designers and craftsmen was instrumental in thrusting Danish modern furniture into the global market in the 1950s and 60s.
Some of the most successful collaborations between design masters and cabinetmakers include Finn Juhl and Niels Vodder, Hans J. Wegner and Johannes Hansen, and Arne Jacobsen and Søren C. Hansen of furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen.
“Ideas alone can’t ensure the success of a product. Designers and manufacturers have to rely on craftsmen or artisans to execute their designs,” asserts product designer Benson Saw of VW+BS, a multidisciplinary design firm with offices in London, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Saw and his London-based partner, Voon Wong, have worked with brilliant craftsmen from across Asia and Europe to create lighting (the award-winning Loop lamp, for example), furniture and tableware.
“An Italian manufacturer making plastic furniture and products I worked with invested millions of euros in high-tech injection moulding machines and computer system.
Yet the company still relies on the ‘eye’ of their craftsmen to implement the details or amend the dimensions of the product,” he cites an example.
Kuala Lumpur-based Saw has joined forces with Fiske on numerous interior design projects with Fiske crafting custom-made furniture for Saw’s clients.
In 2011, VW+BS collaborated with Fiske to produce a desk organiser crafted out of wood. Dubbed Trim, the organizer is a rectangular tray in solid wood with four vessels held on the tray with magnetic inserts. You can organise your knick-knacks like toiletries, stationery or keys on the vessels.
“I must say in the whole design process for Trim, Fiske craftsmen probably take credit for about 80% of the design. A lot of times I come up with almost no drawing and we just work as we go,” Saw chuckles. “I have a fuzzy idea of what I want to do. We take a walk around the workshop, look at the joinery and materials and exchange ideas. Sometimes they (the craftsmen) even take the initiative to tweak my design to make it better.”
Trim was first introduced to the public during the launch of premium furniture retailer Space Asia Hub in Singapore last November.
“The difference between an ordinary worker and a ‘craftsman’ is that the latter chip in his thoughts in the manufacturing process to make the product better. The former just does what he’s asked to do,” Saw adds.
Singapore-based Takenouchi Webb, an architecture and interior design firm, has also collaborated on several projects with Fiske.
“Fiske’s furniture quality, proportions and joinery, and selection of timber are very good,” says architect Marc Webb who founded the company with his wife, Naoko Takenouchi, an architect and interior designer.
The couple’s first project with Fiske involved designing and producing bespoke furniture for The White Rabbit, a restaurant and bar housed in a gorgeously restored old chapel in Singapore.
“With furniture design, it is hard to get it right the first time. But when you work with experienced carpenters like Fiske’s, they can provide their input if any adjustments are necessary and give advice on using the right timber for specific furniture,” says Webb who usually designs custom-made furniture for projects and clients. Happy with the White Rabbit collaboration, Webb continued working with Fiske craftsmen for other projects.
“It is not easy to find skilled carpenters (or craftsmen) in Singapore and Malaysia,” Webb concludes.
Valuing the craftsmen
But is a company like Fiske, which prides high-quality workmanship, the exception? And is good-quality carpentry a dying trade?
On the contrary, a growing propensity for authenticity and craftsmanship worldwide is carving greater opportunities for artisanal companies like Fiske.
“Every one is looking for identity right now. Crafts allow us to differentiate ourselves from others as every piece is different,” award-winning industrial designer Nathan Yong attests. “I hope to see the returning of craft heritage. I think it is already happening as a backlash to banal, mass-produced furniture from China.”
As one of the most prolific designers coming out of Southeast Asia today, Yong’s stable of clients include France-based global furniture brand Ligne Roset, Italy-based Living Divani and US-based design brand Design Within Reach (DWR).
He also churns out furniture under Grafunkt, a Singapore-based design brand he founded.
A long time champion of local craftsmen, Yong collaborates regularly with local carpenters, including a team of Johor Bharu-based carpenters for his furniture collection like Folks.
An homage to traditional carpentry works, Folks is a medley of contemporary-styled chairs, tables, sofa and storage shelves and cabinets.
Folks highlights the craftsmen’s exquisite skills. (Folks collection is sold at Klang Valley-based Gudang furniture store, http://www.gudanghome.com/)
“These (JB) carpenters are driven to excel in their work, they are passionate in their craft and take pride in every piece they produce,” says Yong.
For years, they were working with traditional wooden furniture before Yong hooked up with them.
“I think beauty is universal because once the carpenters completed my design, they are amazed at what a good design can accomplish and are proud of their contribution. Design is just a novelty if it lacks quality,” says Yong.
He thinks there is no shortage of craftsmen in Asia, especially in Indonesia and Thailand. You can easily find craftsmen of all backgrounds: from rattan- weaving, stonemasonry to metalsmithing.
“The real challenge is finding craftsmen that you can communicate with about design details. We, the designers or manufacturers, also need to find a ready market for the products or the craftsmen are not interested to devote too much time to it,” he adds.
“Besides, I think carpenters or craftsmen are undervalued and designers are overrated!”
Designers like Yong, Saw and Webb come across many highly experienced and skilled carpenters. But more often than not, their invaluable skills are overlooked because the companies they work for are sales and profit-driven.
As Saw encapsulates it best: “at the end of the day, it’s the bosses or companies who must have the vision and passion to elevate the quality of workmanship and consequently the profile of the craftsmen.”
Certainly, Fiske fits the bill.