Monday September 17, 2012
Fiske furniture - Clean lines and timeless designs
By LEONG SIOK HUI
Fiske is known for their Nordic-inspired and exquisitely crafted furniture.
FURNITURE maker Fiske has been an open secret amongst architects, designers and design aficionados for many years. Those in the know have long valued Fiske’s beautifully constructed and well-designed bespoke furniture.
Crafted from solid wood and wood veneers, Fiske’s furniture is characterised by clean lines, timeless designs, functionality and detailed workmanship. The company works mainly with Burmese teak, American Walnut, American White Oak and Beech.
Fiske collaborates with architects and interior designers from Asia, Europe and US to churn out furniture for a slew of clients that include restaurants and bars, boutique hotels and luxury residential projects.
Some of Fiske’s notable projects include outfitting the Delicious Group of cafes, Singapore’s White Rabbit Restaurant and Bar, and boutique hotels like Hotel 1929 in Singapore, London’s Town Hall Hotel and Apartments and Penang’s Lone Pine Hotel.
Their carpenters’ skills are honed by scrutinizing the flawless craftsmanship of Scandinavian furniture, no less.
“Our carpenters acquired their techniques following the old carpentry methods of vintage furniture. Not only are they highly skilled, they are also creative and great problem solvers,” explains manager Kenny Eu.
Lessons from Nordic furniture
In 1995, Fiske was founded with the idea of selling restored, original mid-century Scandinavian furniture.
With its timeless appeal, immaculate handiwork and refined aesthetics, Nordic design from the post-war era has long joined the pantheon of mainstream style.
Today, Arne Jacobsen’s playful, curved Ant chair, Hans J. Wegner’s classic Wishbone chair and Finn Juhl’s sculptural pieces are regular fixtures in design magazines or showpieces in chic, modern homes.
Fiske sourced for these furniture pieces through auction houses and dealers in Europe. Back at the company’s workshop in the heart of Selayang Industrial Park, the carpenters would knuckle down to breathe new life into these old pieces.
“Sometimes parts of the furniture were damaged and need to be removed, replicated and replaced. As part of the restoration process, the carpenters would take apart an old piece of furniture and reassemble it piecemeal.
“It was a steep learning curve for us. When we first started, we would throw away a lot of things because the joinery was not finished properly, the finer details were missing or the selection of wood was wrong.
“Our carpenters are mostly self-taught. It’s about going back to the basics of carpentry like joinery work, reinventing the wheels, tweaking an old piece or taking different elements from different things,” says Eu.
Perfecting their craft
Over the years, Fiske evolved from restoring furniture to building its name as a high-quality, made-to-order furniture maker. They currently have 40 craftsmen; from those in their early 20s to the oldest, a 72-year-old carpenter who is deemed the sifu (master) at Fiske. Fiske’s craftsmen are known for their blend of industrial craft – a melding of (traditional) woodworking knowledge with machine technology. When they pore over drawings, they can tell if a design works or if it’s just stylised form without function.
“They read drawings better than us because they understand the construction of the furniture. Sometimes they would come back and tell us if the dimensions or proportions are incorrect,” Eu says.
Each carpenter naturally carved his niche and expertise over time.
Take H.M. Hng, for example. The bespectacled 49-year-old with a calm demeanor is the go-to-person for cabinetry.
“Hng is precise and detailed. He thinks about the end product when he starts. He is good with joinery,” Eu adds.
Originally from Kedah, Hng started his career more than 20 years ago, working with cane and rattan furniture before moving on to wood. His first exposure to wooden furniture was the imported Danish pieces.
“I was so taken aback by their fine, detailed and beautiful workmanship,” says Hng in Cantonese. “Of course, we learned as we went along but the learning never stops.”
Carpentry isn’t just a job for Hng.
“It is just as important to have the passion to want to make better furniture,” he adds.
Like Hng, Fiske’s resident “chair specialist,” C.C. Dung strives on challenges.
“When Dung looks at the drawing, he can visualise the three-dimensional form and translates that into a product,” Eu chips in.
Dung, 37, is one of the longest-serving employees at Fiske. He joined the company 15 years ago as an apprentice with zilch carpentry know-how.
“I learned from scratch. It took me at least 10 years to acquire the skills to make a good chair,” admits the genial Kedah native. “Some materials are difficult to work with, like oak, for example. Sometimes we need to tweak the design of the chair to improve its structural integrity.”
It takes an average of three weeks to complete a set of six to eight chairs, from carpentry, upholstery to the finishing work, if you discount the workload and time needed to source for materials.
With 35 years’ experience, upholsterer K.H. Boo has just about perfected his craft.
“Boo is very good at proportions, he can tell you if the sofa isn’t going to be comfortable, if it’s too wide or stiff. He has an innate understanding of furniture,” Eu says.
After all, this is one man who upped his upholstery skills by restoring the gorgeously biomorphic Egg Chair.
A masterpiece by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, the iconic chair (designed in 1958) is arguably one of the most enduring symbols of the Modernist movement. Today, the chair is still manufactured by Danish manufacturer Fritz Hansen and sells like hot cakes despite its £3000 (RM14,600) or more price tag.
“It took me over a month of trial and error to figure out how to wrap the chair, making sure the leather is taut and the stitchings are clean and uniform,” Boo, 52, recalls with a chuckle. “Leather expands differently depending on which direction you cut it so that’s an important skill to learn too.”
But for the Perak native, what makes his work fulfilling is the sense of satisfaction in knowing he has given his best each time.
“We have to take pride in our work,” he sums up.
Fiske carpenters take pride not only as individual craftsman, but also in being part of the Fiske team. They remain with the company for the long haul.
“We work best as a team and every single one us, whether the carpenter or upholsterer is important. If I leave the company to start out on my own, I may not find the right team to work with or the right customers,” says Boo.
“Besides, things never get boring here because the company always throws us new challenges with interesting designs to work on and allows us to keep learning new skills,” Hng chips in. “If we work in a conventional furniture company, we will probably work on “normal” furniture.”
Driven by the pursuit of fine craftsmanship more than profit, artisanal-type companies like Fiske have their struggles too.
The lack of skilled workers is a perennial problem. Only one out of four new employees are genuinely interested in woodwork, Dung said.
“It is easy to find workers but rare to find someone who is talented and keen to learn,” says Boo.
“My advice to the young: ‘within six months (of working with furniture), you should know if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.
If your only goal is to earn a living, you will give up because it is a tough job.’ ”