Yeah, I’d say its a labor of love to some degree, but honestly its relatively high paying for most rural areas in the south, while being meager for urban areas and near-poverty for somewhere like New York City. I made another post in the design employment about this, too, but it touches on some other points…
I can’t say how much starting salary would be at Herman Miller or similar contract furniture manufacturers. I would hope its better than what I make!
Most of the old-school freelancers I know have a degree in “furniture design” or a degree in drafting, and their furniture knowledge comes from working a factories or from their family who was also in furniture, etc. I would say a furniture major has a leg up when dealing with a traditional furniture company in the south. In terms of classes, furniture design courses would definately give you an advantage right out of school (if you are competing with ID/PD majors for a furniture design job, especially at a “traditional” furniture company) both in terms of how potential employers will view you and how quickly you can get into the work at hand. A degree with “furniture” written on it somewhere is an easy correlation, while “industrial design” may be viewed as a type of engineering or only pertaining to machinery, and “product design” may be viewed as only encompassing electronics or other consumer goods (besides furniture…) even though both should be equally capable of designing furniture. “Interior design” is often associated with or thought to be the same thing as “furniture design” or at least qualifies you to design anything inside a home. “Designer” is bandied about a lot as of late, and a lot of people with zero design training claim to be one. Yes, the “traditional” furniture industry is rather convoluted when it comes to design.
I suppose the degree you should go with depends on your career ambitions. If you never see yourself working outside of furniture (and this is by all means as great a career choice as any other part of the design field) then you are well ahead of most students who don’t know exactly what they want to do, allowing you to specialize earlier and get some advantage. But it also means that changing career paths later, say from furniture to shoes, will likely be more difficult, although you should have the same critical thinking, sketching, etc. skills as someone who specializes in shoes. The actual wording on the degree isn’t as big of a deal as most make it out to be. The better furniture companies in the south will hire an ID major just as quickly as a furniture design major, from what I can tell.
My background? I started out in an ID program since I didn’t have the math skills to get into an engineering program (where most of my friends at the time went) but soon discovered it was much more interesting than engineering, so I stuck with it. I initially wanted to go into auto design, but found that I enjoyed just about everything encompassed by ID. My last semester at school I did some freelance illustration for a furniture company, which led to an internship, which led to a full-time position as “designer/illustrator.” I’ve been out of school 3 years, and now I’m just starting to slow down and wonder where my interest in other areas of design went. While its not been the best run of employment, I’ve learned 10 times what I learned in 4 years of college. While I don’t have access to full machine and woodworking studios like I did in school, I now have access to some CNC equipment which is much more fun than cutting things out by hand, and I get to play designer on the company dime vs. my own money. But at the end of the day, there’s little creative freedom (and because of my contract, I can’t freelance in the same industry) and recent management changes have shortened the leash even more, so pretty soon I’m out and hope to one day manufacture my own goods on a micro scale (“the long tail of furniture”) but that remains to be seen. Finally, I do have to give some credit to the product development team that I work with, without whom I would have a much more difficult time getting products to market. We have a guy that’s done nothing but upholstery his entire life, another guy who does woodworking, another who specializes in natural materials, etc. There’s more to know than one could possibly learn in 4 years or less at school, maybe even a lifetime (to be competent in all types of furniture and all types of materials) and its really a team effort, although had I specialized in furniture while in school I might have started with a bit more advantage, but the learning curve has been steep. I guess you could say my position specializes in creativity, to compliment the r&d team, but that would be stuffing it into a tiny nutshell!