Luthierie to ID?

I’m a luthier (violin maker) with a broad liberal arts degree seeking to make my next career move. Industrial design is one of those things I often wish I had done instead of my current career, and from what little I can glean, I already have many of the basic skills used in the profession from my current line of work. Although my immediate desire is to extend my current career in a new direction not usually taken by others in my field, I’m also seeking to broaden my employability outside the music business, if possible.

The obvious first option is to get a second bachelors in ID. This would be an expensive and impractical luxury. I can’t afford not to work to attend full-time, and the nearest program is at UW-Stout, 70 miles from here in Minneapolis, well beyond part-time commuting. I can’t easily justify the time and expense, especially in light of the many discouraging reports of unemployment and low pay from recent grads here on these boards.

Another option I’ve been looking at is the nascent Design Institute at the U of Minnesota. So far it appears to be little more than the design camp for teens, but a multidisciplinary MA in design is rumored to be in the works. This might be a good option, but as a new degree without gradutates to prove its worth in the workplace, there’s the risk that this could become another expensive vanity degree.

The third option I’ve been thinking about is simply taking relevant coursework without enrolling in a degree program. This would certainly free me up to take only those courses I feel are useful to me, but I doubt such a plan would result in any bankable content for my resume.

Any ideas?

go for MA but see if you can get into a program that gives you more of concept development, practical training and some theory.

You say “expensive and impractical luxury” and “can’t justify the time and expense” but that’s sort of what school is. Or, you can call it an investment in your future. I doubt that mere courses will give you the credentials (or the experience) to move forward into an ID career. I would recommend an MFA (not MA) program. From your description, you might be a compelling candidate for an ID MFA program. You may want to talk to some admissions people in ID programs, just to get a general sense of the viability of an application.

Most people move to pursue graduate studies. It’s just not something you should pursue at a random school up the street. It is a serious investment of time and money and needs to be pursued consciously. Would two years elsewhere really harm you, if they would enable you to make the leap into ID? I don’t know you, but I think, if you’re serious, this should be worth the sacrifice.

As for this MA program you mention, if it really is an MA, then it’s not a terminal degree. If it’s multidisciplinary, then it’s not focused on ID. And, like you said, it doesn’t even exist yet. And, once it does, are you willing to be the program’s guinea pig? Not if you’re serious.

My suggestion would be to research the MFA programs that fit your experience and interests, and then meet with some people to discuss your (possible) application. You may want to do some preliminary portfolio reviews so that you plug up any holes in your portfolio before you go through the trouble of applying.

Lastly, thanks for teaching us all a new word!

what area of id do you want to practice in, and what do you already know that you can aaply to id. are you talking about hand skills or actual product development knowledge. what kind of background did you pursue to do your current career.

Thanks so far for the advice. While I would also like to study art and design as it relates to violins and other string instruments (what I assume an MFA would focus on) I want to focus on more lucrative areas such as product development and manufacturing. For example, all those good, wholesome, basic studio skills I’ve gained from violin work are now done far more cheaply by the Chinese. Basic violin construction can be largely commodified, so other details of design, the varnish and “antiquing” (same as “distressing” in other antique reproductions) become what distinguish a $500 violin from an $5000 violin. So in this regard, I’m seeking education in designing and managing the production of instruments made in China. Additionally, my business partner and I have a growing list of new products,violin and other musical instrument accessories, that we would like to develop and manufacture for our small yet global market.

I’m not wanting to devalue a proper studio education; learning the design process in the company of profs, pros and fellow students is an invaluable experience. But at 35 I’m not sure I’m young and hip and cheap enough to be appealing for entry-level employment in a purely ID studio environment, and, aside from learning the accepted design methods and practices, the studio work wouldn’t likely benefit my current line of work much, either.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be looking into ID, but an MBA? What about design research?

Thanks for your suggestions!

you mentioned antiques and research.

you can combine these two terms with design and come up with violins that not only have high quality of style but also sound and performance, but eventually you need to commercialize your combined skills.

maybe an MBA would help you out better once you have gained studio design skills and updated yourself on some modern techniques in manufacturing. there’s no law that says violins can’t be improved through design and experimentation with modern standards. i know a lot of people have done research on instruments specially the old makes by master violin makers. from the way wood is processed and carved to acoustics and ergo. but how much of it has actually helped to design better violins i am not sure.

i also assume the competition is tough since the majority of violin buyers can’t afford a $6000-12000 violin let alone something above 100k from a master maker when a chinese made cello goes for only $50!

so i recommend you focus on a path that all of its parameters are well defined before making a decision that might delay your interest.

Just as a point of educated opinion: much of that research into improving the sound of a violin comes from a somewhat religious belief in reclaiming some kind of mystical quality lost after the death of Stradivarius and his compatriots in Cremona. Strads are fabulous instruments, the perfection of the artform, but the fiddle fetish is the result of 150 years of skilled marketing from violin dealers. Anyhow, the violin is probably a bad example of an object needing further design; very little has changed in its form in the last 450 years and will likely remain so until it fades into historical obscurity.

Perhaps design education isn’t what I should be looking at for developing my violin work, but I’m still interested in opportunities in the field, leveraging what skills I already have to make the change. If starting over like an 18 year old isn’t possible, what other opportunities might there be in design? What educational paths would I consider? Would an MFA justify the time and expense in the eyes of design employers? Or is there another managerial or academic (research) path that might have better upward mobility?


it’s never too late to do design, the problem is how can you modify your skills and talent to begin designing and overlook your late start.

it will be a good idea to do a design MFA. but it’ll work best if you pick a test category to first try yourself and show you can come up with good ideas, perhaps a thesis study on design methodology and process that is new and innovative; second understand how different it is from what you’re used to; third measure your strength and speed.

the hardest thing in design for you would probably be having to work on different projects and each project entirely from scratch. that’s when you find it’s more research than design. and by research i don’t mean just material, technology, aesthetics and marketing but also a range of potential solutions which you should analyze then follow through.

Thanks for the advice, ufo. Good advice has been hard to come by, so I’m grateful.

One last question; would I be better off if I planned on going directly into freelance work? Experience working in a studio would be valuable, but I’m still worried my age and background would be a problem with HR departments. So if freelancing can be an end-run around all that bureaucracy and other corporate barriers, I’m all for it.


if you can do your prototyping either in US or China and are confident in your clients i think you could start your design gig right after school.

if you can hook up with a couple of people in school that have strong sense of design and are up to date with 2D/3D softwares it would be better.

don’t waste too much time on strategy. things will develop as you go along. just get the basic plan of what you intend to do down, so you won’t run into gridlocks!

A new voice of opinion here:

Whatever you do, I truly think you would have to find the right program and school to get what you want out of your two years. And if you can’t find it in Minnesota, you have to move. Hey it may even be in Europe.

You should be poring over ID schools all over the world, and their master’s offerings to make that decision- I have the feeling that what you really want to do in school is being offered in some program, but you don’t know about it yet, and neither do we.

Lastly, this is my gut opinion-- you should look for a school that has a soiid music program with a great reputation, or a place with a music school nearby- because if you are thinking of doing projects that are comfortable to your background, you need a steady source of test subjects!

A master’s degree is what you make of it, and it sounds like you have a field of expertise already, you just need to connect it to an educational program.