Practical craft skills needed as a furniture designer

I finished my degree in industrial design and decided that I want to become a contemporary furniture designer. Most of my degree projects weren’t related to furniture design, but the couple that were captured what I love most about design. During my ID degree I learnt basic woodworking and metalworking skills which I used to make small scale prototypes. I would like to know if I need more practical craft skills to work in a furniture design studio, or if I would need a workshop and to make the furniture myself if I went freelance.

So does a furniture designer make full size, high quality prototypes, or do they just make rough mockups and then send the CAD file to a specialist furniture maker. How does the process work?

The answers to these questions will be very different depending on the scenario. In general I would say that the ability to make full scale experience prototypes is invaluable in furniture. The ability to actually sit in or on something, move around your design, see it in space, and evaluate full scale will allow you to make better decisions and more fully understand your context. These can start very rough and become refined as you go. Any gained knowledge in the craft should be helpful in understanding and developing better design intent. This is not to say that you always need to be doing all the work and craft, but the better you understand it, the better your understanding of potential production methods and ways to make something can be, and this is what can give you greater control over your designs. I assume the process is different almost anywhere you work, but in general working fast and rough to discover and prototype quickly and being able to give clear direction on how you’d like to execute your design will take you a long way. The better you get, or understand any part of the process should only make you more well rounded and better.

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That was an interesting show KenoLeon. I couldn’t quite tell if the chair that they pitched was still a prototype or a finished piece. That Grafton company manufactures the furniture themselves, but I assume there are a lot of furniture design studios that design the furniture and then outsource it to a furniture manufacturer. And there are a lot of furniture companies whose portfolio consists of work by freelance furniture designers. I guess the freelancers would usually pass the manufacturing onto the company.

IDiot, I totally agree that full scale products are invaluable, especially for ergonomics. And I think you’re saying that I don’t need to become a full craftsman, but just to clarify …

If I work for a furniture design studio, or as a freelancer selling to furniture companies, do I also need to be a furniture ‘maker’ (as in make end ready pieces of furniture), or would I be fine making prototypes and handing the drawings over for manufacture?

I would say that it is good to have an opinion or point of view on the final manufacturing detail, BUT different manufacturers will have different equipment, different processes, different capabilities, different crafts people, and this will all lead to having different preferences for how they all might want to make the same piece. Some differences may be subtle, others may be drastic, but in general when working with a manufacturer, you need to be able to work with them to help them understand how and why you might want to do something one way, and also be able to understand their core competencies and strengths to understand how you might leverage them to execute your idea or make something better or different. The greatest asset you can have is the ability to learn and adapt and be willing to teach and communicate. As far as the deliverables go, being clear about design intent of your prototypes and models is important, they may have ideas or capabilities that you were unaware of that may help execute on your intent better than your original idea, but you may have been unaware of. The “why” is generally more important than the “how”, they are almost always several ways to do or make one thing. That being said, coming to the table with a few ideas on the “how” is almost always a good idea. I guess another big thing to consider is that in most in-depth partnerships with a manufacturer, the design intent model or prototype and initial drawings should feel more like the middle of the conversation than the end.

Thanks for your reply. I’m still a little uncertain. I posted the thread because I need to know if I have a good chance of breaking into the industry and finding work either in a studio or freelancing, if I approached them with a portfolio of good designs and renders (also showing the fine details), and prototypes. I need to know where or if to invest my time, and I haven’t got the facilities or skills to make high quality pieces of furniture.

I’ve been to student furniture exhibitions before, and a lot of the students were obviously trained as furniture makers, and they were exhibiting very well made pieces of furniture. If that is needed to get into the industry then I am at a serious disadvantage.

Why don’t you contact manufacturers and ask?

They don’t need to hire you to answer the question. And I’d bet a few of them would review your portfolio in addition to answering your question.

I know I am always happy to give anyone my .02 if they ask. For example, if you want to get into medical design, don’t spend your time learning the quality/regulatory system beforehand. While essential for anyone in medical design, wait for on-the-job training.

That’s what I’ll do Iab. I’m not optimistic about getting advice from design studios though. I haven’t had much luck in the past.

If you haven’t before, attend NEOCON in Chicago in June. Make contacts there.

From my very limited experience, you don’t have to know how to actually build furniture, but you do need to know how it’s built. The product development cycle is way too fast to construct more than small models (for instance, a corner detail or molding sample). I’m sure different companies handle it their own way, but you should know how to hit a desired market, what styles are hot, how to detail with considerable finesse, including structure, jointery, assembly hardware, and blocking; and have a strong sense of sellable styling.

Knowing how to actually build furniture would be a great background, but not actually necessary. I feel the best designers have an inbuilt sense of the physical presence of the pieces they are drawing, and this generally comes from much experience seeing their drawings take shape, and living with the end product of their ideas.

I’m pretty sure it depends on who you’re working for if you need those crafting skills or not. However, I do believe it will give you a competitive edge. And in the case of freelance furniture building, unless you get somebody to do the actual work, the skills are obviously indispensable. My recomendation is that you should still try and learn the skills because I dont think you will lose anything if you do (see if there isnt any local programs that will help you with that). Besides, it might be a good hobby and/or open doors to other professions that you may be interested in. Ask professionals about your concerns, Im sure they will help.

Best of luck!