Notes from the 2016 Furniture Society Conference

By Lee:

Last month, I had the honor of presenting alongside Laura Zahn of Allied Woodshop and JD Sassaman of Pier 9 at the 2016 Furniture Society Conference in Philadelphia.  The conference was packed with furniture makers, sculptors, academics and instructors, curators, and designers from across the US, Canada, and Asia. Presentations focused on the intersection of digital fabrication and craft in today’s furniture practice, but diverged into subjects as broad as psychoanalytic “objectology”, marketing for small businesses, and a drunken, rowdy group portfolio share dubbed “slide wars”.  Our particular panel was about building community around craft and our three different models of collaborative or collective shops.  Here are some of the excerpts (paraphrased) from our conversation, mediated by the talented Sarah Marriage.

Q: What is the ‘collective’ structure of your shop?

Laura: Allied Woodshop is a collective woodshop located in Downtown Los Angeles. We build community around furniture making by offering bench space, workshops, apprenticeships, and maker talks. Membership at Allied Woodshop gives woodworkers access to a full suite of woodworking machines and tools as well as a community of makers. We also offer workshops for beginner and advanced woodworkers with a focus on building confidence and skills in a fun and friendly environment.

JD: Pier 9 is a thriving creative community, with a cutting edge workshop hanging just over the Bay in San Francisco.  Our Artist in Residence Program and Creative Partnerships bring architects, engineers, designers, makers, and thinkers from around the world to work side-by-side with the team and our Autodesk employees.  The workshop is run by a small team of folks who are really committed to teaching people new skills, creating an empowering space for exploration, and supporting our shop users on their creative paths.

Lee: Offerman Woodshop was formerly structured as a group of independent woodworkers who all took on private commissions and built them out of the same shop.  We paid the shop a 10% overhead fee on any of our commissions, which helped to cover rent, tool sharpening, and keeping the lights on.  Recently, we have transitioned away from this model to a more conventional business structure, where our roles are more clearly stated and we work together on commissions for hourly wages under one cohesive OWS brand.  Meanwhile, our online store still operates under a collective model—every member of the shop has a line of small goods we make and sell independently through the online store and 20% of our sales go back to the shop to pay for overhead. While our roles are more defined now, we still make most decisions about the store, and general shop operations together. We also eat lunch together everyday, and are lucky to enjoy each others’ company greatly.

Q: How does community/collaboration influence craft in your shop?

Laura: Community is a huge part of the environment at Allied Woodshop. The collective aspect of our shop allows us to problem solve and improve our work based on the input of the people with whom we share space. Many of the furniture makers who work at Allied Woodshop have recently moved to LA and are looking to meet people and build relationships in their new city. We provide a community that helps woodworkers to make connections and launch their careers.      

JD: Pier 9 has an awesome collection of machines and equipment, but the spirit of the Pier community is what makes it special.  We’ve built a culture of supported exploration, where shop users are encouraged to ask questions, try out new things, and get to know each other in the process.  Our connection to craft is not traditional- it’s often more about thoughtfulness, exploration, learning from each other, and constantly evolving a process or a project with feedback from the community.   

Lee: Because we work primarily on a one-off custom commission basis, every project we get is different from the last. This means we benefit greatly from the wide range of diverse skills and backgrounds in our small community of makers. Thomas and Nick can wield a chainsaw through a tree stump like nobody’s business, Josh likes exploring the nitty gritty chemistry of finishing, Krys’ attention to detail and perfectionism is key, Michele has mastered hand cut joinery, and Matty is a great educator.  While the mythical craftsman toils away in solitude, at our shop every project engages us in some level of collective problem solving.  Alone we may get stuck on a small detail for days, but with others around we bounce ideas off each other–finding better solutions faster. Finally, because we get along well and have plenty of fun working, I like to think our furniture pieces are imbued with an aura of both good craftsmanship and collective joy—the music, laughter and home cooked meals enjoyed in their making.

Q: How does craft influence the community?

Laura: Many of the furniture makers who find their way to Allied Woodshop have a traditional approach to furniture making – we value the skill involved in making things by hand. This approach shapes the conversations that happen in the shop, informs the types of tools that we purchase, and influences the work that we do. We also try to share these values with others by offering workshops that focus on traditional craft and hosting open houses to show and talk about our work.    

JD: A lot of our work involves software, CNC machinery, and rapid prototyping machines like laser cutters and 3D printers.  The idea of ‘craft’ in those spaces is really new.  What we are learning at Pier 9 is that an approach to any of this work that includes patience, iteration, and attention to the results of your decisions ultimately leads to better and better work.  These are major themes in any craft tradition.  We are working in new mediums and with new materials, but a craft mindset still applies, and our users can study the marks of these digital tools and build rich understanding of the process and equipment and ultimately become masters of these new tools.

Lee: I have never had an office job, so its hard for me to talk from an unbiased perspective. That said, I believe that craft, and making high quality, useful things for a living, leads to a kind of satisfaction that is not always experienced in the typical day job. This creative satisfaction in turn leads to an empowered and fulfilled shop community and culture.  The shared experience of craft and making (including the inherent financial and material struggles of craft as well as its many joys) also connects us to the larger community of makers in our local LA area. We share Friday beers, shop resources and techniques with our friends in the LA box collective, Monroe Workshop, WheelerMade, Allied Woodshop, Angel City Lumber and many more.  The shared commitment to craft also binds us to the broader online community through social media, this very blog, and our newsletter—where we benefit from shared ideas, designs, and professional connections from around the world.