In my last year at Stowe, my Design Technology class was a double lesson at the end of Tuesday afternoon, a long trek from my Sport Science class, which preceded it. A long commute, I was always late!
For most of us, it was 80 minutes of escapism. Time to lose oneself in our A-level projects, doing something creative, something fun. For me, it was the start of something much bigger than a qualification. It was the first taste of my future career, a career that has given me immense enrichment and a real journey of discovery, learning, challenges and self-fulfilment.
After 4 years at university, I attended The Chippendale International School of Furniture, in East Lothian, Scotland. The School has recently been taken over by an Old Stoic, Tom Fraser (Grenville 06). His older brother, my best pal, has been my woodworking confidant over the last 4 years as we trained together and still work next to each other every day, albeit running separate businesses. I had an amazing year living on a farm and spending 12 hours every day in the workshop. Romantic! By the end of the year I had learnt a great deal, had completed 3 pieces of furniture that I was very proud of but I definitely didn’t feel that the quality of what I was producing was anywhere near the standard that was necessary. It was at this time that I managed to find a chap called Alex, who became my boss and my teacher for the next 2 years, and is now a great friend.
Most of what I know now, I learnt from working with Alex. It was incredible experience, being thrown into working for the world’s leading interior designers and developers. I learnt the benchmark for true quality and excellence: a benchmark that I stay unequivocally true to each day. Working with exotic veneers, bending and curving them, inlaying ebony, boxwood and brass. Epic stuff!
I finished working for Alex 5 years ago and, since then, I have moved back to Bristol, built a workshop, employed makers under me and have established my own business, JMW Furniture. We focus on all kinds of bespoke projects from kitchens and libraries down to individual items of furniture. We specialise in free-standing furniture and take the most pleasure from it. We make one-off dining tables, coffee tables, consoles, desks and credenzas. We draw inspiration from our clients tastes and lifestyles.
I have two favourite moments in a commission. One is seeing the client’s face upon completion and the other is when the design is approved. Sometimes we might hit the bull’s eye with the first dart, other times there can be multiple revisions, and when you get it right, it is immensely satisfying.
We recently completed a package of furniture for a chalet in Verbier, consisting of a 4 metre walnut dining room table, a matching console table and a series of custom designed bronzed metal furniture, designed by myself. An opportunity that we relished and executed successfully. It was a big turning point for the business, allowing me to get more experience working abroad, and managing projects. I have been challenging myself and my employees with some very complex designs in the last year, with the belief that you cannot improve if you do not take yourself out of your comfort zone. This doesn’t mean all furniture that is designed and made in my workshop is complex, quite the contrary, as I believe most of the time that simplicity is key, and less is more. We like to allow the beauty of the timber to really shine through.
Sustainability is an important factor for my business and a goal I am working towards more and more. I have started to build my own timber supply, sourcing hardwoods from where I grew up in Scotland. The first trees are drying in stick at the moment, ready to be used in a year or two. I would like my business to make furniture predominantly from our own wood stacks, minimising the usage of imported timbers and materials from further afield. This would give me immense satisfaction.
I hope this article gives at least one Stoic the inspiration to create a career out of the DT department at Stowe. There are many woodworking schools around the country that can get you on your way for a fraction of what a university degree costs these days. The vocational departments at Stowe are not there just for escapism, they can be the stepping stone to something far greater. It can provide you with a solid income, a rich life of values and, at the end of it all, you will have left a legacy.