Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Canadian furniture designer Robin Speke, of Speke|Klein, about the firm’s practice – especially their education at Parnham College in England, the evolution of Speke Klein’s business model, and the links between design, craft and manufacturing. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Given that Parnham College’s founder, John Makepeace, has just released a new book Beyond Parnham about the legacy of Parnham in the craft furniture community in England and beyond, let’s start with your design education. How did your furniture practice begin and how did your experience studying at Parnham help shape that vision?
SK: My partner Thomas Klein and I met at Parnham College in 1996. I was born in Canada but I had been studying art history in England and working in galleries there, and had decided to pursue more hands-on training. Friends and family told me about Parnham and I liked the two-year residency requirement. Thomas is originally Swiss and had been working in retail. He similarly wanted a change and chose Parnham. John Makepeace was there, with his studio and his assistants, but our real influence came from our teacher at the time Robert Ingham.
Parnham offered a two-year, very concentrated post-graduate course, sort of a Master’s level type of degree, although it wasn’t a degree-granting program. It had the combination of learning woodworking, learning design, and then they also had a business element. So throughout the week we would be in the workshop for 8 hours a day, but then in the evenings we would have lectures or guest speakers. We did life drawing and computer classes. And we also had some business input as well that got you thinking about what you wanted to do after the course was finished. Thomas and myself, we focused on starting a business when we were done. By the end of the course, one of the things you were supposed to do was to write a business plan. We wrote one together. The school actually had a competition for the best business plan and we had to present in front of a panel. We were very fortunate to win that competition! That was our road map, at least for when we started out.
Did that plan involve coming back to Canada?
SK: It did. We had made that decision at that point. We were really debating about if we wanted to stay in England or come back to North America. I grew up in Toronto. So we decided that if we were going to move back to North America, it might as well be to someplace where I had a lot of contacts and family.
What drew you to the Durham area?
SK: When we moved back from England, we thought of setting up in Toronto. But once we looked around at location and the cost of space and what would need to be done, we realized that we didn’t need to be right in the centre of the city. We started looking outside of the city and we ended up finding a space near Guelph. We first set up our workshop north of Rockwood in a rented farmhouse with a three-car garage on the property. We were there for five years. Then we wanted to expand the business. So we looked around again, trying to figure out where we wanted to be. The Guelph area was getting quite expensive. We thought about moving further out. Somebody we knew was on an artist’s studio tour in the Durham area. We came up here on a beautiful fall weekend, and we fell in love with the area! When we looked around for industrial spaces, this one was available. So we thought – let’s go! We don’t have any family ties or anything up here. But Durham is well-situated in terms of transportation. And there are actually quite a number of furniture manufacturers here and there is a history of that in the area. So it seemed quite fitting for us to be here.
It seems like the Durham area is a heritage furniture district. Has that history produced a capacity for more skilled workers that you can draw upon for your manufacturing business?
SK: That’s interesting because there are other furniture manufacturers around (Durham Furniture, West Brothers in Hannover, Vokes Furniture in Owen Sound). But our business model is not about mass production. We use a combination of automation and hand finishing so our production isn’t done in a way where you have one person doing the same task all day long. We need a well-rounded person to do the work, someone who can be a little bit more flexible. I think it’s also more interesting to be able to do that. Often we will train people up to do the things we need.
That sounds a little like William Morris [and the Arts & Crafts movement in 19th century England] who wanted to retrain labourers to be well-rounded. Are you trying to revive woodworking skill sets, or is it that you need to embrace a new way of working?
SK: I think that the industry is changing, at least for what we are doing. It’s an interesting mix. We use very highly automated machinery, but then everything is hand-finished and needs that human touch. So there is that combination. But at least in our workshop we aren’t doing things at the moment like, say, marquetry or that kind of thing which is a highly specialized old craft. Also it’s an economic consideration because if you were to do something that’s so specialized, you would need to consider the question of whether or not you can ask the price it is worth. You have to find where your price level can be and where that attention to detail is most suited. You can have machines doing one thing, and you get a level of accuracy and repeatability, but then you get the human touch to take it to the end.
Before we leave the Parnham piece, I was wondering if that background has created a lasting community for you.
SK: There was one other Canadian in our class that we keep in touch with. And there are a few instances of professional collaboration – for example we do have some designs that we produce from a couple who went to Parnham in the first years of the program. But I think in North America the Parham connection doesn’t have the same effect as it would have if we had stayed in England. Of course when we go to England we can tap into that network of contacts, but from a business perspective it’s not as strong. I think that only a select few in North America would know who John Makepeace was. Of course they would if they were to Google him (and then they would say wow, that’s really neat), but people in North America wouldn’t know that as well as they would in England and maybe Europe.
Is there anything more that you would like to add about your training in woodworking and connection with Parnham?
SK: The thing that was interesting with Parnham, and also having John Makepeace and his workshop there, was that we were looking at somebody – and I take my hat off to him – who has created this incredible niche for himself: beautiful product, very highly skilled craftspeople working for him, and the prices that he can command are obviously quite amazing. But I don’t necessarily think that the students thought that they were going to be THAT. There was a dichotomy of that possibility [as evidenced by John Makepeace’s studio and career] and the reality of trying to find a way to make a living. You can look at that and think that [John Makepeace’s example] is a very special reality, and it’s only for a few people. It’s the same here in North America. You get a few very special craftspeople that have gained that reputation. And then there are a lot of other people trying to make it work in a different way.
One of the things we found when we first set up was that we thought we would work to commission and make one-off pieces for people [like John Makepeace’s practice]. But what we found was that – I don’t know if there is a different mentality or a different… I’m not quite sure what… But, for example, someone would ask us to make a custom dining table, and then you put a ton of work into it… but they would never want to spend the money that it merited from the design development perspective. Obviously we didn’t have a reputation like a John Makepeace, and we found that we were never going to get the money back for the design time that we put into it. So we started to work towards designing pieces for our own collection that we could produce again and again. We still have that crafted element and we also have reproducibility. The Rowlands cabinet is a perfect example of that because it has many different configurations and there are certain elements of it that are repeatable. But you always need that handwork at the end to get the details right. So it’s that balance of not mass producing but not making one and then putting it to bed.
I guess it’s that middle ground between not being a studio furniture person, abut then also not working on mass-production. As an aside, in 2000 I curated an exhibition about the furniture practice of Donald Lloyd McKinley, who started the Furniture program at Sheridan College. McKinley was quite entrenched in the craft-based Studio Furniture community, where the work of John Makepeace also finds a home. But as I look at the subsequent generation(s) of Furniture people, I don’t see as many doing that type of work. Perhaps it’s not as interesting, or perhaps it’s just not realistic. McKinley, for instance, supported himself as an educator rather than as a furniture maker.
SK: This has been an ongoing discussion for us – about where there is room for craft and design and manufacturing. It’s a hard middle ground. You can either go high volume, highly automated, or you can do, like you say, the sort of ‘studio furniture’ that makes singular pieces. One of the things we will find is that there are people who are still doing studio furniture but, like your example of Don McKinley, they often have a side income. We also find in woodworking – and I think that there are other crafts where this has happens too – that there are some very good amateurs that do it on the weekend. They make something that is often really beautifully done but they will sell it to somebody for, say, $500!! For them it is just nice to get some money, but it’s not what they are ultimately working to do. But it is confusing for the public who wonder why does that piece have that cost, when you [Speke Klein or other professional furniture makers] are asking this much. It’s hard for people to understand why one is $500, when we are asking, say, $5000. It’s hard for people to see the difference.
I agree, it’s an important issue to open up for conversation if we are going to have a sustainable creative industry.
SK: I don’t think that there is any easy answer. But it’s a reality that faces lots of creative fields. Ceramics, Fine Art… It’s very dependent on how you are doing it, what you are doing it for, where you are, the time you are at in your career. There are so many different factors.
Let’s shift our discussion to another one of those factors: the design process that you use in your professional practice. Can you take me through your design process? And, given that it is a woodworking context, how does that tactile aspect come into it? How is that reconciled with a design process based on drawing and CAD [computer aided design]?
SK: It depends on the project. For the most part, if we are thinking about designing something for the collection, then we usually set up a brief for ourselves. Do we want a dining table or a coffee table? Are there any parameters about that in terms of price point? Or who the end user might be? What is the size or scale? The tighter the brief, the easier it is to design.
How do you make that brief?
SK: Sometimes we will look at our collection and decide that we really need a specific product type to fill a gap. Sometimes it can be that various customers have been asking for something that we don’t have. Or maybe something is selling really well, maybe we need a little bit more of that particular item. So that’s where we try to narrow down what we want to design. Thomas and I both do design work. Maybe we have been sketching something and we talk together and say I’ve got this idea, what about this. Thomas does the CAD work [using SolidWorks], so he will draw things up on the computer, and then we work on it together to figure out the details. We usually go through a few prototypes to work out the details. Those are usually 1:1 [full scale] prototypes. Or if it’s a particular joint then we might do a sample of that element to see if it is working the way that it needs to work. We don’t tend to work in little models because the computer is so handy at visualizing things. And always in the background, because you are working with a material like wood, there are limitations in terms of what you can do with it. When you are starting the design process you don’t want to think too much about those limitations, but then you’ve got to go back to them and say, ok how do I actually make this.
So there are the limitations of the material, but then there are the opportunities offered by your automated equipment. How much research, or exploration of new possibilities, is built into your process?
SK: So often it depends. The process can be very straightforward. But then other times there can be a lot of figuring out how things are going to be done. Because of our business model in terms of production, you also have to think not just in terms of how do we do it once but how do you repeat that. It’s a question of figuring out how things can be made in a repeatable and cost efficient way. Sometimes we have had a design that we really like but we don’t move forward with it because either it is going to cost too much, or the design lends itself to a different material. Sometimes you are trying to do something that, at the end of the day, would be better off if you did it in metal or plastic. There is always that sort of dialogue going on in the background: is the design really appropriate for the material we plan to use, and how can we replicate it again and again. And then we consider the final cost, and ask is it marketable [at that cost]. There are lots of different factors that you need to consider if it’s all going to come together.
Also I think that it’s important to recognize that we have been doing this for 18 years now, so there has been an evolution in terms of the business model. There has been an evolving process of testing what works and what doesn’t work. For example – with the automation it came because we just realized that in order to be competitive and cost efficient this was what we needed to do. So it’s always been that progression of trying to see how we can make it work.
You have brought in designs from other designers. How does that get set up?
SK: We have done it in two different ways. Sometimes we like a particular designer and their design sense, and we will set a brief for them. Often that will be when we see a gap in the collection, and we will approach someone to design specifically for that. That’s one scenario. And then the other one is when we see a design that we like and we will ask if we can incorporate it into the collection. Also for the past number of years we have been working in collaboration with Sheridan College for their ‘Commercial Furniture’ course, taught by Kirsten White. They use Speke|Klein as a client and we set a project for the students to design with us in mind. They have to design something that they think fits into our collection. For the past few years we have said that we want coffee tables or side tables – smaller pieces of furniture – but a coherent look that would fit in to our product line. And if we like it, we will produce it! One of our tables – the FINN table, I think it is our best-selling item – came from a Sheridan student. It’s kind of fun!
That’s great support for young furniture designers! I can imagine that you have seen quite a progression in the field.
SK: Yes it has been very interesting. When we first started out, I think one of our strengths that was that our design sense was quite contemporary and European at a time when modern or contemporary furniture design in North America was really just starting to blossom. It was the end of the 1990s. Prior to that, I recall it was just a lot of antique reproduction. The only modern furniture available was at a few smaller stores focusing on Scandinavian design. IKEA was just starting, but that was it. Then we started to see more of an influx of contemporary European design, and some of the big names like Jasper Morrison and Ron Arad started to be recognized. It felt like contemporary design started to become more mainstream, more widely available. Where it had been limited to the high end stores, you started to see it trickle down into the more mass consumer situation. After that there was a lot of offshoring to China in terms of manufacturing. When I think about where we are today in comparison, I think it has come back around with, as you say, that sort of maker movement. I think that there is a rejection of mass production, and we are seeing a return to the more hand-crafted and the smaller maker. You see a similar thing happening in food and in alcohol, for example craft breweries, craft distilling, even in clothes. I think that’s the way things are coming around, and we are starting to see it in furniture.
Do you have any forecast or prediction for the future?
SK: No, and I think that right now it is really tough because things are changing so much more rapidly – given the role of social media marketing, internet exposure, different communication and distribution channels. And then there are the changes even in the way people are living, making purchasing decisions, and the issue of the aging population. I think there are a lot of bits to the puzzle that need to get figured out. But unfortunately I don’t have the magic answer!