Professional

Feature: Joint enterprise

We speak to some of the women working hard to establish themselves on an equal footing with their male counterparts as designers, makers and managers in the UK’s furniture industry

by Jo Weaden

Fiona Barrett-Campbell set up her furniture design company, FBC London, to create strong pieces for her interior schemes

Fiona Barrett-Campbell set up her furniture design company, FBC London, to create strong pieces for her interior schemes

Furniture design has historically been a male-dominated industry. However, over the years there have been some inspiring women – from Eileen Gray and Ray Eames to Charlotte Perriand and Florence Knoll – who have become famous for their work in this sphere.

It is clear that today’s furniture industry has made some progress in terms of creating a gender-balanced workforce, with more women now producing furniture and encouraging the next generation of furniture designers in the UK. And Design Council statistics show that more women are now working in the design industry. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of women in design occupations increased by 35.9%. Over these four years, women have gone from comprising 19% to 22% of the workforce.

However, there is still an obvious imbalance of genders within the field, with plenty of work left to be done. The Design Economy research report evidenced the scale of the gender imbalance, which starts in education. Crafts Council research has identified that, during the GCSE years, boys outnumber girls in product design subjects, especially within the field of resistant materials technology.

Women-only courses, like this one at Zito Schmitt Design in California, help women gain confidence and develop their skills

Women-only courses, like this one at Zito Schmitt Design in California, help women gain confidence and develop their skills

The Design Council’s executive director of architecture, built environment and design, Clare Devine, says: “Good design means having a diverse range of voices in the room, increasing the pool of talent and flow of ideas.” The government claims the skills agenda is high on its list of priorities, “as it should be” remarks Devine, who goes on to explain that the Design Council has plans to analyse this issue in greater detail.

Women are ‘still rare’ in technology and design, claims Jan Cavelle, who set up the Jan Cavelle Furniture Company in the early 1990s. Throughout her career, Cavelle has had to deal with remarks about her gender, including her stature. “They seem to think if I am a boss, I must be Amazonian,” she says. And unfortunately, she believes that issues still remain: “We had some male reps in only a couple of weeks ago. Despite the fact I was talking to them they still ignored me and talked directly to the two males in the office as if I didn’t exist.”

Sarah Christensen received some unhelpful comments when exhibiting at this year’s New Designers show

Sarah Christensen received some unhelpful comments when exhibiting at this year’s New Designers show

Cavelle has given advice to many women over the years through mentoring and entrepreneurship schemes. She believes women are often held back by a lack of self-belief and self-confidence. She champions working with educational institutions to encourage women from an early age. Her advice for women working or starting out in this industry is that “self-belief is absolutely crucial. As with all careers, you are going to have to fight through and not stop and doubt.”

Furniture designer Bethan Gray received supportive and encouraging mentoring from Matthew Hilton and Tom Dixon before starting her own business. “I believe that one way we can encourage women to enter the industry is to nurture and support young talent – mentoring programmes are a great example of this,” she says. After setting up her design studio in 2008, Gray now designs furniture for companies including John Lewis and Workhouse while selling her collections through stores and galleries such as Harrods and Lane Crawford.

After setting up her design studio in 2008, Gray now designs furniture for companies including John Lewis and Workhouse

After setting up her design studio in 2008, Gray now designs furniture for companies including John Lewis and Workhouse

Gray says: “It’s fair to say that there aren’t many female designers who have managed to break through in this male-dominated industry. This in itself was an obstacle for me in my design career.” However, Gray believes the perception of women in this industry is a challenge that needs to be tackled.

Furniture and interior designer Fiona Barratt-Campbell set up her furniture design company, FBC London, three years ago after finding it hard to source pieces that complemented the style of her interior design schemes. She designs ‘strong’ pieces that ‘aren’t particularly feminine’, which are all manufactured in the north east of England. “There are just no women in the industry, it is very much male dominated,” she says. “I don’t care what they say about glass ceilings being broken, it is still very difficult for women. You have to be very strong and be prepared to grow a tough skin”, something she has acquired after 13 years in the industry.

Wendy Shorter runs a soft-furnishings and upholstery training centre and won the Craft Skills Award 2013

Wendy Shorter runs a soft-furnishings and upholstery training centre and won the Craft Skills Award 2013

Barratt-Campbell thinks female figureheads should take part in public speaking to make their voices heard and share their experiences. She recommends raising awareness and gaining exposure by “going back to design schools and saying ‘I have been there, I have done it.’ I think that’s really important.”

Sarah Christensen designs and makes furniture, and exhibited at this year’s One Year On at the annual New Designers graduate show. “People asked me ‘Who makes your work?’ After I said ‘I do’, they grilled me with questions like ‘How is this jointed then?’ as if I were lying,” she says. Christensen isn’t sure if the people made these comments because they thought she had a business partner or because she is a woman.

A student at Oxford High School. The Design Council is exploring ways to encourage young women into the sector

A student at Oxford High School. The Design Council is exploring ways to encourage young women into the sector

Her advice to women wanting to work in the industry would be to check out the workplace or workshop first and “make sure you feel comfortable there – make sure you are in an environment that feels right for you”.

Initiatives that specifically support women in the furniture industry are scarce. The Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers targets the younger generation through various initiatives, such as competitions, experiences and awards. But it does not have any initiatives in place that focus on encouraging women to enter the sector. The Design Council is working with its partners in business, the government and the civil society to explore some of these issues.

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