It's no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has left its mark. Businesses have closed, jobs have been cut and the industry as we once knew it has changed forever. New ways of working have been introduced, new measures have been put in place and new practices are being implemented to safeguard what is left of each industry sector across the UK - and even the world.
When it comes to the furnishing industry, in particular for young furniture makers looking to start or progress their journey, it may never have been harder to figure out the next step.
Rolling back to the beginning of the year at January Furniture Show 2020, a batch of the students from the 2019 Young Furniture Makers
exhibition, an event organised by industry charity The Furniture Makers' Company, took the opportunity to present their work at the UK's biggest furniture trade event.
What was an overwhelmingly positive experience that would typically set the year in motion for potential new paths or chapters for budding young furniture designers and makers, was followed by a cloud of uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic.
We decided to catch up with some of those students that took part in the exhibition to find out how the pandemic has impacted their prospects and plans. Alexander Stanton, Natalie Yung, Ellie Mone and Amy Buchanan shared their respective stories.
Natalie Yung - Unto This Last |
Natalie currently works as an upholstery developer and business line manager at East London-based Unto This Last, where she has been working from home during the start of lockdown.
"I am very grateful and extremely lucky to have an ideal job very relevant to the degree I did during early February. It was difficult to start a job like that, as working from home requires much trust from the team and more communication.
"I also had to clear out space in my flat to fit an industrial sewing machine, although moving in was easy, moving out was not. Since then I’ve been developing the company’s upholstery and outdoor furniture products, which includes a sofa collection, which we’re hoping to launch this year."
On a personal level, Natalie revealed that the pandemic has played a big impact on her mental health, with worries around redundancy, especially being a foster carer of her younger brother, it hasn't been an easy time.
"During this time, although work gave me a sense of normality I did feel I was losing creativity and wanted creative output. Recently I joined my friend’s weekly design brief called the weekly Smoko - a scheme that invites designers/makers to respond to the week’s object - where we gather every Sunday virtually on Zoom to discuss our work.
"Although the COVID-19 pandemic did affect a lot of us negatively, I do try to see it as a break, a time that we pause and re-prioritize, a time we provide care to friends and family, and it’s really in these situations there are opportunities for creativity to grow.
"Being featured in the January Furniture Show was a great experience. I gained industry insight, knowledge on how to protect my designs and valuable connections that may lead to projects and exposure.
"My design - Stack-it pouffe - was spotted by upholstery manufacturer Belfield group, although the design was not of interest for their clients I really appreciate that they considered it. I truly hope one day my design will be available for the public, especially for those with limited living space."
Ellie Mone |
Since graduating, Ellie has travelled around South East Asia, exploring its culture and colours - she loves colour - and then showcased her work at the January Furniture Show, which she says "was a great experience".
"It was great to meet people in both the design and manufacturing industry and discuss opportunities of taking my woven stools forward.
"I am now selling my stools on an online interiors store www.artistsandobjects.com
which celebrates independent artists and designers.
"I have been doing an internship with Newcastle’s Trend Bible too, discovering lots about the research and trend side of design."
While Covid-19 has paused her internship, it has given her time to work on her portfolio and CV, as well as time to think about her next steps, where she is currently looking for a Junior Designer Role in the industry.
Amy Buchanan - Amy Buchanan Design |
In September 2019 Amy started a part-time sales consultant position at NEXT. It was initially a 3-month contract and she wanted to have a graduate design-related job by the end of it, however, that did not go to plan.
"Throughout September and the beginning of October, I was applying for jobs every day, but I did not hear anything back and started to feel quite down about the process.
"Then in October, I displayed my university work at the Young Furniture Makers exhibition and my Kitchen Larder was selected to be featured at the January Furniture Show.
"This gave me a confidence boost and was really looking forward to the show. It was a great opportunity to display my work and I made some useful contacts. It gave me great exposure to the market and increased my social media following."
Following the show, Amy continued to apply for jobs but found it difficult to secure a position.
"During the last week of February, it felt like my luck had changed and I had two interviews. The first interview was for a CAD-related position at a store design company. The interview went well, they liked me but someone else just had a little more experience.
"The second interview was for an assistant position at a kitchen design and manufacturing company. It went well however the owner felt I might be more suitable elsewhere and we arranged to have another interview in three weeks’ time, one week before lockdown.
"Unfortunately, we decided it was best to reschedule the interview for when it is safe to do so. One week before lockdown I had my first virtual interview with a recruitment company. At first, it felt strange but by the end, I felt more comfortable.
"The recruitment company felt I was suitable for the position and the next stage was for me to do some tests. I passed the tests and the company wanted to see me that week, but I did not feel comfortable going in due to Coronavirus, so that interview has also been put on hold.
Amy found a graduate job in the middle of October, with Tom Howley, a bespoke kitchen company.
"I'm working at their head office in their factory paperwork team. I'm currently working from home and my training/probation period is going very well. It seems that the wait was worth it and I got the perfect job for me. I know I am very lucky to get a job during this uncertain time."
Alexander Stanton - Alex Stanton Furniture
"Well it has definitely been an uncertain time for many, myself included, as we all try to brave our way through this. One small silver lining to this grey cloud is that I have had plenty of time to plan for my return; sketching, designing, learning to glean inspiration from new places such as my home and its surroundings as that is where many of us have spent most of the last few months," Alexander said.
Since his graduation last year, life has certainly been a roller coaster as he forges a path to being a self-employed furniture designer and maker.
"Everything became very real when I signed a lease in a shared workshop," Alexander said.
"This step forwards motivated me to put myself in unfamiliar situations to meet potential clients. Doing this also helped me meet like-minded people such as at the January Furniture Show. However, tapping into the bespoke furniture market has not been without difficulty, but the challenge keeps me on my toes and has brought me several commissions which has been insightful to my development as a designer maker."
On COVID-19, Alexander describes it as an "uphill trudge" on a professional basis after not being able to work in the workshop as normal. However, this has opened a lot of time to sit down, plan ahead and "properly explore all the little details within my ideas and designs".
"I have also been able to take this time to learn and hone my skills at a new and more advanced CAD program that I will admit, I had been putting off for a while.
"I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to showcase one of my pieces at the January Furniture Show earlier this year. The time I spent there was a very educational experience for me as I got the opportunity to meet various representatives from large furniture companies.
"Gaining exposure to the business aspect of things, marketing, understanding costs, copyrighting and many more practical insights helped and will help how I run my own business."
As the industry continues to adapt, we hope each student can continue on their journey and build a career in such a vibrant sector, and we wish them the best of luck moving forward.
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if you would like more information on any of the young furniture makers and their work.