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Issue 86 - The Chippendale International School of Furniture

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016

 

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The Chippendale International School of Furniture

Roddy Martine meets up with the founder of Scotland's top woodworking school

It was a passion for the craft that got me going,” explains Anselm Fraser as he bustles about among his students, advising and encouraging them. “The skills involved in woodwork are as old as time. At school I used to spend a lot of time playing around. Then you ‘hatch’ when you're about 18 and suddenly find it's a very competitive world.” For two years, Anselm, whose family originate from Moniack, near Beauly in Inverness-shire, found himself earning less than £400 per year, so he decided to run his own business. “Woodwork talks to you,” he says. “Having failed at a lot of things, I decided to do something that I actually wanted to do. And that was to create something. When you create something it makes you happy.” And essentially this is Anselm's philosophy in life. Having made the decision to learn about antique furniture restoration in the 1980s, he began by working fro a basement in Edin- burgh until the fashion for brown furniture collapsed. “All those television programmes about minimalism and kit furniture butchered the market,” he recalls wistfully.

So what to do next? He renovated a cow shed at Gilmerton, East Lothian, in which to run a school. Seven years later, having singled out larger premises nearby in the scenic foothills of the Lammermuirs, between Haddington and Gifford, the Chippendale International School of Furniture was born. Thirty years on, it has grown into the leading furniture school in the United Kingdom, and attracts students from all over the world.

“Education is about sewing the seeds of ideas and helping them to grow,” he says confidently. In addition to full-time, 30 week long courses, the Chippendale School also runs five day ‘tasters’ that offer a valuable introduction to fine woodworking skills. The nine month long professional furniture design, making and restoration courses are conceived to instil confidence. Five tutors, all having passed through the Chippendale system and three with a minimum of 25 years of experience, are on hand to provide practical hands-on expertise at every stage of the students’ development.

For example, on my visit there was Rob McCleave, a retired barrister from Nova Scotia, making a music stand; Grant Palmer, a retired police officer from North Berwick, designing a ball box; Iana Molotok, from Russia, with a table; David Bailey, from Edinburgh, designing a drinks cabinet specifically to store red wine, and Sam Rouse, from the USA, with a cradle shaped like a boat for his first child that is expected in April.

Others in this hub of activity included Anne- Lise Maire from France and Hamish Webster from New Zealand, both working specifically on the process of French polishing, and Kevani Moynihan, from Australia, who is exploring decorative techniques in multi-coloured straw. Overseeing everything was Isobel Edgar, who lives on-site and whom Anselm describes as the “Chippendale Mother Superior.” She also helps students to find local accommodation.

Anselm's somewhat eccentric and lovable approach to teaching makes for a happy environment. As you walk about the workshop you notice that everyone is smiling. In an aquarium there are two goldfish called Chip and Dale. Who else but Anselm would have designed for himself a wooden kilt? And the school even has its own coat-of-arms, approved by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. It features two rampant stags on either side of a wooden urn and carries the universal woodworker’s motto: “Measure twice, cut once.” But there is also the serious side. At the end of a 30 week course, students are expected to be able to make or restore any piece of furniture that appears in a book illustration. They are also encouraged to create business plans. “No matter how talented somebody is, it's tough to be able to earn a living from a craft nowadays,” cautions Anselm. “We look after our students while they are here, and we look after them once they leave by helping them with contacts, blogs, and marketing plans.” In addition to teaching, the school takes in furniture for restoration, and makes pieces such as dining room tables and kitchens on commission. It also renovates small properties as a sideline, with students called upon to design “metamorphic” furniture to furnish the interiors. A tree house in Inverness is the school's latest project.

What is so genuinely delightful about the Chippendale International School of Furniture is the sense of fun and enthusiasm you encounter from the moment you step across the threshold. Creativity is the name of the game, and the satisfaction that it brings is immeasurable for all to see.

“Our name, of course, is taken from Thomas Chippendale, the great 18th Century furniture designer,” concludes Anselm, with a twinkle in his eye. “Unfortunately, we do seem to attract a lot of emails from people who somehow seem to think that we're in the business of teaching something entirely different and I’m not talking about pine stripping!”