The Earnest Workshop: valuing furniture for its durability

Furniture designer and maker Dan Gillingham says the retail sector is flooded with disposable product designed to a price point. He spoke to Michael Smith about creating sustainable and durable pieces “that will stand the test of time aesthetically and practically”.

Designer Dan Gillingham (left) with furniture maker Lyndsay Fake: creating prototypes with quality, functionality and durability in mind. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop Designer Dan Gillingham (left) with furniture maker Lyndsay Fake: creating prototypes with quality, functionality and durability in mind. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

Dan Gillingham completed a Bachelor of Technology at Massey University, majoring in product development and drawing most interest and inspiration from the design elements of his studies. He would go on to work in design-led teams for Wellington-based A.E. Tilley and bedroom furniture manufacturer Design Mobel.

At the former he experienced the freedoms and compromises of his discipline. “A.E. Tilley saw design as the means to understand market-driven forces and to design to those constraints and the customers’ needs.”

Principled stance

Gillingham would eventually strike out on his own, establishing The Earnest Workshop in August 2012 from his home in Mount Maunganui. He was inspired, in part, by sustainability principles initiated at Design Mobel, under the influence of founder Dave MacFarlane.

“Furniture design had been a passion of mine for a long time. I saw the industry becoming more and more price driven, and wanted to create something that people aspired to. A lot of people connect with a philosophy of buying less and being more discerning in what they buy.

“I see the design process as the means by which we work with our customers to determine what they need – and that includes the commercial demands of retailers. It’s important that a retailer understands your brand and becomes an advocate for your products.

“There often tends to be a cost push from retailers, but that discussion becomes a lot easier if there is a common appreciation of the brand story and the value it brings.”

Brand embodiment

Peel: a free-standing coat rack in steam-bent American white ash. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

Peel: a free-standing coat rack in steam-bent American white ash. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

Gillingham’s first creation under the workshop’s name was the well-received Peel free-standing coat rack. It is constructed with minimal wastage in mind – using traditional joining methods and with no metal hardware componentry. Its quality, functionality and durability are the embodiment of the brand’s approach to furniture design.

His initial foray into the commercial market came in the form of Flight, an armchair characterised by minimal, unpretentious detailing and its signature angled back support, which “rests lazily upon the seat cushion”.

Traceability

Both items come in American white ash, a favourite of Gillingham’s customers who are keen on the wood’s blond finish. “White ash is sourced from small woodlots and harvested on a sustainable rotation. We also offer our customers the option of making pieces in any species of their choice.

Flight: minimal, unpretentious detailing and high-quality upholstery. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop Flight: minimal, unpretentious detailing and high-quality upholstery. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

“Our ideal timber species would be grown in New Zealand, which we could visit and provide detailed traceability. But we’ve been unable to find a local species which offers the look demanded by the market and which machines well.” He adds that some of the workshop’s pieces simply wouldn’t present the form as intended given the prominent grain of native woods.

At a premium

Like designer Clark Bardsley (previously featured in these pages), Gillingham is increasingly focused on designing furniture for small spaces – “furniture that is multifunctional, incorporates storage or has a small footprint”.

His comfortable and stylish Welcome couch comes with an optional extended base, which “provides a generously cantilevered table that seems to float from the side of the couch. And we’re designing more products in this ‘space’ at the moment.”

Stylish and comfortable, the Welcome couch comes with an optional extended base. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop Stylish and comfortable, the Welcome couch comes with an optional extended base. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

Successful connections

Gillingham places a lot of importance on The Earnest Workshop’s website and social media connections – “essential tools in communicating our story. They’re a low-cost way of reaching out to retailers and wholesalers, and establishing our brand in their markets – the origin of much of our success.

“We’ve tried to create a range of pieces that cater for the needs of commercial clients … while the majority of our bespoke commissions come from adaptations of existing items. Having said that, lately we’ve been working with clients designing bespoke couches, office workstations and a ‘man-inspired’ bar.”

He says that making three-dimensional files of each piece of furniture (available via the website) allows architects and interior designers to consider product options, wood colour finishes and upholstery modifications in their presentations to clients.

“And we’re in partnerships with local workshops that have highly skilled craftsmen and the capability to manufacture in volume when required. Each furniture piece is designed with production efficiencies in mind to ensure that assembly costs and volumes are achievable.”

George table, Edna dining chair and Oliver buffet unit: the KIN range of dining furniture, customised for modern family living. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

George table, Edna dining chair and Oliver buffet unit: the KIN range of dining furniture, customised for modern family living. Photo: © The Earnest Workshop

Enduring intentions

Gillingham says the workshop’s design philosophy is partly motivated “by the ideal of moving away from the mass market and its emphasis on disposability – whereas, historically, people have valued furniture for its durability. Fashion is for a moment, but style is forever, so the enjoyment of a lovingly crafted piece of furniture is ongoing.

“The market is flooded with product that is designed to a price point or to a trend … and neither is sustainable. Customers are either unknowingly buying a piece of furniture that won’t last, or buying it knowing full well that they intend to dispose of it when it no longer looks the part. We want to create pieces and promote discussion that will inspire a change in the way we value products.”

Expectations

He is upbeat about the industry’s prospects: “It’s no secret that cheap imports have played a big part in seeing many doors close … so it’s important not to get caught in the trap of trying to compete on price alone. Brands that tell a compelling story can connect with customers in a powerful way, unlike a price offer.

“For us, it’s about articulating what we stand for and connecting with people [via our brand] who share the same values.

“I believe New Zealand manufacturers have the skills base available to them to create exciting new products that the likes of China simply don’t have the inclination to.”

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