SCOTLAND’S only independent furniture-making school has called on more women to enrol in its woodworking courses and take up a career in the workshop.

The Chippendale International School of Furniture in East Lothian has been turning out top craftsmen for more than 25 years, but few women are applying to the not-for-profit institution.

This year, six women enrolled in the professional 30-week course which accommodates 25 students. Last year, just three women enrolled and in each of the two years before only five women took up the trade.

School principal Anselm Fraser believes women have a “natural affinity” with woodworking and he wants to encourage more to apply.

This year, Honor Dalrymple was named student of the year after producing work which Fraser described as “exemplary” and “sublime”.

Dalrymple, from Gifford, near Haddington, studied civil engineering at the University of Bristol and then worked in London as a structural engineer.

She said that it was sometimes a frustrating profession, with structural engineers only required to work on “aspects of a project, rather than from start to finish”.

She undertook a short woodworking course in London, which set her on a path to the Chippendale school.

“Coming to this school was an obvious choice for me – the family home where I grew up is just a couple of miles down the road,” she said.

School principal Fraser said: “The beauty of Honor’s work, which included a cabinet, oak desk and chairs, was exemplary. Her designs were excellent, and the quality of her making was sublime.

“We’d very much like more women to consider a career in woodworking and, we believe, women often have a more natural affinity to combining the design aesthetics and practical sides of the trade.

“The school has been involved in campaigns to raise the profile of woodworking generally with careers advisers in schools, because few realise that furniture design is a career option for young students.”

This year’s crop of students came from the UK, USA, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Falkland Islands, Singapore, India, Ireland and Trinidad and Tobago.

Former student Vanessa Johnston, from Seattle, graduated this year and is in the process of setting up her own company in Scotland.

She was awarded a commendation by the Chippendale Society to mark the 300th birthday of celebrated furniture maker Thomas Chippendale.

Dr Adam Bowett, chairman of the society, said Johnston’s work showed “outstanding craftsmanship and beautiful design”.

Johnston was previously a marketing director and graphic designer and began to develop her skills while living on a houseboat. “I renovated it, building cabinets, and even adding a second storey,” she said.

Another former student, Archana Pai, has now returned to India to take up the trade, making her one of only a handful of furniture designers in the country.

Pai, who is in her early 40s, said: “I consider that men and women are equally suited to woodworking. Interest and passion in woodworking matters most, to excel in this field. I was always interested in designing and making my own furniture and never satisfied with the work done by others, hence decided to learn the skills.

“I chose to study in Scotland because, to join the Chippendale School, there is no age limit and there is no requirement of prior experience or education in woodworking. This suited me perfectly.”

Pai was previously a chartered accountant and now plans to set up a workshop in Bangalore where she lives with her husband.

She added: “I specialise in fine woodworking using solid wood. I want to ensure that the furniture made by me is sustainable and is also aesthetic.”

Fraser, who founded the school 25 years ago, and named it after Thomas Chippendale, said many women have also blazed a trail in the profession.

He cites Glasgow School of Art graduate Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, Irish-born architect and designer Eileen Gray and French furniture designer Charlotte Perriand.

“They helped to inspire some of the biggest artistic movements, including Art Deco and modernism,” Fraser said.

He added: “We’d also like to encourage more women into woodworking because it is, primarily, about artistic design rather than brute hard work. Modern machinery takes much of the hard work out of woodworking.

“So, if you’re a women thinking about furniture design and making as a career, it really is no longer a man’s world. The number of women woodworkers is growing, and that’s something we’d like to applaud and encourage.”


By Anselm Fraser, principal, The Chippendale International School of Furniture

In considering the history of furniture design, we need only look to a small Neolithic settlement on Orkney. Skara Brae consists of eight dwellings, linked together by a series of passages, and dating to between 3200BC and 2200BC. Remarkably, each house has surviving beds, cupboards, dressers and shelves.

The only reason they’ve survived, making them some of the world’s oldest furniture, is that Orkney didn’t (and doesn’t) have trees. All the Stone Age furniture is aptly made entirely from stone.

Maybe not very comfortable, but which underlines that furniture designers have been designing furniture for over 4,000 years.

Hardly surprising therefore that we’ve ended up with comfortable chairs, beds, tables and chairs – we’ve had many centuries to get the basic designs right.

The fact is that furniture design has been around since the dawn of time, and we have examples of ancient woodworking by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese.

For example, archaeologists recently found a remarkably-intact furniture shop in Pompeii, largely destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 779AD. It would have been the Ikea of its day. Wood has always been one of our most plentiful resources, and one that’s relatively easy to fashion into chairs and tables.

All that’s really changed over the millennia is our ability to more easily work with wood, with modern equipment and machinery taking away much of the donkey work.

And technology continues to impact on woodworking. For example, computer-aided design or 3D printing, where a particular design for a piece of furniture can be built in miniature.