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A game plan for educating young furniture makers.

William Keyser, professor at RIT's celebrated School for American Crafts, wants to coordinate academic and industrial objectives: "We can be a resource for future personnel and industry can be a great resource for us."

Professor Bill Keyser said he is well aware of questions and complaints about the future of woodworking. Managerial persons in the woodworking industry perpetually cite lack of trained personnel as a major problem facing them now, and one they expect to worsen as older experienced craftsmen retire.

And yet, numerous colleges and universities offer programs in woodworking, as well as furniture design and industrial design. Are these schools creating workers that industry doesn't want? Are they preparing them for jobs that don't exist? Does a university graduate in woodworking lack some critical skill that the older craftsman learned at his father's workbench?

Keyser, a 30-year professor at the celebrated School for American Crafts, Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, is seeking to answer these questions and to coordinate academic and industrial objectives. "I think we can be a resource for future personnel and industry can certainly be a great resource for us," he said.

"In the past, the school's foremost emphasis has been the handcraftsmanship approach to furniture. That is the foundation upon which it is built," Keyser said. But he added that he wants to diversify the curriculum in order to train students planning to design and work in industry.

Giving students the preliminaries

One possibility under consideration is a short course on industrial machinery to give students "the preliminaries." At present, the school has no tenoners, automatic edgebanders, high-tech routers or machining centers. Plant tours are usually the first opportunity students have to see large woodworking machinery in action. Keyser is seeking industry sources for short seminars or videos on machinery operation and added, "We would certainly welcome machinery donations." He said he also would like to initiate co-op or intern programs within the industry for current students and graduates.

RIT offers a two-year associate's degree, four-year bachelor's degree and a two-year master's program in woodworking and furniture design. Prominent RIT graduates in the furniture industry include: Jeff Behnke, co-founder of Altura Studios, John Lutz of Thos. Moser, Doug Prickett of Gunlocke, Kevin Stark of Hickory Business Furniture and Lamar White of the Knoll Group.

The woodworking faculty includes Douglas Sigler, Richard Tannen and John Dodd. Master craftsman Wendell Castle is one of the RIT artists-in-residence who participate in critique sessions.

Keyser said he believes no other school allows a student to major the first year. From day one, students are in the Woodworking and Furniture Design Dept. They design and build furniture just as soon as they understand the materials, tooling and assembly techniques. "As future designers, it is imperative to know how things are put together," Keyser said.

That this approach works is confirmed by the number of RIT student furniture makers who participate in biennial Design Emphasis competitions at IWF in Atlanta. Last year, RIT dominated the awards, accounting for five of 13 prizewinners. Woodworking students from 25 schools and universities submitted 78 entries.

Hands-on experience

First year RIT students are expected to have hands-on woodworking experience, having submitted a portfolio of their work as a standard for admission. However, exceptions are sometimes made to the portfolio requirement, Keyser said. "We can tell from conversations how serious and dedicated students are, and how much they know about the material. We can train them if they have the basic savvy and are motivated."

Freshmen are assigned a bench and an elementary set of hand tools: plane, saw, chisel and carving gouges. Their first project is to hand plane a board from the dry kiln flat, true and square, cut it in half, glue it together with a long grain joint, then carve a tray from the glued stock. The RIT faculty believes a student who gains dexterity in carving, sawing, planing and joinery reaps self-confidence for more advanced projects.

The second project is usually a container -- a dovetailed box. Students select an object that needs storage, display or protection and design a container around it. Keyser said this brings function into the process. "They have to think about what they want this box to do -- how they want to store the thing they have selected."

By the end of their first year, students have progressed to a rocking animal -- a carving and imagination-developing problem, which also helps them to explore their own directions in wood. The animal can be realistic or imaginary, but it must be playful and large enough for an adult to use. The final critique on that project is made by delighted children at a local day care center.

Designing for industry

Designing and building chairs, and making a piece of furniture that includes a found object are assignments for second year students. By their junior year, students are designing for industry. "We work with the Gunlocke Co. in nearby Wayland, N.Y.," Keyser said. Gunlocke's Prickett, who is product design manager, is instrumental in assigning the design problem and also critiques student sketches and shop drawings. After students tour the plant to learn manufacturing capabilities, they make full-size drawings and build prototypes.

Keyser said, "We try to guide them toward projects that are more easily produced in a plant than in a custom workshop." This involves identifying several factors including: size and style, the environment it will be used in, marketability, ease of production and assembly, elimination of hand carving, and use of machine-made details.

Seniors concentrate on the area of woodworking they plan to pursue as a profession, either custom, limited editions or mass production. Keyser said today's seniors seem to be much more practical-minded than their counterparts who graduated in the late '70s and early '80s. They are interested in small manufacturing companies with large markets and in high-production manufacturing. They see working in the industry as a viable opportunity, in contrast with many earlier students who wanted to build only avante garde furniture for galleries.

Seniors are encouraged to take on a commission -- to locate a potential client ("Other than their mother," Keyser said), to design a piece of furniture, present and sell the idea to a client, build it and get paid. "Sometimes it will fall through," Keyser said. "The client may decide not to go ahead with it, but that is reality. You don't always get to build everything you design. It is a valuable learning experience nonetheless."

Exploring ideas

Can a master craftsman with a yard-long list of commissions and exhibitions to his credit teach students to design and build furniture without imposing his personal style on their projects? Keyser said it is an asset for a teacher to have no recognizable style. "Students have to search for their own direction. We help them explore their own ideas rather than copy an instructor's work."

What Keyser looks for in design is the concept behind a piece -- what the student wants it to do. "I try to see that all the details pull together to achieve that. I make suggestions on how they might make the concept clearer or more integrated or more unified by adjusting proportions or changing details."

Checking technique, he looks for neat and tight joinery and a well-sanded, unmarked finish. "Technique is easy to critique," Keyser said. "It is either there or it is not. Design is much more esoteric. There is no formula, no right or wrong, just better or worse. It is harder to critique a concept, but that is the most important thing," he added. "Someone who can conceptualize and design a piece as well as build it -- that is what we are truly trying to develop."
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Title Annotation:Rochester Institute of Technology
Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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