Will Formal Education Help a Furniture-Maker?

Schools offer Master of Fine Arts degrees in furniture-making. Are they worth it? That all depends, say the pros. August 30, 2005

I am curious to know what woodworkers think about education in the furniture making industry. Is somebody with a MFA (fine arts degree in furniture making) going to be a better furniture maker than somebody that has apprenticed as a cabinetmaker in a high-end furniture/cabinetmaking shop and completed a diploma in a wood technology based program? Who has the better advantage and skill development?

Forum Responses
I have done neither. But I paid my dues by spending time doing the work. No matter how you approach learning, it takes time doing work, making mistakes (hopefully in a healthy way), talking with customers, selling/marketing…

It depends on how you learn best - in the structure of a school or hands on, working for a professional.

When I looked into getting an MFA in furniture making, I showed slides of some of my work at a few schools. In the end, they all said "if you want to teach, get an MFA; if you want to make furniture, just go do it."

The previous was very succinctly stated. How shall we judge who is the best? What scale should we use? Do you want to design for the furniture industry, or for the art market?

The MFA instructors may teach you what has been done before you and sharpen your eye for aesthetics. I don't know if they will train you to use the most current CNC technology, and how to get faster at production, but this could become very helpful in the future.

Whatever path you choose, let me underscore the above selling and marketing statement. You can not develop any skill which will serve you better. You can be a crummy craftsman and designer and make far more money than someone who is excellent in all areas except marketing skills.

Actually, you don't need an MFA to teach. All you have to do is be successful and they will invite you to teach. Ditto on the marketing thing. You can be a mediocre furniture maker, but do well enough for yourself with the proper marketing strategies.

As a shop owner, all I really care about is if you can do the job. I've found (and I've got advanced degrees) that lots of time, people get over-educated and think the "school" way is the only way. I'll take attitude and aptitude over anything else, any day.

I think if you could have both the degree and the skill, you may have the advantage. A good designer needs to know how to build and a good builder needs to have design skills. If I was thinking of hiring you and you have a degree but no shop time, you would have to prove yourself. Everyone has to pay their dues, no matter what.

If I had things to do over again, I would do the time and then... add to it! I believe you can't beat the apprenticeship system to start you off, but I wish I had then studied at a furniture design school just to give me an eye beyond that inherited from the boss. I benefited immensely from getting experience in workshops in London, seeing how other people did things… workshops fitting out huge law offices around Europe, etc. That was an insight and a learning curve that still encourages me to think outside the square back in my own little workshop.

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Comment from contributor A:
I am getting ready to graduate with a BFA: Crafts. My concentration has been in furniture. Through the program I have developed my technical expertise as well as my design process. I think I have an advantage because I have been encouraged to "think outside the box" and develop my ideas beyond the point where most people would leave them. I agree with the other posters in that it depends on what you're going for. If you want to do Chippendales or Roycrofters or Early American then all you need is the technical skills because it's been done and there's no design process going on. If you want to push the boundaries and do something totally unique you need the artistic and compositional sense. Then to actually make it yourself you need the skills. Personally I'd like to stick with the studio furniture, but it's all preference.