How do you become a successful furniture designer/builder? We've covered the topic before—but always with Americans. And as you've seen, the precise career paths taken by a Jory Brigham, a Hellman-Chang, a Tom Sullivan would be impossible for most to reproduce. That's because America has a rather Wild West approach where you only follow the rules if you feel like it, and you can hang your shingle out whenever you're ready.
In Germany, the procedure of producing a master craftsperson is much more codified. The standards are not up to you. While not every master craftsperson's journey there is identical, each and every one of them has presented a masterpiece of theirs (like the ones pictured in this entry) to a commission that will pass or fail them. If they get the thumbs-up, they are legally allowed to open up shop; if they get the thumbs-down, it's quite literally back to the drawing board.
In order to even reach this test, would-be designer/builders in Germany must attend a sort of finishing school for craftspersons. There are a variety of these in Germany, which can't help but make an American curious: Who attends these schools? How old are the students? What are the application requirements? What or who defines a master craftsperson? What do they study there? How long are the programs?
At Holz-Handwerk we had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Bücking, a man who runs one of these schools, the Holzfachschule ("Technical School for Wood") Bad Wildungen in Hesse, central Germany. Bücking speaks fluent English, has a wry German sense of humor and gamely answered all of our questions. A Tischlermeister (Master Carpenter) himself, he explained how the system works in Germany, what his school does and how they do it. He also spoke frankly about the struggles those in his industry face.
Michael Bücking: I'm the headmaster of the Holzfachschule Bad Wildungen.
We are focusing on our guys becoming master of guilds in cabinet making and furniture making.
Sure. If you want to be qualified as a master craftsman here, it's a title. But you have to attend a course which is anywhere between nine months and 1.5 years. And you need to attain your mastership. You cannot compare it to the Master's Degree which you get from university; in this case, you require this qualification to run your own workshop and that entitles you to train and educate trainees or apprentices. And if you don't have it, you're not allowed to open up your joinery workshop.
That's correct. All of the crafts here are organized in guilds or chambers. So we have a craftsmanship chamber, and they have a kind of commission. And you're supposed to present—you have to pass an exam in theory and also with a bigger practical component. And so you're supposed to build some masterpieces. We brought one of these with us which is over there. [Bücking points to Thomas Sekula's piece, below, which was what initially drew me into HBW's booth.]
And these guys, they've got about four weeks to complete it. I mean, before that they have to make the design and the construction, and they have to present their plan. It's actually very close to what you're supposed to do if you want to get a contract with the customer. The first thing is you discuss with the customer what the requirements are. And then you're coming up with a sketch, a draft, basically. You have to sell it to the customer before you get the order.
And so our commission is doing more or less the same. They take on the role of the customer. So you have to convince the commission about your idea, your approach. And after approval and after making all these drawings and presentations, then you actually have to build it.
The minimum qualification is you have to be a qualified joiner or furniture maker. So you have to [have completed] your apprenticeship. And in the old days—"old days" which is about eight or ten years ago—you also had to have three years' minimum experience before you were allowed to pass this mastership program. Now [the rules have] changed a lot. These days, basically after apprenticeship, which takes three years, you can start immediately. So, nowadays there's no practical experience required.
Well, if you ask me—I mean, I'm a master craftsman myself so if you ask me what is right or wrong, I don't have the answer for that. Because in the beginning we thought this might be very difficult, that the students would be too "green" going into the program. But then on the other hand, if they're good, if they're coming fresh from school being highly motivated, sometimes we have some jewels.
But then if you ask me what would be best [for you to have accomplished before coming to the school], I would say get three, four, five years of experience because you also have a personal standing.
For example, if you're a very young master—a "green" master if I may phrase it that way—without experience, and you have your mastership degree, and you're coming to join a workshop, it's the same wherever you are—the [guys above you] will tell you what's right and what is wrong.
I think on average, maybe 24. The youngest master we produced was 19. We also have some guys who are 30, 35, 40. And sometimes they used to run their own workshops [of different specialties]. Because in Germany, it's organized in a way that [having a mastership means] you can only do certain jobs. Depending on what you hold you might not allowed to make windows, or you're not allowed to produce furniture, for instance.
Sure. Let's say you run a business where you can buy windows, or doors or what-have-you, from a supplier and you're capable of mounting them, installing them in a building. But once you want to build them by yourself, or you want to cover the whole range of things, you must have a mastership. That's how it's organized. And I think by doing it that way, we can actually manage to have a fairly good level of performance and standards in Germany which I think is the right way to do it.
We have a regulation in Germany: Whenever there's a possibility of certain dangers to the client or customer—for example, if you're an electrician—you have to have your mastership. If you are a joiner/carpenter who's making windows and stairs where people can be hurt, you have to have your mastership degree.
But if you are, for example, a goldsmith—which is a wonderful trade, no doubt about that—the danger to the customer is not that big, actually. So while you can get your mastership for goldsmithing, you are not required to have it to run your own shop.
Well, we've got two or three different kinds of students. First of all, we have the successors. I mean, this is basically the son of the father who has his own workshop. So he's looking for his son to take over. And at our school we have a tradition for about 60 years where, the first thing we ask new students when they come to our school is, "Why are you here?"
[These days] about 60% say because it was recommended by my father, or by my master, and they're sending me, more or less, to this school. I think that for these successors, this decision is made when they are 15, 18, 20 or so.
And then we do have fairly young professionals, and they decide they want to advance. So they make the decision when they're perhaps 18 or 19.
So, I would think on average, for people who are willing to join these trades, usually by the time they've reached 20 they've decided "I want to become a master," because the reputation is still very, very high.
No, it has changed. If I was asking guys ten years ago "Why are you here," the majority would say "I'm looking for better prospects, I want to find a new job" [because those jobs were plentiful back then]. And now the successors that I mentioned, they have become the biggest group. The second biggest group says, "My boss sent me, he wants me to be qualified to take over certain things in the office. He's sending me and he's paying me, and he keeps my position safe while I'm training." They do this more for long-term thinking, to develop the human resources. That's what's happening.
Well, at the moment we are experiencing a phase in Germany where if you've got certain qualifications, it's very easy to get a job. We've got so many workshops that are looking for good people for taking measurements on the building site, making plans, et cetera. Also, something that's changing is that in the old days, one master was able to run six or eight journeymen, to keep them busy and to make a lot of preparations. But now you've got CNC machines. You've got customers who require CAD/CAM technology. And so we're moving more from the building side to the workshop where you need better-qualified people. And therefore, quite often we have workshop owners who send their people, saying "Well, I need more [qualified folks] in my workshop." And so we train them for eight, nine months, and then they go back to the workshop.
No. It has increased the demand for qualification.
I mean, on one hand the productivity gains of CNC technology are enormous. But then on the other hand, if you're investing $200,000 in a machine and not investing in the people, it doesn't make sense at all. It's like you're buying somebody a Porsche and you don't train them to become good drivers. It's the same with that technology.
I think 15 years ago shop owners were very proud of their machinery. And so they were showing off what kind of stuff, hardware they had in the workshops. But if you don't have the qualified people to run that one, it's a piece of old metal.
Well, something that has changed is that we do have a kind of qualification crisis, in the sense that we no longer have as many people who are willing to go the hard way into craftsmanship. They have got this tendency to become white collar workers. Kids are used to playing around with iPads and computers but not with a hammer and a jigsaw anymore. And this is of course having an effect [where the trades don't seem] that attractive anymore. And there's a perception where if you're not studying and trying to become a lawyer, it's like you did something wrong in your life.
So, we are working very hard to keep up the popularity of these trades. And if you get some good people who appreciate what the craftsman and a joiner is doing, then we do get to have these guys. They are really good, they're excellent. But if it comes to numbers, we are fighting for all the qualified people at the moment. And so it's a tricky business.
Well, first of all I think you have to make the work more attractive.
In terms of salary, sure. But also, I believe, how much you take care of, how much you try to bond people with your shops. Having an appreciation for the people and taking an interest in their development, not a hire-and-fire mentality.
For example, we work together with this one workshop, the boss has about 30 people working for him. It's a medium-sized craftsmanship workshop doing some interior design and building. And within his company he has eight masters. So each of the masters is running his own small team. In the old days it was, you know, any master you hired was a competitor to the boss.
But this thinking is old-fashioned, and today if you need to delegate you have to have the right people with the right capabilities to do jobs more or less by themselves. And that's something which is happening because, as I said, it doesn't make sense to invest enormous money and not have people qualified to run it.
That's a very simple question, with a difficult answer. In the mastership programs, which take about eight months, we're running two courses a year and we produce about 60 masters every year. And another part of our school is we have the modelmakers, they produce about 20 masters a year. And then we produce about 20 industrial masters and sawmill masters, each.
They're in the industry of primary wood processing, sawmilling and planning. You can study that field and become an engineer, but one level below that is the mastership degree we offer for sawmillers. But the bulk of masters we produce are still joiners and furniture makers.
And there are other students: Our school offers, prior to the mastership program, courses in the safe operation of machinery, which are compulsory. So each student or apprentice has to have attended these courses. And we run about two courses every week, so if I'm adding all this up, at any time we've got about 150, 180 students on our campus.
We've got about 16 colleagues focusing on lecturing and training. About half of them are from a practical background, so they are running the different workshops. We have got about nine independent workshops, technical workshops. And we run a full boarding school, it's like a hotel with full board at our place. And the rest of the staff is basically catering. So it's up to about 40 people.
[Laughing] Supposed to or actually doing?
In the mastership program we deliver about 1,080 training hours within 7.5 months, which adds up to 46 hours a week. But there's a lot of things happening in the evening hours as well because the program is very intense. So our slogan is "It's hard, but good."
And we've got a concept of open workshops where our master students have got a key. They can run the workshops by themselves. And also there's CAD and computer rooms. Sometimes the lights are on until 11, 12 o' clock at night. So it's tough.
To give you a bit of historical background, that's changed tremendously as well. In the old days—old days of about 20 years ago—they spent much more time in the workshops preparing themselves for the exams. But now its moved much more towards computers, CAD technology and CNC technology. But overall I would think that from roughly 1,100 hours, they spend about 300 hours with the practical background and workshops.
This is just my personal point of view, but I think if you're a designer or an artist and you do not understand the material capabilities and you do not have the basic—not even a high level anymore, but the basic—understanding of manual operations, well, I believe it's difficult to run a CNC machine if you cannot run a molder. That's my personal opinion.
In terms of learning programming, yeah, that's fine. But it's not a video game or a computer game. It's actually real workpieces that demand an understanding of construction.
In the old days our guys were trained very hard in manual drawing, like basic paper and pencil. These days I haven't seen such a drawing since 20 years in our school, so it's all CAD. But sometimes what students do is, they try to develop a design on the computer which is not working, to my opinion. So my colleagues which are focusing on design say "I want a piece of paper and I want a pencil. And I want your idea. Put it on toilet paper or tissue, I don't care. But make lines first. And after this design is good and we like that one, and after I see your model where I believe it's a good design, then you run the computers."
[So there's a danger to] focus too much on the computer without having understood what is actually behind all of that, in terms of construction and proportions and such. So we put our guys through one week of hand sketching. But I also believe that this is just one component, and we cannot focus on just that at the expense of the technology. If you cannot cover technology these days, my opinion is that you earn the money in the workshop and you lose it in the office.
The admissions procedure; the pass/fail rate; Germany's dual system of study & work; the future of craft education in Germany; what design educators from other nations could learn from Germany, and what German instructors could learn from them.
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