Steve Smith – Part 1

Steve Smith – Part 1

“It seems to me in the current use of the word maker it plays with the tensions you’ve always had between artisan and artist…I would consider myself a maker in the sense that I would be aligned or identified with the actual physical making of the object” Steve Smith

Stephen Smith born 1961 in Derby has had an eclectic ensemble of roles that are undoubtedly in the realm of the maker. In part one of the interview Steve take us from his early beginnings in an industry that not many may not to be fully aware of – that of the pattern maker – through to his move towards the more visual artisan based cabinet and furniture production. It’s not easy to delineate or sharply define the term ‘maker’ so we started out by asking that question.

Photography by Daniel Dytrych

What is a maker?

When I was interviewed for the job at the Silk Mill, part of the brief was about the American maker movement. I went off and looked at what that means as this word ‘maker’ emerges. I asked myself ‘Is what I do or what I have done part of that culture or that realm?’ But actually when I think about it every job I’ve ever done is finished by the word ‘maker’. I trained as a pattern maker, I’ve done furniture making and cabinet making. I guess I am a maker. 

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Do you not necessarily equate yourself with this more contemporary term ‘maker’?

Within the current idea of the maker movement or whatever we are doing on this project there are certain tensions around the word maker. If you spoke to one of the guys who runs the maker fair they would tell you it encompasses all forms of making. One of the things that’s evolved through the project is that making for me might be something like working with resistant materials. You take a resistant material, work on it and change it into a recognisable object. Things like stone, plastic, plywood. I do see myself as a maker or what I understand by the word maker involving dimensions, cutting, shaping, forming and structure.

Do you think there is some other term that might be better?

It seems to me in the current use of the word maker it plays with the tensions you’ve always had between artisan and artist. Here we might have makers in residence, but in the past they could have been artists in residence so the word is quite fluid. I would consider myself a maker in the sense that I would be aligned or identified with the actual physical making of the object rather than the design. In the past I would have made patterns to a drawing, to a fixed dimension. Furniture gets made to a fixed dimension. Working in design studios I would have been alongside design students or architects who prescribe what they want. The idea of maker revolves around the idea of prescription in my experience.

You are part of a wider process. You’re not necessarily the maker from start to finish – there might be a design ‘make’ part of the process that gets handed to you for instance with your cabinet making?

Some were handed to me. I have worked with plenty of people that allowed me to interpret drawings. I’ve also worked from photographs in the past. Structures in furniture will have set working heights generally and after a while you get an idea of what the designer wants and you carry on and interpret the proportions of the material without being given the specifics…and it would be for us to work out how to construct it. Like the notorious architects drawing of reception desk, because they don’t know how it fits together or they don’t need to know, we would work out how to do that. They would draw a little square and they cross hatch it to symbolise a joint when in fact it wouldn’t be built like that. I guess my making would be a little bit like that.

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Can you tell me bit about what you’ve brought down from the workshop with you?

This is some birch plywood. It comes from the Baltic: Finland, Latvia, places like that. I was saying earlier that I started as an apprentice patternmaker in 1977 and we used plywood, which had been around for along time before I got there. It’s been around since the 1920s so it’s fairly modern material. I’ve been around plywood for the best part of 38  years. It’s used in pattern making all the time because it’s a stable material. The veneer goes in alternative directions so it’s good for foundry patterns. A pattern is a form which a sand mould is taken from. The beauty of plywood is it doesn’t need to be joined like traditional patterns made out of softwood. Because it doesn’t need to be joined, the timbers won’t shrink at different rates. I’ve always been around plywood and when I came on this project I continued to use it.

Is it your preferred material?

On the Re:make project I’ve had a lot of input on the design and the aesthetics which has been really interesting. We’ve been experimenting by gluing plywood together and you get loads of different striations as the form works out. If you turn a leg into contours or shell shapes as we did for the Museum and Art Gallery, it takes on an interesting visual aesthetic. I’ve been cutting it at angles for architraves at home and it reveals a really interesting pattern. Everyone else also seems interested in plywood, it’s like a sign of modernity, if you like, connected with Ikea and things like that… I have almost always worked for people or educational institutions but it would be interesting to run a workshop or a company that just work in plywood, but really experimented with it. 

There’s still a lot of stuff you want to do with it?

Yeah, there could be lots of stuff.

Can you just explain in a bit more detail what a pattern maker is?

This is interesting in terms of the idea of being a ‘maker’. I would have friends who were joiners, friends who went to art college, who were graphic designers. When I went out and socialised with them they didn’t know what a pattern maker was and people still often don’t. A pattern maker, I would argue, was at the heart of the industrial revolution. It’s aligned to casting. If you want a casting of a pipe, you need a sand mould of a pipe. So to make a sand mould you need an impression of a pipe.  The pattern is the impression that the sand gets rammed around. The impression gives you a hollow in the shape of a pipe. Obviously a pipe has a hole running through it so that needs coring out. We made the patterns as well as the core boxes. The pattern in the positive of the shape you need and the core box would be the inverse or negative. You would make something like a rod of sand out of a box hollowed out and that goes into the mould. They then pour metal around it. As pattern makers you’ll see all around you the industrial heritage of the last 300 years. Machines are made up of castings bolted together and all of these casting had patterns… 

…I became a pattern maker because I was leaving school and I wanted to be a journalist but a lot of the things I was involved in, a lot of the people I worked with, would be blue collar workers who did manual industrial work, trades and engineers. Also my father was semi skilled – always made stuff – and I didn’t see myself in an office or going to University to do a degree which you needed to become a journalist. My Dad came home one day from work and said “Why don’t you become a pattern maker? Seems a nice job and it’s quite involved”. So I wrote a few letters off and became a pattern maker. I wasn’t quite sure myself what it was until I got involved in it. Interestingly, a guy who lived down the road from us worked at Abbey Patterns. If you were to walk out of this building now and look at the grates, it says “Abbey Pattern Company”. He suggested I come for a morning’s trial at their place on Abbey Street, Derby. They gave me a job that same morning, working on a pattern.

“We were always going to tool auctions of people who had retired or had died – having dead mans tools was also part of the right of passage.”

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To test you out your capabilities?

Just to see if I liked it really. I then applied to a company in Butley which hadn’t taken on an apprentice for a long time. People think the decline of industry started in the 1980s but it had been going on for a long time. In 1977 I was the first apprentice they had taken on for quite a while. That was at a traditional foundry, making castings. I was sent to Stanton Training Centre in Ilkeston. A huge Soviet sized foundry with five or six different sites where they spun concrete pipes, cast metal pipes and because of the decline of industry, even then, there were very few apprentices that British Steel had of their own, so we got to go to what I would say is almost like the Oxbridge training centre for that industry. It was incredibly testing and comprehensive.

Was that an enjoyable time for you?

Sometimes it was very stressful. I was thrown into work at 16 which is a bit of a shock to the system. At first I quite embraced putting on a pair of working boots and getting a bit dirty. The way it panned out, being bullied or harassed or aggravated by men in the industry wasn’t a pleasant experience at all, but because they had had it done to them it was part of a right of passage. There was extra stress of being involved in a training centre with four or more people you don’t know. Working on the bench next to one kid who is absolutely brilliant and realising the skills you were going to have to develop were hand skills, thinking skills, planning skills, building skills. The role of a pattern maker is to take a drawing and to work out how it’s going to be cast. You might have all sorts of strange junctions of how cores all fit together. That was incredibly intellectually challenging – I found it quite difficult, but I worked with a guy who pulled the rest of us up – he was so good he set the bar for how well the rest of us had to do. He went to America and represented Britain in the Skilled Olympics. Back then it was against North Koreans, South Koreans, who beat him – and he was good. At that point I had a step change in my understanding of the job and really got into it. I started to like it and become quite proud of it. One of the strange things about pattern making was the social aspect, or identity wise. I would go out and people would ask me what I did. I would say “I’m a pattern maker” and they would ask “Do you make wallpaper? Do you make dresses?” Nobody could really get what it was.

Was it a niche skill set, with not many people doing it?

It was niche and it was on the decline, as the industry declined. The amount of pattern makers needed declined. We were at Erewash Foundry which was part of the Stanton & Staveley training Centre. We were always going to tool auctions of people who had retired or had died – having dead mans tools was also part of the right of passage. It was a declining industry without a doubt and I got made redundant for the second time in 1982. I can remember my boss saying to me “Get out of pattern making”. As a pattern maker I was made redundant twice, first in 1979 when I got my apprenticeship transferred to a master shop in Derby. A master shop just makes patterns rather than as before, when I was attached to a foundry.

Did you get out of pattern making at that point?

I got into a joinery just for a year.

Did that require a similar skill set?

Pattern makers are incredibly snobby and elitist.

You included?

Yeah, we still have those same bitter resentments that our skill isn’t appreciated and a lot of that is bred through being a pattern maker. I worked with pattern makers who still turned up to work in a collar and tie. In the industry you would not only have pattern makers but you could also do a technician’s course which was the MA in academic terms. Those guys went straight from being on the shop floor to being technicians. Of course, everyone on the shop floor would argue that they couldn’t do the pattern making which was why they had to go into the office…

…In my social life and my culturally applicable life they were incredibly right wing – this was the time of Thatcher, 1979-80. One of the big arguments at the time was around differentials. As a pattern making apprentice, when I had finished my time in 1981, I was entitled to the same unionised hourly rate as the most skilled man in the shop who was at the peak of his career. There was a lot of aggravation with how patternmakers saw themselves against other trades as well. I still carry that with me –  there are incredibly skilled people out there from pattern making backgrounds. If you look at complex aero engines – all of that complicated set of castings are patterns that have been made. They have thought through how to mould them out of sand. An incredibly complex intellectual exercise. The point I was going to get to was that having worked as a joiner after getting redundancy a lot of people in the same position moved to the south of England. I moved to Brighton because is was a far more exciting place to be, but because I wasn’t a joiner with the joinery papers and they wouldn’t increase my hourly rate, which increased my resentment. So we moved south and worked on building sites and if you could swing a hammer, saw and measure, you moved up a much better hourly rate. While doing that I saw an advert for a cabinet maker. One of the things about the south of England, which has moved on since the period of unionisation, was that if you went to see somebody and you were a pattern maker, like I was and said ‘look at all my great skills, give me a job’, they would say ‘that’s all very nice but why don’t you come in and do a trial, then we’ll see what you can do’. That would mean there would be no argument about whether you are good enough or not.

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It makes sense in a way to actually prove your skills?

Yes and that still goes on today. I got that job as a cabinet maker and was then making furniture, which was great if you think now of the visual culture we live in where everyone takes a photograph of every single thing that moves. I come from a background where we made patterns from three plan view drawings in black and white and nobody took a camera to work to show people down the pub what they had made. That visual aspect wasn’t part of it. When I became a furniture maker everybody could relate to it in a visual way.

It has a more immediate practical everyday application?

A cultural or artistic recognition. Cabinet makers possibly moved into the realms of artisan rather than pattern makers stuck between engineers. It’s also worth saying that as pattern makers, we did a lot of metal, fibreglass, plaster and wood work – quite a lot of mediums.

In terms of you feeling the elitism about being a pattern maker and moving into furniture making: was there a different mindset, was it more relaxed, or a different set of pressures?

When I got the job after a trial, it was a great day – Live Aid was on the radio – because I didn’t know anything about furniture making or antique restoration which was the actual job I went for. But there was a lack of skills in the industry so there was always an opportunity because there had been a lot of deskilling since the 1970s, not the late 80s. I bought a book on restoring antique furniture and it so happened that the task they gave I had read about the week before, so I knew what to do. I then moved from a day’s trial to a week’s trial.

And that went well?

I had a lovely time, I enjoyed working in the cabinet shop in an antiques warehouse where they bought in pieces and sold them to Germany and America. That would be furniture from the 18th and 19th century. It was a really interesting place to be. At the end of that week I was taken into the office and they asked me how it had gone and told me I was just too slow. As a pattern maker I was sanding the inside or bracket feet. A lot of what we were doing was repairing antiques for what we call ‘knocker boys’ who basically bought something for as cheap as they could, get it repaired as cheap as they could, within reason, and then sell it on to the next man in the line. Once I took that on board and became quicker I was then moved from restoring antiques to taking them apart and rebuilding classic pieces of antique furniture that were quite rare. 

That was more in line with what you wanted to do in terms of being meticulous about both the seen and unseen parts?

Yes it was. Also, the problem solving involved all my pattern making skills. I was working with some guys who would put together bookcases and that was all they would do. Often in cabinet making there would be a separation: there would be a machinist, a veneerer, an assembler and a polisher. I got to do all of the bespoke aspects because I could work out how to make things from a drawing or a photograph. I was given all of the prototyping and all off the interesting work. The other guys were on a price – a set amount to do each job whether it took one week or two weeks. I was given an hourly rate which suited me, so I could work at my own pace through each job. I did that for about four years, then for some strange reason I bought a Guardian newspaper. I usually refused to read the Guardian or the NME. Advertised in the back was a position for a young furniture maker in London.

“this word ‘maker’ emerges. I asked myself ‘Is what I do or what I have done part of that culture or that realm?’ But actually when I think about it every job I’ve ever done is finished by the word ‘maker’. I trained as a pattern maker, I’ve done furniture making and cabinet making. I guess I am a maker. “

Fortuitous then?

Or maybe not…the job was for a company on the Metropolitan Wharf in London. At the time, the area was full of artisan studios, architects – a very hip place to be. I was working in antiques and had photographs to show people, which I was really quite proud of, and to move to a really trendy company, during the time of acid house and yuppies, working with lads who were all going out together to clubs in south London. During that yuppie period people were charging ridiculous amounts of money for furniture, so I could push my wages up. I was all good, self esteem was high, I was doing something trendy which was a big change from pattern making were no one really knew what it was. Now all of my mates wanted to come to our workshop on the Metropolitan Wharf where we would be having parties all the time. It was a great turnaround.

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End of part 1

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