‘A few minutes with’: Phillip Tennant furniture artisan lecturer Sarah Marriage

Post by John Schwarb, IU Communications specialist:

Sarah Marriage, a Baltimore, Maryland-based maker of fine furniture and other wooden objects, is visiting the Herron School of Art and Design on Monday, Feb. 27, as part of the Phillip Tennant Furniture Artisan Lecture Series. She’s a few weeks from opening “A Workshop of Our Own” in her hometown, a space where female furniture-makers can come together in a supportive environment. She talked with IU Communications about the new shop, baby rattles, how students can get started in the field, and today’s “disposable” furniture.

Q: What inspired you to found “A Workshop of Our Own”?

SM: When I worked in structural engineering, I was in a predominantly female firm, which was a cocoon — I didn’t realize how lucky I was. Then I went to wood school. With four women and 19 men, I didn’t feel a sense of being an “other,” but then I went out into the real world of fabricating furniture, where it’s so majority male.

Sarah Marriage

Sarah Marriage

Culturally, we have this sense that people who work with wood are the working-man type, and there’s a stereotype and romance around this masculine thing, even in shops and cities. It’s uncommon to find a shop with more than one woman, if that. For students like those at Herron, it might be more than 50 percent women in these design programs, but in the real world, going to the lumberyard and bidding on jobs, you’re in a very small minority. Even for those who want women in the field, it’s the default; they just don’t expect you to be a woodworker, and they maybe don’t think you’re as legit. I founded “A Workshop of Our Own” to increase numbers and provide a place for women in the workforce who are discouraged and consider dropping out — to have a place they can go to say “it doesn’t have to be that way” — and for women who never would have gotten into it because they’re too intimidated by the sawmill environment.

Working in an all-women and gender-nonconforming environment actually removes the stigma of gender stereotype. So from the outside, we appear focused on gender, but inside the shop, we’re just woodworkers who aren’t having to deal with constantly being confronted by any gender stereotypes.

Q: Where does your inspiration come from?

SM: Sometimes there’s an element of technical difficulty that interests me, or if it’s something I haven’t done before, like using a technique and pushing it as far as I can imagine — that is exciting to me. As far as form, I think I get a lot of inspiration from history without particularly realizing it. I look at architecture a lot, how the piece isn’t just an object but is part of a physical experience of architecture — not necessarily designing for a particular room, but thinking about the piece being part of a larger whole.

I’ve also had a series of works in which I chose different artist friends of mine and designed a piece about them. Like a music stand called the fiddler mantis — that was very interesting and useful, and it gave me a structure to explore things.

Q: You have a “toy shop” on your website, including sold-out baby rattles. What’s the story behind those?

SM: That was a funny thing. A few years ago, I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, and there was a holiday craft fair at the local town hall. I signed up for it and knew I needed to make a product; I couldn’t bring my $4,000 piece of furniture. So I just made a bunch of little products that I thought someone might buy at the holidays: spoons, martini stirrers, cutting boards — and these baby rattles. I had made them before for particular babies, a line of owl rattles that I could knock out in a few hours. Then they became popular on Instagram. I was getting orders and interest, started making other characters, and boom — I’m into rattle-making. I didn’t want to be a toymaker, but it was fine. I wanted to meet my neighbors, and it ended up being a way of creating a product.

It’s good to be able to have a repeatable product that is still kind of “you” and still unique, still interesting, a good design — but repeatable to where you know how much it costs and how much it will make. That’s a great tool to have in your pocket.

And I still get tons of baby photos, with my rattles in their mouths.

Q: Students at Herron in the furniture design program use the latest computer-assisted and 3-D modeling equipment available. Do you use those, or are you more old-school in drafting and building?

SM: Even though I went to architecture school in the late ’90s, we used AutoCAD and 3-D modeling, but I was also taught hand drafting. Some schools are going away from that, which is too bad. When I went into fine woodworking at College of the Redwoods, there were no computers, just one laptop in the front room. Using computers wasn’t discouraged; it just wasn’t part of the curriculum. Drawing in CAD was what I was comfortable with. But eventually I found just working without the computer to have its own benefit.

But the pendulum swung. I wasn’t using the computer at all, and now I’m bringing it back again. With the digital fab stuff, it’s valuable to be proficient so you can use it when you need it. Though you have to have a separate room for the computer, or the woodworking machines will destroy it.

Baby rattles proved popular for Sarah.

Baby rattles proved popular for Sarah.

Q: It feels like we’re in a mass-production era of furniture, when giant stores like IKEA are setting our styles. Is that accurate?

SM: We’ve been in that world for a long time. What did we have before: JCPenney, Sears, Target? It’s fast fashion. People learn about designs through IKEA but also through HGTV, the internet, Pinterest. Things have been mass-produced for a long time; what’s more unique about right now is that they’re both mass-produced and disposable. There’s a sense that it’s more popular and acceptable to buy a whole house of furniture, throw it out in two years, and then buy another whole house of furniture. You’re constantly redesigning your space. I think that gives homeowners and people who don’t have creative jobs a creative outlet, but it also leads to furniture that doesn’t need to last. Stores like IKEA make furniture that doesn’t last, but it doesn’t need to last because you replace it all the time.

But as consumers grow, many are more interested in something that will stay put and be a little bit nicer. Which helps some of us.

Q: What advice do you give to students about thriving in furniture-making?

SM: I ask them questions about themselves. Why do they like the work? For some, the best way to get in the business is to go the cabinet-making route or into trade carpentry, maybe building kitchens, and you’re able to do furniture on the side. Others want to do more studio furniture. My main nugget of wisdom is to be aware of the trends, but don’t be a slave to trends. People can make a living and survive off of trends on Instagram and stuff, but I don’t think it would be a fulfilling life — not for me, anyway. Just be true to yourself, which is always good advice.

While you’re starting out, and perhaps your entire career, it’s important to diversify what you do and figure out a way of supporting yourself, whether it’s being a teaching artist or making kitchens or making toys — some version of multiple income streams so you’re able to have your artwork be independent of whether you can make your rent check.

Sarah Marriage is speaking at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 27, in the Basile Auditorium in the Herron School of Art and Design. For more information, visit the Herron website.

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