Haddington furniture school offers a viable alternative to university, claims incoming head

AS a chip off the old block becomes head of the Chippendale International School of Furniture, he has insisted it will continue to offer a viable alternative to university and stale careers.

Thursday, 5th March 2020, 9:54 am
Updated Thursday, 5th March 2020, 9:56 am
Chippendale School of Furniture

Anselm Fraser, 62, retired in the summer and has handed the headmaster reigns to his son, Tom, 32, the former deputy head.

Chippendale has established an international reputation as one of the world’s most respected woodworking schools since it opened just under 35 years ago. Their ever evolving curriculum ensures that graduates have the ability to be able to thrive in the woodworking industry with an individual flair and knowledge of how to market their unique products.

It acts as a real alternative for school leavers to university or for people who feel that their careers have gone stale.

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Tom said: “I think there is far too much of a drive to get every single student into university from high school. A lot of people go through university for years with crippling debt and no better idea of what they wanted to do upon graduation. I think we need to change the way we talk about education in schools.

“Our school can be an alternative but it is about letting people know that we exist. What we are trying to do is to create a course that is as relevant as possible to the current market. It is about being as flexible as possible and evolving every year to give our students the best chance of making a successful business.”

Tom, spent five years working in marketing before immersing himself in every aspect of the business as deputy head five years ago.

He said: “Completing the professional course and getting involved in the marketing, admissions and teaching aspects was necessary to get a handle on how the business works from the bottom up.”

Fiona Gilfillan, 52, from Tranent, used to work in IT for Standard Life and RBS. She took short-term beginner and intermediate courses that are on offer at Chippendale, before deciding to take the plunge and enrol herself in the nine- month professional course.

She joked: “You could say it was a bit of a midlife crisis as I approached 50.

“But I had the money and just really wanted to do something creative with my life. I had a little bit of experience beforehand but since completing the courses I am looking forward to setting up my own woodworking business.”

Fiona graduated in the summer but is taking advantage of the incubation scheme that was set up to give graduates a fighting chance of establishing their business or honing their skills further. Graduates can rent a bench on the school premises and are able to get assistance from tutors as well as timber at below market rates.

The hope is that this will shield them from the uncertainties that can often finish off new business in their formative years. Graduates have up to three years after they graduate to be eligible for the scheme.

Fiona said: “I have had a couple of commissions since graduating and jobs repairing damaged furniture. At the moment I am designing a large coffee table for a client as he could not get the design that he wanted – it appears as though I have become a table maker.”

As well as offering world-renowned woodworking classes, Chippendale has always tried to make their Scottish identity their unique selling proposition. Being the only woodworking school of its kind in Scotland, they keep the core of their full and part-time tutors Scottish and make use of the plentiful supply of Scottish timber on their doorstep.

Alan McGovern, 50, from Dunbar, was the first apprentice hired by Anselm when setting up the school in 1985. Starting off in a workshop no bigger than a community hall, he has seen the business grow exponentially, something he takes great pride in.

He said: “We started off in a workshop no bigger than a small community hall. It was just myself, Anselm and one student of his. Watching the premises evolve and grow is just something to be extremely proud of. It is mad to think I have now been with the school for 35 years and tutoring students that come through our doors. I think it is a testament to Chippendale that both Anselm and I, and the first ever student, all have successful careers to this day in woodworking.”

Tom and his father say that the school is still very international in its outlook. For instance, Michael Fortune, a Canadian wood bending specialist, is with the students who began the course in October to deliver a workshop on the various ways to bend wood.

Tom also holds weekly lectures on the history of woodworking and trends from the period of Ancient Egypt right through to the present day.

After retiring, Anselm has no plans of putting his feet up. He is still full of energy and creative intuition as he moves around the workshop offering his expertise to students. He is still very much a part of the school that he set up in 1985.

He said: “I sat doing nothing for three weeks and I got very bored. So I am renovating an old farm building to be able to house future students in.

“The business side for us here is as important as the woodworking skills that our students acquire. Marketing is everything to be able to build a successful business. It is very important to understand how to bring the customers in.”

One recent graduate, Jacob Corradi, 30, has set up the Whisky Barrel Furniture Company with a fellow graduate and designs products using old whisky barrels. The school helped to encourage him to pursue his unique business plan, which is now thriving out of the Myreside studios that house the incubation scheme.

The school is not for profit, meaning that all money raised through fees are reinvested.

At the end of each year, graduates can showcase their work over four days to prospective clients and relevant players in the industry. This gives them the opportunity to get themselves recognised and to make some money back on what they paid in tuition.