How to Become a Furniture Designer

Walking into a beautifully decorated home is like a breath of fresh air. Then, you sit down on that extremely comfortable couch or chair and realize everything fits your lifestyle – that’s how you know the furniture designer has done a great job and knows his or her craft. There are pieces of furniture that are designed to be functional. Others are used more as art, and others yet combine both functionality and style.

The job of a furniture designer can range from creating their own designs and producing them for sale, to getting custom requests and making them come to life. Some might work for a larger furniture design firm, while many own their custom design firms and make products based on specific client requests. Like any industry where clientele is involved, the job can be both rewarding and stressful. It is great to have amazing reviews from your customers, but working with people can be challenging, requires deadlines and long hours, and involves business-related skills.

Does this sound like a career for you? Take a look at this infographic to learn a little bit more about furniture design.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Peter Duncan

The Wood Studio, LLC – Owner

Quick Look Bio

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  • Peter Duncan
  • Wilmington, NC
  • 6
  • The Wood Studio, LLC
  • @awoodstudio
The first inklings of the wood studio were born out of my father’s woodshop, where the fundamental skills that surround my aesthetic were initially honed. Not until after receiving a bachelor’s in Art and Design, did I come back full-circle to appreciate woodworking and the beauty wood can hold.The Wood Studio has gone through many iterations, whether or not they have been intentional. Beginning in more functional construction and remodeling, it has taken a turn to become more of a reflection of how much I appreciate the material that I am lucky enough to work with.

My workday varies greatly. Some days are devoted to new designs; some days are consumed with talking to clients and potential clients, but this all leads to my favorite days in the shop, head down, making dust.

I like that I never have to refer to my work as a job. It’s what I love to do, so every day is another lucky day for me. Being in the shop, in and of itself, is my most enjoyed time. The toughest part of being an independent designer, for me, is pleasing every custom request. It truly pains me when I can’t meet a client’s budget or create their ideal design.

Advice

Be different
It is a very competitive industry; find a way to differentiate yourself and also make what you love.

Choose the path for you
For me, I had a solid base of fundamental skills, so a more design focused school worked. If you do not yet have the skills required, I think that apprenticeships are a great and affordable way to gain skills and see if you really want to be a furniture maker.

Learn on the job
Apprenticeships and local woodworking guilds are a great way to make sure that you want to be a furniture maker, and if you love it as much as I did there are some great schools that specialize in furniture design and making.

Ted Schultz

Hylan Design – Owner

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  • Ted Schultz
  • Chicago, IL
  • Hylan Design
I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in Political Science and studied Advanced Woodworking at Western Michigan University. The studies at Western Michigan revolved around the history of furniture design, furniture making and finishing, as well as building practices and project management.With that education behind me, I joined Juell Floors in the Chicago high end custom flooring market and apprenticed as a patterned floor installer and antique floor repair specialist. When a space opened up in a co-operative design/build shop, I left Juell to start Hylan Design in 1986. I sold, designed, built, finished and installed the best product that I was capable of for the first 15 years.

After three years I began to hire help to satisfy our growing customer base. By 1995, our staff was up to six people. Now, in 2014, Hylan is comprised of twelve skilled project managers, draftsmen and designers, benchmen of various skill levels and three specialists in the finishing department.

Our customers have need of design, specification, wood selection, finish selection, fine woodworking skills, specialized finishing of all sorts, coordinating site installations, moving delicate furniture pieces and components, and bringing in skilled installers to make all the rest of our work shine in the space it was intended. I have a little bit to do with each of these processes each day. My role is sales, design director, project coordinator, engineer and networker. Every day is different, and as a result, I am forever learning new things and being challenged by my customers, staff and vendors.

I love collaborating with other designers, architects, customers and artisans to create uniquely beautiful, completely custom millwork and furniture of the highest quality imaginable, and then enjoying feedback from customers who are excited by what we’ve created to help uphold their exclusive brand as a business or in their homes as a reward for all their hard work and perseverance in their own fields.

Advice

Get the best of both worlds through study
The fields of architecture, interior design, industrial and product design are excellent paths to understanding the history and intent of good design. One of these course studies aligned with a passion to view, enjoy and build beautiful pieces of furniture are a winning combination. I personally believe a school that teaches these disciplines should have a wood/metal shop (some refer to them as labs or model shops), but someplace where the student can be mentored to learn and understand the physical processes that go into furniture making.

Matt Monroe

Monroe Workshop – Owner

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I received my bachelor’s in Political Science at the Colorado College and an MFA in Sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. I worked in construction since I was a teenager and also had jobs in industrial design and furniture during and after my MFA.Most days I meet with clients, buy new materials, respond to emails, and keep track of bookkeeping, but I still spend a few hours a day in the shop building things and creating new designs.

I like designing new products and problem solving during the fabrication process. I dislike forcing myself to sit still in the office and catch up with paperwork. For me, it has been interesting to find out how much of success depends on confidence and marketing.

Advice

Find a mentor
Designing a great piece on paper or on the computer is only the beginning. The best designs come from people who know how to put things together and work with materials. I learned it on the job. Find someone you respect, and learn from them. Align yourself with someone established who you can learn from and never stop working on your own designs.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Furniture Designer?


While there is no black and white path for furniture designers, many industrial design programs do offer a furniture design specialization. If you are specifically interested in this career then this may be the perfect choice for you. Keep in mind whether you will be actually producing the furniture or only designing it. This will define whether you need to focus your education on arts and CAD courses, or on in-studio work, where you can learn the skills to make your own pieces.

You can also choose to apprentice and learn in a less formal environment. In this case, it is important to find someone whose work you admire and also a person that you are comfortable learning from. This path has its advantages, since you will likely not only learn how to make and design furniture, but will be directly exposed to the industry. However, if you are looking to pursue a career with larger corporations, then having a degree might be a more favorable option.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A FURNITURE DESIGNER?

  • Rhode Island School of Design
    Offering a BFA and an MFA in Furniture Design, the Rhode Island School of Design focuses on letting students explore a variety of materials and techniques during their studies. Students also look into the economic factors behind the industry and sustainability as related to furniture design. Tuition at RISD is $44,594 per year.
  • Kendall College of Art and Design
    Located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Kendall College of Art and Design offers studies in Furniture Design, highlighting the importance of blending creativity and technical problem-solving. The program includes access to studio classes, such as work in the woodshop or the furniture design and detailing studios. Tuition is $373 per credit.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology
    The BFA in Furniture Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology is specifically focused on wood-working, with entry-level courses allowing students to learn the technical side of wood design. In higher level courses, students focus on concept development and business issues, among others. Yearly tuition is $36,596 for undergrads.
  • Savannah College of Art and Design
    SCAD offers 3 levels of Furniture Design degrees – a BFA, an MA or an MFA. All three are focused on realizing the students’ creative ideas, and emphasizes collaboration between SCAD’s projects and departments. Undergrads may pursue complementary minors in exhibition design, sculpture or interior design, among others. Average annual tuition at SCAD is $34,295.
  • Cranbrook Academy of Art
    The 3D department at the Cranbrook Acacemy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, offers a graduate program that specifically targets industrial designers interested in the design of interior spaces. Largely unstructured, the program is almost entirely based on interactive studio work and peer review. Annual tuition is $33,406.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Furniture designers have a few career paths that they can follow. Some choose to design for larger firms, others for smaller shops, many also open their own furniture making and design businesses, while they can also pursue an artistic career. In any case, to begin a career in furniture design, you will need a portfolio of your work. If you have the possibility of including pieces that have actually been created – that’s great, but if not, you can just include your envisioned designs.

The next step for many professionals starting out in the field is to get an internship or an apprenticeship, in order to learn the industry from the inside. From there, most move on to their chosen specialty. Remember that you will normally be designing for clients, so being great at design is one thing, but you will also need to have people, business and communications skills.