1

Getting Started in Furniture Design

Furniture creation has been an art form for hundreds of years. Historically, many furniture designers created pieces for the aristocracy and nobility. Today, furniture makers design for the masses, creating dressers, beds, sofas, and many other pieces for modern homes, apartments, offices and more.

Furniture designers are proficient in designing and creating furnishings, taking into consideration both functionality and fashion.  They design both exterior and interior furnishings, often keeping in mind things like customer preferences, sustainability, ergonomics, and practicality.  On any given day designers will work with clients producing new and unique designs or improving existing designs, forecasting and budgeting, testing new ideas using prototypes or models, preparing detailed final designs after alterations or improvements have been made, and carrying out research to develop new ideas and drawings.

Furniture designers are creative and practical. They have excellent drawing skills, as well as a thorough knowledge of computer design software.  Designers have an eye for grids and patterns, an understanding of layout, plot drawings and plans, good communication and listening skills, and spatial design skills as they relate to dimension and structure.

Like all artists, furniture designers must possess a keen sense of aesthetic beauty and a good eye for detail. These skills enable them to take a project from inception to completion, mixing beauty with practicality to create furnishings that are both functional and comfortable.

Ability to draw and conceptualize three-dimensional objects is also very important in this field. Furniture designers must be able to work with a variety different materials like wood, metal, fabric, and paper and pencil. Many furniture designers also find computer skills to be helpful for creating an online portfolio, applying for jobs, and working with design software.

2

PURSUE A DEGREE IN FURNITURE DESIGN

Typical College Majors Include Furniture Design, Industrial Design or Product Design

Furniture makers can choose different educational paths to achieve their objectives. Most furniture designers just starting out who would like to work for large companies often earn a bachelor’s degree. In fact, most large corporations require a bachelor’s degree in furniture design, architecture, or interior design. In this case, students will choose to study interior design, industrial design, architecture, or product design. Classes in the arts can help aspiring furniture designers develop an understanding of the history of art and architecture, the significance of artistic movements, and the principals of good design.

A furniture design major typically provides a comprehensive technical background in woodworking, while also allowing students to investigate a range of creative topics, such as studio art, interior design, or drawing. Classes teach the use of woodworking and hand tools, fundamentals of construction and design, portfolio development, art history, drawing, fundamental design issues, concept development, and business practices. 

Industrial topics, like product design, can help furniture designers gain practical knowledge that will help them create stronger, longer-lasting, and more functional pieces. In addition, mathematical areas of study can teach students the functional and pragmatic side of the trade. Math training can also help students think logically about potential problems and solutions as they create new designs. Any student interested in furniture design should also consider attending schools offering woodworking and metalworking programs.

There are a significant number of people who choose to work for small businesses or who choose to produce furniture as an independent contractor. In cases like this, an apprenticeship may be more a more practical path to beginning a career in this field.

Apprenticeships can teach beginning professionals the specifics of running a small business, the basics of customer service, how to track orders, produce work on a deadline, and manage multiple projects at once. This on-the-job experience also helps new professionals learn how to work with different materials and produce work according to the needs of the customer.

Typical Industries

Furniture designers work for large companies like Ikea, or for small independent businesses. Some furniture designers work on a freelance basis creating furniture pieces on demand for customers.

Those who work for large companies may do much of their work in offices, and must occasionally travel to testing facilities, exhibit sites, showrooms, and other locations. Furniture designers who work for small businesses, like independent furniture stores, may spend most of their time in a workshop.

3

Build Experience & Industry Connections

Furniture designers who work for large companies should develop industry connections in order to advance their career and find placement with a company of their choice. Creating a website, online portfolio, and LinkedIn page may help artists to develop these connections and stay tuned-in to opportunities in this career field. Designers who work for small businesses or as independent contractors may also benefit from an online portfolio or website but may rely more heavily on face-to-face customer interactions and word of mouth.

For these artists, it’s often more important to develop strong ties in the community and strong ties with local artist’s associations. Attending shows and local events will help independent contractors spread the word about their business. Keeping an up-to-date online portfolio is important for all furniture design professionals, as this can show potential customers or employers that they are still active and creating relevant work.

Building a Portfolio

Furniture designer’s portfolios often start simple. For students, portfolios may include drawings and photographs that show a basic progression from an early method to a more mature style, and a better understanding of materials used in furniture design. Mature artists will fill their portfolio with images of completed products, showing a range of styles and materials. It's very important for the portfolio to include quality photographs in order to capture quality and level of detail. Online portfolios are becoming more common. Students may choose to use an online portfolio service to simplify the process, while professionals may create their own website.

Professional Development

Professional development for furniture designers is offered by associations such as the International Furnishings and Design Association. Professionals who wish to continue their education and learn new skills can sign up for webinars, symposiums, and in-person classes. These associations also may post jobs online for professionals hoping to further their career.

Young people hoping to get into furniture design may have a challenging road ahead, as furniture designers occupy a small place in today’s workforce. Those who work hard to earn a degree, develop their customer service skills, networking skills and organizational skills will have more opportunities. Getting started early while still in school by taking advantage of apprenticeships or connecting with a mentor can help young professionals develop these skills.

Furniture designers are categorized under “Industrial Designers” on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website and can include cabinetmakers, bench carpenters, and general carpenters. In 2015, the median pay for these professionals was approximately $67,100 annually. In that same year, there were approximately 66,000 bench makers and cabinet makers, and approximately 10,000 carpenters in the country. This profession has a slower than average growth rate of approximately two percent annually.

Get to Know Our Experts

Peter Duncan

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    The Wood Studio, LLC
  • Where:
    Wilmington, NC
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Hylan Design
  • Where:
    Chicago, IL
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Monroe Workshop
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Furniture Designer Infographic