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From Amazon to woodworking – how I started my furniture making business

If the thought of leaving your 9-5 to follow your passion fills you with fear, then Vanessa Johnston’s story will put your mind at ease. After seeing an aerial video of the campus, Vanessa fell in love with the beauty of Scotland and soon discovered that both the Chippendale School and Scotland were the right fit for her. Here is Vanessa’s story in her words… Switching lanes My undergrad degree is in graphic design, and I have spent over 13 years as a designer and marketer in the Seattle area, working for medical device manufacturers and tech firms, such as Amazon, but it never inspired me. Then, a decade ago, I bought my houseboat, Otis, and set about renovating it. It was through that process that I fell in love with woodworking and decided that I needed to learn how to do it properly. That was what led me to start the Professional Course at the Chippendale International School of Furniture in Scotland.

A candle holder made by Vanessa Johnston woodworking Studying at the Chippendale School

It was a total immersion experience, I spent 8-12 hours per day, 6 days a week at the school learning, designing, building, and honing my new skills. I felt exhausted during the first term, but the body and mind gradually get used to it. It wasn't long before I was there every minute I could be, lost in the magic of creating things. You spend a lot of time with your classmates and instructors and have the opportunity to create lifelong connections and deep friendships. I have no doubt the entire trajectory of my life has changed because of attending Chippendale School. A big highlight during my studies was finishing my first self-designed piece, a stand-alone drinks cabinet. Knowing I had successfully made something by hand and could do it again was such an incredible feeling! Another highlight was being awarded The Chippendale Society (no relation to the school) Prize for excellence to commemorate the 300th birthday of Thomas Chippendale. It was an incredible honour to be presented with the award at the end of year exhibition! Since graduating I returned to Seattle upon graduating, where I was lucky enough to do a few new and exciting things. I helped to start a community woodworking shop in Seattle and taught classes for women. It was something that was a real challenge but so rewarding. After the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the space where I was renting in Seattle shut down, I decided to make the best of things and move back to Scotland to start up Vanessa Johnston woodworking, where I am also now in business with a furniture maker who I met at Chippendale School. Sustainability and longevity are really important to me as an environmental consideration and as a business ethos. My pieces are investments that will hopefully be cherished and handed down from generation to generation. I learned restoration techniques at Chippendale School from Clare Charleston and Graham Davies who are incredibly skilled at matching grains, colours and joins so that you never could imagine how damaged a piece had been.

A chair made by Vanessa Johnston woodworking The customer experience is my biggest differentiator. There are many furniture makers who create beautiful, well-made pieces and are stiff competition if you look at the product alone. My model goes beyond just the product and emphasises the whole interaction. Customers are welcome to come to the workshop and see their piece in development. I send them photo and video updates throughout, and each piece comes with a warranty. I include a leaflet with the furniture detailing care, use and containing information about the species of wood used. The goal is for the customer to feel like they are an old friend and can come to me for anything.

The future of woodworking The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way people are thinking about their home and garden spaces, as we've all spent so much time at home over the last 16 months. I see a lot more investments being made in home office, living space, and garden furniture. Recently, I'm also seeing a shift away from the bare lines of mid-century or very modern styles, toward a more personalised design aesthetic with detailed work that highlights the natural wood.

Interior designs are seeing the resurgence of natural fibres and people are more interested in the provenance of their materials and the textures of their home. People are thinking more deeply about origin and sustainability as well as comfort and natural wood and bespoke details can help to create that.

A chess set made by Vanessa Johnston woodworking What is around the corner I'm in the process of building a wall hung jewellery cabinet and documenting the experience for Furniture and Cabinetmaking Magazine, which is such an exciting opportunity! In the coming months, I will also begin offering introductory woodworking classes for women, from my workshop here in Coupar Angus in Scotland. These will be day-long or half-day courses where women can learn in a welcoming and non-threatening environment and leave with a small piece at the end.

Thank you to Vanessa for her contribution to this blog.

If you are interested in changing career and starting your own furniture making business like Vanessa Johnston woodworking see more information on our Professional course at The Chippendale International School of Furniture here.

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