MILWAUKEE, Wis. - Furniture makers and artists from across the country converged on Milwaukee, Wisconsin earlier this summer for the Furniture Society’s annual conference Groundwork, which was held at The Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD).
Conference speakers touched on topics from the business side of furniture making and artistry to inspiration and design and the importance and value of skilled work in our society.
Glenn Adamson gives the opening keynote at the Furniture Society's 2019 annual conference.
The opening keynote: “All Together Now” by Glenn Adamson, curator, author, historian and currently Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, was a look back over his career from his various projects, writings and the lectures he’s given and the influence they have had on his work as a curator and historian. 
A key theme of the presentation was the art of joinery and how it binds the world together. Adamson posed the question “Can craft save America?” and quickly answered by acknowledging that craft can be part of the solution to our current social ails.
“Craft can be a social adhesive – a joinery binding us together,” he said.  He also noted that while trust has fallen off the cliff with institutions, most people trust the local crafts person in their communities.
Adamson also said that the future (and present) of furniture making is in small batch production. Small businesses with digital tools like CNC are driving the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) world of home furnishings, he said. While he’s neutral on it, he does say that it is a return to form. “The 18th century was small batch manufacturing and the digital tools (of today) allow for (smaller companies to have) competition with larger companies.”

Conference sessions center on hot topics

After the opening keynote, attendees could choose from a number of sessions presented by artisans, educators and designers from across the country.
Meg Bye, artist and owner of Knot and Burl in Seattle, Washington, shared tips on how to build a successful career. In her session titled “Jumpstarting Your Job: A Look into Building a Successful & Fulfilling Artist’s Career,” Bye focused on the challenges facing artists and gave practical advice on how to evaluate and make informed decisions.
Bye urged artists to recognize that their “expression has value” and that value is essential to remember when working with contracts and setting prices for their work. 
“Artisans are a cultural necessity but do not have to exist as a financial martyr,” she said. Artisans have to develop their business acumen, improve their decision making and critical thinking and learn how to package that skill as well as their art in a way that is authentic and sustainable.
Bye also said that the landscape is changing in terms of how the public values artists and artisans. Craft and handmade goods are considered a luxury experience now and it is important to be able to sell clients not only on the bespoke concept of the art but offer problem-solving solutions using creative language, she said.
Bye’s presentation also included a discussion on quality and setting core values. 
While quality should be consistent, it is not just about the materials, she said. It also involves the longevity of your work and communication with clients and it should be standardized from concept creation to presentation.
Bye listed quality as one of the core values every artist should have as well as authenticity and professionalism. 
In a presentation titled “Knowing Hands: Cognition & Skill,” Artist BA Harrington, associate professor of art and director of The Wood Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, discussed the revival of both the popular and intellectual interest in craft as well as historical systems such as Educational Sloyd that believe in the importance of hand-skills for the development of the whole person. 
Working with our hands improve motor skills and promote activity in the brain, she said. “What we do with our hands impart what we know and how we know it.” Craftsmanship allows the skilled worker to “see the world differently by seeing different distinctions that those without skill may not see.”
Many people straddle the bridge between hand skills and digital technology, which Harrington emphasized noting that craft and skill can still play a pivotal role even in an age of digital fabrication. 
Jennifer-Navva Milliken, artistic director for The Center for Art in Wood, shared with conference attendees the increasing value furniture makers and artists are placing on video as a medium to share their voice and work. Artists are using video to illustrate their thought process on a project, and it allows them to share their skill in a “performative way,” she said. 
Video, which can used for marketing and branding, invites more discussion of the craft by turning the process into a narrative to increase engagement and the understanding of materials and products Milliken noted.
Mario Constantini, president and co-founder of La Lune Collection in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, discussed entrepreneurship, design and philanthropy and how to integrate those things into a successful business in his session “Design Entrepreneurship + the Meaning of Life.”
Constantini shared how creativity and business skills can benefit and grow both for-profit and non-profit organizations.
The rustic furniture company creates cabinetry, beds and furnishings from poplar, which Constantini said is an invasive species in Wisconsin. La Lune started as a small company with one designer on staff. However, fashion designer Ralph Lauren was one of its very first customers and is now a regular client. 
The company grew and expanded in 1986 into a disadvantaged neighborhood taking over an abandoned mill shop and the surrounding property, and Constantini said he restored and still uses the 100-year-old equipment in the shop.
In 1989 he opened a youth center near the factory and ran a school in the building for nearly 8 years. He is co-founder of the Milwaukee Youth Art Center and is also involved in the Mad Hot Ballroom Program which teaches youth to dance and compete. In 2008 he opened the Florentine Opera Center.
After the neighborhood began to improve, he was able to convince other businesses like Colectiva Coffee Company and the Urban Ecology Center to come to the area.
Constantini said he views his company as a hybrid between a non-profit and for-profit business. The unifying theme is that creativity is not just in designing furniture but solving problems.
“We’re all born creative,” he said. “The challenge is to remain an artist as you grow older.”

Fun activities and networking

Besides the conference sessions, attendees were also able to participate in a community project by building a bench for the city’s Victory over Violence park. The bench was designed by Tom Loeser. 
Other activities included a silent auction, member and MIAD alumni exhibitions, a gallery crawl, slide wars – attendees were able to share images of their work in a fast-paced, informal setting, and a dinner and dance on the final evening. 
For more information on the Furniture Society and upcoming events, visit

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