Leveling Up at the Austin School of Furniture: A Three Month Intensive
Written by Bonnie Scott, (Cohort 1)
In May 2022, twelve students gathered to form the first cohort of the 3 Month Intensive program at the Austin School of Furniture (ASF) in Austin, Texas. Hand-selected from around the country for their passion, previous experience, and potential, these students entrusted their education to the wisdom of award-winning, lead instructor, Phillip Morley.
While a relative newcomer on the scene of fine-furniture education, the Austin School of Furniture has been selling out evening, weekend, and week-long classes since the school opened their doors in 2018. Now in its third home, ASF has become a gem in South Austin, boasting a state of the art machine room, 12 student benches, a small retail store, and one well-loved coffee pot.
A three-month intensive program was the next logical step in the school’s mission, but one that had always been part of the plan for Founder and Managing Director, Austin Waldo.
When I first learned about the Austin School of Furniture, I cold-called the school. “I’m interested in taking a class, but…” I said sheepishly, “is it going to be fun?” I explained my question further: “I mean, will I fit in….as a young woman?” Waldo took my question in good faith and assured me that with Philip Morley at the helm, not only would class involve a good dose of humor, but the school’s welcome was sincere.
Before I knew it, I had resigned from my job, flown across the country, and found myself in that first cohort of intensive students. The syllabus that was laid out for us on day one revealed great intentionality on the part of the curriculum committee.
The program is divided into three modules. Module one introduces students to hand tools, milling, wood-science and basic machinery. Students visit a sustainable urban lumber center and a large lumber yard to learn the art of selecting lumber. By the end of week three, students complete a Krenov-style handplane, and a small tool cabinet to hold their freshly sharpened chisels.
Module two introduces elements of furniture design. Students each design a demilune table, learning to hand-draft in full-scale and half-scale, 3D model, and construct quarter-scale models in wood. After a design review, students build the demilune tables in their choice of wood species, learning joinery, bent lamination, and wood shaping. A finishing section of the course weighs the pros and cons of lacquer, varnish, shellac, oil, and hard-wax.
The third module introduces fine cabinetry work. Students learn different methods of constructing doors and drawers, before designing their capstone project—a small but sweet wall mounted cabinet, fabricated with absolute precision. After a design critique, the school takes on the atmosphere of a college campus at finals time. For three weeks, students eat, sleep and breathe cabinet-making. Shop-sawn veneers go in and out of the vacuum press, dovetails are carved away at benches, tambours slide, jigs are made, and hardware is installed. At the end of the program, students are tired and happy.
While modeled in part on similar programs, Austin’s 3-month intensive is unique. The school leans toward Scandinavian design, and Morley’s influence as furniture maker and lead instructor is its hallmark. Morley is a well-recognized custom furniture-maker in Wimberly, Texas, who builds exquisite mid-century-modern pieces. As a teacher, Morley’s lightheartedness and sense of humor balances his incredible aptitude for the precision required of fine furniture.
Morley’s pieces draw on tradition but speak to a modern generation. Likewise, the school’s motto “traditional craft, modern education,” describes a balance of traditional hand-tool work and cutting edge technology. Students may learn to plane a board by hand in the first week of class, but there is no eschewing modern technology. The school strives to give students a practical and realistic education, while still valuing excellence in craft.
Morley often alludes to his small-production runs while teaching: “if I were making one chair, I’d do it like this. But if I were making a batch of chairs, I’d use this machine.” Students spend a day learning about the business side of things as guest panelists share strategies for pricing, marketing, and using technology to make their businesses work.
Waldo hopes that students will graduate from the program with mastery of the fundamentals, a thorough understanding of the furniture-making process, and confidence to take the next step. Graduates of the program will make excellent apprentices, feel prepared to open a side business, or start to design and build spec pieces.
The next three-month intensive is scheduled for May to August 2023 and the application window runs from October 1, 2022 through January 1, 2023. The school seeks applicants with a compelling life story who want to contribute to society and advance the craft. Waldo says the ideal candidate might describe themselves as an “experienced beginner” or “intermediate novice.”
Having experienced the inaugural 3-month program, I would say the school’s unwritten mission is to nurture the next-generation of furniture-makers. While age did not factor into admission, the average student-age in the first cohort was 32 years—a surprise to most of my colleagues on the first day of class. ASF has successfully attracted the next generation to the craft, and the school is poised to shape the landscape of fine-furniture education in North America.
At 35, leaving behind a master’s degree and a job with benefits to boot, my foray into furniture making was a leap, inspired long-ago by grandfather. But I could not have made that leap without the support and care of Waldo and Morley. Here are two people of my own generation who have built a school that cares as much about the student as the final product.
I hail from a city where the first question you get at a party or a networking event is always “what do you do?” I used to hate that question and would quickly change the subject. But a few weeks into the program, I noticed that I’d begun to love that question. I would grin boldly, and proclaim humbly, I’m a furniture-maker.
Although this property is already nice, it needs a little work to be perfect for a high-level furniture school. We have lots of projects that we will be doing over the next couple of years but there are a few things that we have to do before we can open and hold classes.
Application Period: October 1st, 2022 to January 1st, 2023
Acceptance Notification: February 1st, 2023
Program Dates: May 15th to August 4th, 2023