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The Great Debate: Is Furniture-making an Art?

The simple answer? No, but it used to be. Could furniture-makers regain a level of artistic status, in Singapore? Perhaps. We may never know.

Ahmad posed me a question the other day, of which a journalist had asked him through

an email interview: “What would you change about the furniture scene in Singapore?” His answers were very elaborate of course; citing how Singapore’s talents hadn’t been fully exploited or showcased on a respectable level. He named some fellow woodworkers he’s met on his journey in building Urban Salvation, and how their skills though honed and perfected after years and years, still retracted little to no respect in the eye of the public. Being bullied by clients, low-ballers and the like was the norm in Ahmad’s case.

I, on the other hand found myself wondering what steps should woodworkers take to gain this level of respect for their years of experience and handcraftsmanship. In a hypothetical situation, there’s bound to be some level of traction when introducing your art to the general public. Some would be intrigued; others wouldn’t blink an eye.

It’s been a little over a year since I joined the Urban Salvation team and I’ve seen them cross multiple milestones in this period. I’ve also been able to witness their day-to-day work; from the initial stages of designing on paper to seeing the actual works being assembled. I’ve also learnt that some of our clients view us as builders or carpenters, rather than furniture makers. You see, at first glance one might think that there isn’t much difference between woodwork and carpentry, but it’s a well-known fact in the world of woodworking that you should always be able to distinguish the two.

Why? Simple. Woodworkers are part of the design process; they see to it that their work will be able to stand the test of time, fit to the style of the space the work will be displayed in and make the necessary changes throughout the process as they deem fit. Carpenters, to my understanding, follow plans that have been presented to them from the start, making little to no changes at all. Originality, is what they call it. Woodworkers or furniture makers have full control of the outcome of the product.

This leads me to my next question; when did furniture-making stop being viewed as an art?

Art in many ways, is a form of expression or in others, liberation. We’ve seen the Yayoi Kusamas, the Zaha Hadids; recently I’ve learnt about women wood sculptors Louise Nevelson and Barbara Hepworth. Perhaps, the public eye became wary of such communities. Art is subjective. At the National Gallery of Singapore, there is a performance artist who purchased three milk jugs from Sungei Road and displayed it on a pedestal to call it art. It apparently started a buzz in Singapore’s art scene in the 1970s, on what could and could not be considered art.

So where did all the buzz go? Did it dissipate into thin air? Or have we, been living in times that do not call for much forms of expression or liberation or critical thought? Will furniture always be viewed at a functional level, rather than a showcase of a craftsman’s skill? I feel that there is not much difference between a painter and a woodworker.

They both work with their hands after all.


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