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Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Atelier System

An atelier is a group of students working through a highly ordered series of activities with a master who is also a working practitioner. The system works by building knowledge and skills through a blend of research and practice, with the bias towards research in the early stages and practice in the later stages. It is common in this system for tasks from seemingly unrelated disciplines to be used to illustrate and develop skills that are pertinant to the craft being learned. Another unusual feature is that students of different years are taught together. You cannot learn a skill and learn to teach it at the same time, but revisiting a skill that you have already perfected in practice helps you learn how to teach it to others - and only when you have cracked both can you truly consider yourself a master of the skill.

This is the system employed at Rowden Farm Workshops, where David Savage and Master Craftsmen Daren Millman and Steve Perry teach enthusiastic young makers. The workshop has a powerful energy that is apparent the moment you walk through the door, it's not like the fleeting slap of a wave but more an irresistable tide of inspiration - within minutes you have a sense that you couldn't spend more than a few hours there without developing an uncontrollable urge to make an exceptional piece of furniture. This is not David's energy, nor Daren's or Steve's, they would be drained in minutes if they tried to invoke this sort of atmosphere, it comes from the students. All the masters do is direct and focus their ambition - like a lens focusing the energy of the sun to make gentle warmth into fire.

The first thing that David does is teach students to draw - life-sized and accurate. This is exactly the same starting point that Rembrandt set out from and David is adamant that if you don't have the observational skills, sense of proportion and scale necessary to draw an object as it is, then you cannot even begin to conquer the comparatively monumental task of making something that barely exists - a mere concept in your mind - three dimensionally in wood.

Here's an example of an early lesson on drawing curves:

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