Moving forward, looking back

Scott Mitchell and Nicholas Fuller

3 November - 17 December 2016

An exhibition of work that reflects the separate paths taken after Fuller completed his training as an apprentice under Mitchell. Mitchell/Fuller: moving forward, looking back represents their understanding of the design and manufacture of furniture, from product through to limited collectable pieces.

By Scott Mitchell

It is an enticing title and one that poses many questions about the professional and creative relationship between Scott Mitchell and his former apprentice, Nicholas Fuller, and the work each has produced for this exhibition.

Learning a craft takes time. Mastering one takes decades of continual practice. When Fuller began his apprenticeship in 2009, Mitchell already had more than 20 years’ experience in fine woodworking as a successful designer-maker, producing one-off and limited edition furniture pieces as well as bespoke joinery for residential and commercial projects.

Mitchell originally studied furniture at the ANU School of Art under the founding Head of the furniture workshop, George Ingham. Ingham maintained a strong philosophy of immersion in the making process and demanded a high level of technical excellence from his students. These values have remained central to Mitchell’s practice and his work has always been characterised by a conscious demonstration of fine craft skills combined with an honest, natural design aesthetic.

During the four years of his apprenticeship, Fuller received training from Mitchell in specialised woodworking and furniture making techniques in the context of a busy workshop environment with the everyday pressures of real clients and real deadlines – an environment in which issues of accuracy, efficiency and productivity are constant and critical.

After completing his apprenticeship, and with Mitchell’s encouragement, Fuller applied and was accepted into the furniture program of the ANU School of Art where he spent two years laying the foundations of a personal design language informed by his comparatively advanced technical skills. The significant contrast between the trade learning environment and the academic one was, at times, challenging for Fuller and he began to wonder if a more hands-on and vocationally focussed training program like the one at JamFactory in Adelaide might suit him better.

The clincher for Fuller was in late 2013, on hearing that Jon Goulder had been appointed as the new Creative Director of JamFactory’s furniture studio. Fuller was attracted to the intense nature of the program and the opportunity to be mentored by a designer of Goulder’s calibre and he subsequently applied for an Associate position at JamFactory. Goulder (who interestingly, like Fuller, also completed an apprenticeship before studying at the ANU and like Mitchell, had studied under George Ingham) was intrigued by the route Fuller had taken, and immediately saw him as a great fit for his own new vision for the JamFactory furniture studio; despite the fact Fuller had not yet completed his degree.

Professional craft and design training has, over the past 30 years, been dominated by the university sector and as courses have unfortunately diminished and contact hours reduced, JamFactory’s Creative Directors (across each of the areas of glass, ceramics, furniture and jewellery) have witnessed a continuing decline in the level of making skills that graduates have at the end of their Art School degrees. It should be said here that the ANU School of Art, while not immune, has been the most notable exception to this decline in Australia. In his application to the JamFactory, Fuller’s unorthodox background provided something of a counterpoint to that decline and his story is a valuable reminder that craft skills have been passed by master to apprentice for millennia. Indeed, this age-old tradition of lineage might offer a viable alternative – or perhaps additive – to the mix of crafts-based courses within the Australian tertiary education sector.

After completing the two-year program at JamFactory at the end of 2015, Fuller spent most of 2016 working with Lex Stobie, another highly accomplished designer-maker based in Adelaide, until his recent appointment as Production Manager back in the JamFactory furniture studio alongside Goulder.

It comes as no surprise that Fuller’s design language has evolved and matured as one deeply informed by the traditions and processes of furniture making. In the new body of work he has developed for this exhibition we see a confident, distinctive and fully formed personal aesthetic that marks a change in the relationship between Mitchell and Fuller. Seeing their works together we no longer see master and apprentice, but rather peers in their chosen field, with both looking back and moving forward.

Brian Parkes, October 2016

Brian Parkes is CEO at JamFactory in Adelaide.