The competitive world of furniture design and soft furnishings takes no prisoners. Like fashion, fabrics and styles go in and out of vogue and the challenge of the designer is making timeless yet modern pieces. One man who has achieved this is Mark Gabbertas, the brains behind the award winning Mark Gabbertas studios. Yet this was not always the case. After quitting his high-paid advertising job to become an adult apprentice cabinet maker, Mark is the picture perfect example of how completing an apprenticeship can change your life at any age.
Mark agreed to re-live his life changing decision and tell us more about the apprenticeship that led to him becoming one of the most respected designers in the UK.
It’s safe to say your apprenticeship changed your life. What was the most important lesson you have taken from your time as an apprentice?
That’s tricky – I learnt so much. My first apprenticeship, which lasted a year with Codrington Furniture, was the most exhilarating process I have ever experienced, as I tried to learn how to use my hands and actually make things. It was, however, bizarrely stressful, as the critical relationship between time and money became all too apparent and I saw how easily a job can become unprofitable. After that year, I left to join Stemmer and Sharp in a communal workshop in Hackney as I now wanted to learn how to make finer furniture using more involved techniques. Andrea and Fiona had formidable reputations as designers and makers, both having trained at Parnham, then run by John Makepiece and to which I would have loved to have gone, but financial reality precluded. I found I was actually a very good cabinet maker and relished the requirement for precision. Most rewarding was the joy that came from seeing a completed piece.
During all this time, I think I came to realise that the ability to make beautifully was not an end in itself, but merely a means to another. Superb technical ability was to be applauded and it was important to have this knowledge, but more important was knowing how to use it to one’s advantage rather than becoming a slave to its siren call.
How did you get from being an apprentice to starting up your own studio?
I spent ten years as a designer/ maker in the workshop in Hackney, designing and making for both private and commercial clients, including Virgin, the Geffyre Museum et al. The business developed and grew and then one of those wonderful auspicious events occurred whereby a college from my days in advertising who had been equally suspicious of that industry, called to say she too had decided to pursue her dreams and was opening a restaurant in Soho, and would I design the furniture. The restaurant was called Atelier and the furniture won awards. I was subsequently called by a high profile manufacturing brand, Allermuir, who asked if I was interested in licensing the design for one of the chairs to them. Without realising my business model changed overnight and I switched from designing and making furniture to concentrate purely on design and licensing these to brands.
What was the hardest part of getting your studio off the ground?
Our approach to business was extraordinarily competitive and it took another ten years to establish a reputation as a designer with all the financial implications of this struggle all too apparent. The Gabbertas Studio was established in 2002 and it was a leap of faith in that we bought premises in west London, but financed this by renting space out within them and also taking on work which paid bills but about which we didn’t shout. Long hours, lots of knocking on doors and speculative pitching - all part and parcel of making a reputation.
What has been your proudest moment in your career as a furniture designer?
It has become apparent that expectations change. I was trying to catch up with people who had ten years on me and I would wander around exhibitions where these established and much revered ‘peers’ were exhibiting, wondering how I could possibly get to do the same. My first exhibition at a group show therefore at New Designers in Islington was wonderful as I felt vindicated in all my decisions and indeed my ability. 20 years later, my ambitions are different and my expectations changed...ask me in five years and I will tell you if I have fulfilled them.
What is the best part of your job?
Knowing that we are good and always getting better...to be frank, we never stop learning and are constantly challenging ourselves and our clients both strategically and aesthetically. When a particularly brave decision not just by us but also by the client company proves successful, it is a great feeling. We are producing our best work now, and it is reassuring to feel that one’s ability grows and develops over time, contrary to so many other industry types.
What is your inspiration?
It has taken a long time to figure out what makes us tick and what specifically is the design language with which we feel comfortable. We best describe this as the desire to create character through simplicity. This is an antidote both to the rigorous pursuit of minimalism and also the overly expressive, and instead it is intended to produce designs with longevity and that old fashioned concept of elegance is central to this.
What skills do you think you need to make it in this industry?
Getting into furniture design is difficult and even more difficult to make it work. My advice would be to get the basic skills under your belt; such as the ability to use the relevant CAD software, the ability to sketch and express your ideas, and ideally the ability to make to a decent standard. These are probably best done at college full or part time, and then find yourself an internship or apprenticeship with the very best people you can find from whom you must aim to learn as much as you can. The successful designers our there have achieved by a combination of persistence and hard work with serious ability as a given.
What is your dream project?
I would love to design a set of cutlery.
If Mark’s story has inspired you, remember when it comes to getting to the top there is no blueprint answer. Enrolling on an interior design or soft furnishing course is a great opportunity to learn the basics and find your aesthetic.