Wendy Neale, Maker

Interview by Tara Robertson in World Sweet World Issue #07

Original here:

World Sweet World: Issue #07 67
She is a paradox; a designer who thinks there’s too much stuff in the world, and a professional furniture maker who has decided that she will no longer sell her pieces. She has a wicked sense of humour, punctuating our conversation with her trademark “I knoooow”. She is a curious explorer who likes to incorporate secret drawers or hidden features in her work. Here’s our conversation.
How long have you been making furniture? I’ve been making furniture professionally for about 13 or 14 years. I started formally training in woodwork and jewellery making in 1996, however, I’ve been making furniture for a lot longer. About 15 years ago, my mum asked me to clean out a storage space with stuff from when I was a kid. I found my dolls, and all the balsa wood furniture that I had made for them.
How long have you been doing craft? I was surrounded by people who were making things all the time, so I would say that I’ve always been a maker. My dad had a shed, and as kids we were all encouraged to make things. We all had our own tools.

All the women in my family sew, crochet, and knit. Every one of them would say they didn’t have a creative bone in their body, but they all created all the time. I didn’t have to buy clothes when I was a kid; they were all made. When my niece was 5 years old she came to Waiheke. At that time I was building our house. I got her a little hammer and she helped nail in some of the nails. Ever since she has said, “when I grow up I want to be a maker like Wendy.”

Wendy Neale:
By Tara Robertson

When I walked into Wendy Neale’s flat I felt like a crow: excited by all
the shiny things. I kept pointing to pieces of furniture and other
objects asking “did you make this too?” she kept nodding and smiling.
Wendy is one of few women who are professional furniture makers in
New Zealand. She is a maker: an artist and crafter with woodworking,
metalworking, upholstery, sewing, embroidering, crocheting, knitting,
and printing in her arsenal.

PHOTOS BY KATE MACPHERSON68 World Sweet World: Issue #07 World Sweet World: Issue #07 69

What are some characteristics of your designs?

I’m interested in surface, texture, colour, and junctions, or how one component of furniture

meets another. Whether it’s the colour within timber, or a piece of fabric, red and green seem to
be really important to me. An example of a junction is how the chair legs go into the base of a chair. I
put a lot of work into that area, so why would I hide it? Instead I choose to highlight this area, and
will probably use buttons on the upholstery to echo the design and craft of the base.
I’m particularly interested in surprises and the mystery of pieces of furniture. I love the discovery, adventure
and exploration, for example, when you open drawers, or discover secret drawers, or view a design
detail on the underside of a piece. For example, a
plain school table reminded me of the earthquake
drills that we did in school. Every year we practised
getting under our desks. So I decorated the underside
of the school table with wallpaper, added a peephole,
and a little cupboard where you can put your raisins
and snifters. While you’re under there you have
supplies and a viewing portal into the world.
How do craft, design and art relate to each
other? We often elevate the notion of design.
Everything is designed. People talk about an
architecturally designed house. Versus what? A
house designed by an architect?
I see it as a class or gender hierarchy. Craft is made
by women or working class people. Design is made
by creative, white collar men.
Fine art and craft are related because they both
create one-offs. Every object is individual and
separate. Often design is about creating something that can be reproduced. Spatial
design or architecture often sits aside; often an interior or a building is a one-off.
I call this in some ways design, because I’m creating prototypes; it would be nice if I
could start replicating these and keep the story. For my Masters project I’ve got two
drawers, a table and three chairs. I see the process of replication as design, though
each object is crafted and has some sort of fine arts conceptual background to it.
Tell me more about your Masters project! I’m doing the Master of Design in the
Spatial Design Department at Massey University. This is where my ideas of furniture
seemed to fit the best. I will be finishing in February 2010.
I’m taking pieces of obsolete furniture and making minimal interventions. Obsolete
furniture is stuff that people don’t need anymore and is often just thrown away. Often
there’s nothing wrong with these pieces, they aren’t broken, it’s just someone’s change
of headspace or style. I see these things lying around, grab them, breathe some new life
into them, and put them back into the world.
This design process is different from the standard design process. You normally start
with sketches, do some quick model making, and perhaps make a full scale mock-up
of a component, or the whole thing. But because I had the objects in front of me, it
seemed too disconnected to go back and draw the object. I needed to work directly
with the object, and treat the object as not only a sketch, or a prototype or maquette,
but as the object itself. It’s a very direct way of working.
I enjoy working with my hands as I find that what you experience physically allows
you to develop things quite intuitively. It’s been a nice change to move from a formal
process to a more intuitive and haptic process. It’s been an incredible way to learn, by
making—not just thinking or reading. It’s an integrated process that is both
academically rigorous and hands on and sensual.
As an object maker, I really enjoy making and creating things, as well as working things
with my hands. Though I’ve come to a point where I think there’s enough stuff in the
world. That there is a constant proliferation of stuff and objects. We’re always being sold
stuff. This is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to work with obsolete furniture.
Tell me about some of the pieces you’ve made from obsolete furniture.
This was made from a drawer that was burnt in a house fire in Waiheke. Once every year or
two, everyone puts out the stuff that they don’t want anymore, and you can take things that
you want from other people’s rubbish piles. This drawer was all that was left from a 1930s
art deco style dressing table, one of those with the two top tiny drawers and a mirror.
I remember my great aunty sitting at a similar dressing table. She would spend time with
herself brushing her hair and doing her makeup. I also remember my mum putting on
her fake eyelashes, teasing up her hair, putting on her 1970s outfits. It was a place where
women spent some time with themselves, looking after themselves. Instead of keeping it
as a drawer, where it would be contained. I decided to gold leaf the inside to tie it to the
specialness and raise it up on the wall on long legs. It’s almost like a shrine.
“I decorated the underside of the
school table with wallpaper, added a
peephole, and a little cupboard where
you can put your raisins and snifters.”70 World Sweet World: Issue #07 World Sweet World: Issue #07 71
The dressing table invokes a sense of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is often seen as something in a negative
light, something that hasn’t moved with the times, or
a syrupy sweet emotion. Nostalgia can be wistful, a
connection with memories, a connection with the
past, which informs our future. Nostalgia is a really
positive and affirming connecting emotion.
The legs are old Matai timber floorboards that
were given to me from a friend who moved to
Ireland. I get a lot of materials from people at
work and from friends. People often say “I’ve got
these headboards, you might be interested in
them”, and they are often right.
I decided not to include this piece in the Masters
but I still like it. It is made of four years of
students’ workshop leftovers, so any number of
students who have graduated in the last several
years could see their timber. I took scrap from the
student lab and made a series of tiny boxes. It has
a copper sheet that has aged nicely, with a
computer and speakers. You can move it around.
I’m reworking three black vinyl swivel chairs.
When I found the chairs they were ripped. Instead
of mending the rips, or reupholstering them, I
decided to incorporate the rips into the design.
One has corset style lacing with bright coloured
fabric peeking out. Another one has a zipper. I
haven’t decided what the third one will be yet. The
fabric that peeks out was from a Trelise Cooper
bag of workroom scraps. When I lived on
Waiheke, I knew a woman who was her cousin
and she offered me these fabric scraps.
The piece I’m finishing off right now is made from
an obsolete chair, wooden legs, and one of my old
coats. I started experimenting by using clothes
pegs to see where the fabric worked best, and have
moved to something more permanent, using the
red buttons from the original upholstery as an
accent on the fabric and as a way to pick up the
design in the base. Whatever I’m working on at
the moment is my favourite piece.
Can you explain why you don’t sell your pieces?
I can’t be selling pieces made from obsolete
furniture. When I find the original piece and play
with it, I get enjoyment out of that. I have a job, so
I don’t have to make money from selling this
furniture. Perhaps someone’s going to get
enjoyment out of the piece, and maybe they decide
to give me something as a gift. I’m working outside
of that dominant consumer system that’s concerned
with profit and loss. Normally as a designer,
because you design something, it then has value. I
find these objects for free, and then I put some
value into it. The next step would normally be to
put it in a gallery or a designer shop and command
an exorbitant price for it. This does not interest me.
I’m so interested in the stories of the objects. First
I find the piece of obsolete furniture. Then I decide
what the story of the piece was and I develop it by
making little interventions and changing it in small
ways. The next part of the story is the new
caretaker, or owner, and how they came to have
the piece, and the story of our interaction and
their connection to the piece.
Many people have called the cycling of an object,
“upcycling”. I don’t use that word. I’d rather keep it
in Karl Marx’s interstices. Nicolas Bourriaud talks
about how our social spaces have become
mechanised. For example, instead of going into the
bank, we use an ATM to get money. We lose the
opportunity to have little interactions and squabbles
with other people. These enrich our social
interactions and help us develop our sense of where
we are in the world. I wanted to retain that in the
process of negotiation, swapping and gifting.
It’s another way of stepping out of the dominant
paradigm of “this needs to be paid for with money”.
Can you share your thoughts on sustainability?
The way sustainability is projected is more of a
marketing concern than a reality. Often I see things
that are advertised as “sustainable”. Maybe the
plywood is grown sustainably, but the way that the
material is used is wasteful. In Europe the company
who produces the object is responsible for the
rubbish. But here we have that attitude that if we
put some recycling out we’ve done our bit. The
word “sustainable” is used a lot, but it doesn’t
necessarily mean anything. William McDonough’s
book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We
Make Things, talks about sustainability in a far
different way than people think about it now.
Electric cars are not more environmentally friendly,
it still takes 80 barrels of petrol to make the car,
even though they don’t use much petrol. We need
to consider that a lot more thoroughly.
Tara Robertson is a crafty, queer, geeky
librarian who likes to ride her bike. She recently
moved to Wellington from Vancouver, Canada. Tara is
passionate about open source software, social justice,
and finding the perfect shade of red lipstick. She has
a big mouth, a big butt, and a big heart.