To succeed as a furniture designer, you will need design, creative and commercial skills, as well as the confidence to network

As a furniture designer, you'll produce designs for items of furniture and related products. These designs may then be mass produced or made in small batches or as one-off individual pieces.

You may just be involved in the design aspect of the work or you may be a highly-skilled crafts person and produce items from your own designs.

You'll either work alone or alongside colleagues creating concepts and designs that balance innovative design, functional requirements and aesthetic appeal.

The process of furniture design demands creativity, business awareness and skills in marketing, finance, sales and manufacturing.

The role may involve a number of functions, particularly if you are self-employed, including:

  • accountant
  • buyer
  • designer
  • maintenance engineer
  • production manager
  • salesperson.

Responsibilities

Work activities will vary according to whether you are a self-employed furniture designer working alone, working with one or two other like-minded craftspeople, or whether you are employed by a manufacturing company with a group of experienced furniture designers.

However, general tasks are likely to include:

  • studying, researching and planning various styles of furniture design
  • finding ways to improve furniture items already manufactured
  • staying informed about design trends and developments
  • selecting suitable materials, which might include wood, metal, plastic and textiles
  • discussing designs with clients for custom ordering or with manufacturers
  • generating sample designs using computer-aided design (CAD), card models, sketches or hard prototypes
  • using software packages such as AutoCAD, Inventor, SolidWorks and Photoshop
  • preparing detailed final designs
  • liaising with craftsmen or production department staff - such as production managers, marketing staff and design engineers - about the process of construction or manufacture
  • evaluating issues such as pricing and fixing costs, fashion, purchasing, safety, materials and manufacturing methods and techniques
  • using various tools to complete projects from raw materials to finished furniture items
  • organising plans and schedules with respect to the availability of resources
  • attending workshops, seminars and training on various types of manufacturing and furniture design.

If you're a self-employed designer, you'll need to allocate a portion of your time to marketing and business administration, as well as promoting yourself through advertising your services or attending furnishing fairs and exhibitions.

Many designers have a natural interest in associated fields of design and may spend time on collaborative projects working, for example, with theatre set designers or retail interior designers on certain projects.

Salary

Pay rates vary depending on where you work, the size of the company or organisation and the demand for the job. You might work for a large manufacturing firm, a small family business or a design company doing work for several manufacturing firms.

  • When starting out, you can expect to earn between £18,000 and £25,000.
  • With some experience, you can earn around £30,000.
  • Furniture designers with several years' experience can earn £40,000 or more.

Earning potential can rise considerably for well-known, independent designers. Some designers negotiate royalties for their designs with manufacturers.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working for an organisation will usually mean a full-time week from 9am to 5.30pm, with some flexibility to work extra hours if required.

Working hours for self-employed designers may be irregular and flexibility is essential. Late finishes and weekend work may be required when deadlines approach.

Part-time work is possible for established designers.

What to expect

  • A lot of your time will be spent in a design studio or workshop but you may have to travel to visit clients and suppliers, and to attend meetings and trade shows.
  • If you are a self-employed designer, you could share a workshop with other designers to help reduce costs.
  • The proportion of women in the profession is rising as more women take furniture and industrial design-based courses.
  • Manufacturers and design consultancies are found throughout the UK and Europe.
  • Travel within a working day, overnight absence from home, and overseas work or travel may occasionally be required, depending on your choice of market and scale of work. This is most likely to occur as you gain experience and develop a good reputation.

Qualifications

Although entry without a degree may be possible through an apprenticeship, or by starting work straight from school as a trainee, young furniture designers increasingly have a relevant degree, BTEC or HND in a furniture-related subject such as:

  • furniture design
  • furniture design and making
  • product and furniture design.

Courses with a mix of practical skills and creative design may be particularly useful.

Other relevant degree subjects include:

  • art and design, 3D design or spatial design
  • ceramics and glass
  • furniture technology
  • product design.

A portfolio of work is required for entry on to degree courses. You can then use your degree portfolio when applying for jobs.

You may choose to undertake postgraduate study, in which case, search for postgraduate courses in furniture.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • creative and practical ability
  • drawing skills and strong visual awareness
  • manual dexterity and good hand-eye coordination
  • an understanding of computer-aided design (CAD) and other technological advances
  • knowledge of industrial processes and techniques, safety issues and specialist fields or materials
  • communication skills
  • commercial focus
  • self-motivation, self-discipline and persistence
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • the ability to work to deadlines
  • collaborative skills, particularly if working in a multidisciplinary practice
  • a desire to keep up to date with market trends and new ideas
  • business and marketing skills, for those thinking of self-employment.

Work experience

Entry is competitive so any related work experience is valuable. Try researching companies and making speculative applications to those that match your design style.

On rare occasions a graduate may be offered work as a result of their furniture degree show, but you'll need to be proactive in job searching. Network, sell yourself and your skills and seize any opportunities that arise.

Start by thinking of the contacts you have made during your degree, particularly through work experience placements. It's important to showcase your work in a professional-looking portfolio or website containing photographs, drawings and other design work.

Many employers consider potential to be just as important as experience, so it is essential that you demonstrate a working interest in the design field. Visit design exhibitions, read design journals and keep up to date with new software and technology in the sector.

It's also important to produce your own experimental work and enter competitions and shows to get your work noticed.

For access to information about a range of creative careers, including ceramics design, take a look at Creative Choices.

Employers

As a furniture designer, you may find employment with, or through, the following:

  • architectural practices
  • commissioning departments of public and private bodies, e.g. councils and large corporate firms
  • consultancy practices
  • design practices and studios
  • exhibition organisers
  • furniture manufacturing companies
  • interior and multidisciplinary design studios
  • private buyers (occasionally)
  • retailers.

You may choose to be self-employed or undertake freelance work for corporate or domestic clients.

If you choose self-employment, you may have to look for income from other sources initially, including other part-time work, until you build up a client base.

For information on setting up a business see self-employment. Additional information is provided by:

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies handle vacancies, see Careers in Design. Some may only deal with people who already have commercial experience.

Networking is crucial and trade fairs can be a useful source of information and contacts.

Design directories will help you identify design companies to target for speculative applications, see the Directory of Design Consultants.

Professional development

As a designer you'll need to continue to build your portfolio, develop your skills and attract new contacts throughout your career.

It is vital that you keep up to date with developments in materials, equipment and design trends by attending and exhibiting your work at trade shows and exhibitions. Professional journals, such as Design Week, are useful sources of information on latest trends and news.

You could also join a professional body, such as the Chartered Society of Designers. Membership can provide professional recognition, access to advice, opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) and industry contacts.

Developing additional practical skills may be helpful, particularly if you are self-employed. Many local colleges and design institutions offer relevant courses such as upholstery, carpentry, and computer-aided design (CAD).

Further study can offer you new inspiration and the opportunity to experiment, diversify and obtain specialist knowledge.

The amount of training you get as a new recruit will vary depending on the company. Most employers will expect you to have the basic skills but will often provide training days on new technologies and software, or on company policies. Occasionally supervision is given by a design director but most companies do not allocate individual mentors.

Career prospects

Opportunities for structured progression usually exist in larger design companies; while working for yourself, or in partnership, or a small collective of designers will probably offer more flexibility in the direction of your career.

If you're a designer working on a smaller scale, success will depend on a mixture of these things:

  • contacts
  • design skills
  • networking skills
  • profile
  • reliability
  • reputation
  • self-promotion.

Many designers choose to be self-employed, working from a studio or workshop. At the beginning of your career it's common for new designers to share studio space to divide costs and pool resources. For lists of studios and information about funding, check with the Crafts Council or your regional arts board:

For information useful for career development, see a-n.

As a furniture designer, you could progress to consultant designer, senior consultant designer, or even reach the level of manager or company director in large firms. However, it is usually true that the higher you progress up the career ladder, the less actual design work you are able to do.

Sideways movement between self-employment and employment within small limited-production studios to large mass production manufacturing companies is also possible.

You may specialise in an area of furniture design, building up a particular set of skills and knowledge, for example concentrating on ergonomics - perhaps to meet the specific requirements of companies with large office spaces. Or you may increase your earning potential and enhance your professional reputation by gradually building up a select client base and creating bespoke designs to order.

Another avenue for experienced designers is becoming a furniture buyer for a large company or organisation, or on behalf of other client groups, such as the tourism and hospitality sectors, or private individuals.

As an experienced furniture designer, you could choose to move into other fields, such as curating or journalism, where you can use your furniture design knowledge.

You could also consider teaching and lecturing, either as a form of career development or alongside regular design work to supplement your income.