Q&A with Laura McCusker

Laura McCusker has been building furniture professionally for over 15 years and is a classically trained fine woodworker and cabinet maker with experience in boat building, fit outs and traditional freestanding pieces. We chat to her about the path that took her from Sydney to Tasmania and which has seen her work commissioned by the MONA and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as well as a number of personal commissions from Tasmania, mainland Australia and beyond.

Photo: Jonathan Wherrett

In what year did you begin your practice?

I started fulltime practice in tandem with having children. My daughter was born in 1999 so that was kind of when the practice started.

Before my daughter was born, I was studying up until 1998 and then started thinking about how to juggle career and children. I just figured I'll just start them both off at the same time. So my career was still emerging while my child was at an emerging stage. I thought, ‘hopefully when I get to the point where my work needs me stronger, my child is stronger and less demanding.’ That was the plan.

Being self-employed has its ups and downs but the benefits are that if you want to nick off to go to a school assembly, or you need to take your daughter to the dentist you have no one else to answer to. You don't have to apologise for being a parent. The work life balance is all part of the same thing.

Your education pathway was quite non-traditional. What was your arts related education pathway (i.e. formal training, private training, self-taught)? How has your educational and professional experience shaped your practice?

I went to a school that was academically focused. I did art at high school but the art was not three dimensional. It was an academically focused all girls school, which meant watercolours, oil paints, charcoals. I loved it but I was really keen to get hands on experience. As an all girls school they didn't offer woodwork or metal work or anything like that. I used to muck around in my granddad's shed who was an engineer and he was always very empowering in explaining how things worked and letting me have a go.

It took me a while to find a pathway because I didn't have any obvious model. In my background, my parents are both doctors and my family are professionals. Just working out where to get the training I found myself enrolled in architecture at UTS, Sydney. I remember feeling the reason I liked the idea of it was when reading the prospectus and one of the first year projects was to build a table. "Alright, that's it. I'm going to be an architect because they're going to teach me how to build a table". My husband at the time said there might be easier ways to learn how to make furniture without having to become an architect first. At that point the penny dropped and I thought "Oh my god, people actually make furniture, I can go and do that!"

It was obvious how to move into ceramics and jewellery. And it was obvious how to move into fashion and textiles. And it was quite an obvious pathway how to become a (two dimensional) visual artist, or graphic designer. I had friends who moved into those areas and that seemed quite a normal thing, but to go and do an apprenticeship in cabinet making at TAFE out at Lidcombe and get an apprenticeship working on building office fit-outs and shop fittings was a path a little less well trodden.

At the time I was really hopeful I could find someone to take me on as an apprentice, but the industry was in a phase of retracting so there were less and less types of furniture that I wanted to learn how to do, and they were certainly in no state to be able to take on apprentices. The whole apprenticeship scheme was kind of winding down. It was a different phase of education.

I did get an apprenticeship but it was at a shop-fitting place, and the sort of furniture that I learnt how to do there was chipboard shop-fittings. It was really worthwhile to learn how to do but it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I did that for a couple of years then I found Sturt School for Wood down in Mittagong in the Southern Highlands of Sydney. I went down there and learnt how to do fine woodworking through them.

I spent so much learning on the job once I had finished that. You get out into industry and that's when you really learn. Like any qualification, it's all the other stuff afterwards that makes a difference.

Do you have any recommendations for professional development and learning in the industry?

I got a really good grounding in traditional hand-skills, and the skills of making. No judgement on the Sturt School for Wood, but in the scope of the year they covered so much but what they didn't cover is what I learnt afterwards - business management, accounting, marketing, customer service, public relations, media profile. All the kind of stuff you need as a small business and as a - I don't like using the word 'brand' - but understanding how all that other stuff works is important because you can't go out and get a job, (or in my day you couldn't, it might be different now). There was no one who was going to employ me because they could hardly pay their own bills.

I had to be self employed. I had to generate the work myself, and the interest in the work. So all of that I had to pick up on the job or be really observant through trial and error, work it out along the way. I think if someone came to me now, I would say absolutely you need skills and knowledge training in your craft but you then also need the business side of things: how to promote yourself; write a press release; good customer service. Stuff that seems really obvious to some people, but others might need it explicitly spelled out. It's really important to reply to emails quickly. Follow up on phone calls. When we deliver a table, we put in a reminder at the 1-year anniversary to call the client. How's it going, do you want us to come in and suss out the dents, re-finishing?

It's really important to have the right advice on the accounting side of things, and the tax implications, and all that sort of boring stuff that goes into running a business. I think it's really important not to think it doesn't matter and that you don't have to worry about it because you’re only a self employed, small scale practitioner. You know if you want to be professional, you need to be professional across all the realms.

This is an excerpt of a longer interview to be published soon on the National Craft Initiative website. You can view more of Laura McCusker's work on her website here and on instagram.