Harriet (Hattie) Poppy Speed is a successful designer, educator and the founder of on and offline community This Girl Makes. Hattie’s skills, commitment and enthusiasm for her subject earned her recognition from the industry. Among her awards are Best in Show at the 2018 Young Furniture Makers’ Exhibition and the Creative & Design Prize at Oxford Brookes 2019 Fuel Awards.
We talked to Hattie about what made her choose the furniture industry, her career so far and the future of women in woodworking.
Hattie has always been creative and enjoyed making things. After her Dad passed away when only 14, Hattie used designing and making as a constructive way of coping.
Hattie’s design journey started with paper crafts and drawing. She had no access to a workshop or tools at home. It was her A-Level in Product Design that gave her the first opportunity to learn about materials, processes and machinery. She was the only girl in her class, which actually did her favour; it meant she stood out. Despite initially being frightened of the teacher, he saw the potential in her. He encouraged her to really engage with the subject and look to take it further.
Choosing a creative pathway
Hattie’s first real taste of furniture design was at A-Level when she designed and made an upholstered armchair for her finished piece. She made the frame, she turned the legs and she spoke to a local craftsman to learn how to upholster it herself; deep buttonholes and everything! Hattie realised the project had incorporated so many of the things she enjoys. From sketching design ideas, to model making, learning new craft skills from other makers and even styling photographs. She spent a lot of her free time on the project and loved every part of the process.
Hattie grew confident that she was choosing a career pathway that would make her employable at the end of it. We talked to Hattie about her career and the journey she took to get to where she is today.
Can you tell us a bit more about your design background?
I grew up in Northumberland, so after finishing sixth form, I studied at Newcastle College on their Art Foundation Diploma. It was a one-year course where I was able to try lots of different creative disciplines, before specialising; I chose 3D Design. Within our group, I was the only hopeful furniture maker, amongst a class of aspiring Architects, Product Designers and Ceramicists. I brought in pieces of wood from home and would use our workshop sessions to practice woodworking. I think the technician’s eyes lit up when he saw a student choosing the hand tools, rather than the laser cutter. After that, he took me under his wing, and invested a lot of his time teaching me the basics of woodworking. Even now, I remember some of the advice he gave me during those afternoons in the college workshop.
Rycotewood Furniture Centre
I was determined to learn how to make my design ideas a reality. My addiction to the state of flow I found with woodwork lead me to consider options other than University. During an interview for an apprenticeship with a local cabinetmaker, he told me that I should pursue my design education further. He explained that an apprenticeship would just be a lot of “sanding and heavy lifting”. He recommended Rycotewood Furniture Centre in Oxford. Admittedly, it was the idea of studying in close proximity to the University of Oxford that completely seduced me to even consider leaving my beloved Northern roots. I visited the college one open evening, saw the workshops and heard that each student had their own bench throughout their time there. Instantly I knew it was the place I had to be!
I studied at Rycotewood for three years, graduating with a First Class BA Hons in Furniture Design and Make. I one hundred percent came into my own whilst studying there. It gave me so many opportunities to become the designer maker, and person that I had always wanted to be. I’m sure I’ll look back one day when I’m really old and still think that was the best decision I ever made. Notable highlights from those three years are: attending the 2017 LINLEY Summer School, being shortlisted for the 2017 Wood Awards Student Designer category, winning Best in Show at the 2018 Young Furniture Makers Exhibition, and winning Best Undergraduate Poster Design for my research project: A Maker’s Guide to Grief.
Following Rycotewood, I was lucky enough to work as a Design Engineer for Ercol for a year, which was an amazing experience. During 2019 I also attended the Young Professional Industry Experience program (organised by the Furniture Maker’s Company), received funding from Oxford Brookes University’s enterprise team, and had my first solo exhibition at Oxford’s Old Fire Station.
Now I do a combination of furniture-related roles. I work for the NHS as an Occupational Therapy Technical Instructor, teaching woodwork to patients as rehabilitation following strokes or brain injuries. As well as being Artist in Residence at Rycotewood, and teaching a group of 12-15 year olds as part of their new Furniture Saturday Club. I also manage a project called This Girl Makes, which is an on and offline community of designers and makers with events and DIY kits that celebrate and promote women in craft and design.
Do you have a favourite designer?
I would say that I have several mentors within the furniture and craft industries, but the most significant is Dr Lynn Jones, tutor at Rycotewood Furniture Centre. She is a complete wonder woman, not to mention: educator, researcher, designer, maker, and mother! She’s someone who seems to radiate creativity, positivity and inspiration. She is also a driving force behind This Girl Makes because it was thanks to her that I developed my feminist voice. Dr Lynn isn’t just a designer of ‘nice things that look pretty’; she taught me that design is a powerful tool to bring people together and make positive change.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I am editing This Girl Makes Volume 2, the project’s second printed publication. It is an anthology of different makers’ stories: who they are, what they do and why they do it. Hearing from so many different creative women, for me personally makes the project completely worthwhile.
In the workshop, I’ve just completed some bespoke toys commissioned for Oxford’s Story Museum, as part of their recent renovation project.
Since January I have also started working for Rycotewood, delivering the new Furniture National Saturday Club. I was privileged enough to be asked to write the course and develop what projects and activities the students will design and make. So far I am really enjoying it; they’ve had some great ideas!
Tell us why the industry needs This Girl Makes?
How long do I have? Well for starters, a study by the Design Museum shows that:
However, for personal reasons I would say This Girl Makes needs to exist because the world still (unfortunately) has a very outdated view of gender. There is almost an expectation that as a woman, I should be more interested in design than making, or working in a social role, rather than a practical one. I am lucky to have grown up in a family with hard working female role models, who were very encouraging of my chosen pathway. Not once did I feel my gender inhibited me.
I realised, once I stepped out of my ‘bubble’, that I seemed to be an exception to some ‘rule’ that still remains. It wasn’t until I was at university studying woodwork, and after investing specific time to do so, that I discovered other makers that I identified with. It therefore occurred to me that we need to spread the message that ‘women are makers too’ to a much, much wider audience, and capture the attention of girls at a much younger age. Because (again, unfortunately) there is a growing misconception that practical subjects are for those who are not academically capable. In many ways, I believe that if maths and English are necessary GCSEs, then why aren’t life skills such as cooking and DIY?
This Girl Makes was born
I pitched the idea of starting a blog about women in craft and design to some makers within industry. It was well received, and so the idea for This Girl Makes was born. The blog has since developed into a range of workshops, events and products, with potential for a lot more. I am often asked why it is called ‘This Girl Makes’. My reply: it was a very conscious decision, and I openly admit that I took inspiration from the This Girl Can initiative, which promotes sport to women. I would say both organisations are symptoms of the same systemic problem. The fact that girls and young women are simply not encouraged to do things. If we don’t encourage girls, they won’t have the confidence to try new things. No other girls will see them as role models, and feel inspired to also have a go.
It is my hope that there will eventually come a time where there will no longer be a need for organisations like This Girl Makes. Dialogues around gender will have moved on to recognise the needs of different individuals. The structure of the industry will change to support people on an individual basis. There will be a better representation of people in every sector, in terms of age, race, sexuality, and ability.
However, until we get to that point, my advice to others wanting to get into making is to go for it! Whether you want to be a furniture maker or sculptor, to make fine craft objects or just botch things together, then there is no reason you shouldn’t. If you don’t know where or who to ask to get started, then that is exactly what the This Girl Makes community has been created for. Whether you see the point in having making skills or not, I think there is priceless value in the therapeutic aspects of craft, and the empowerment that comes from self-sufficiency, independence and confidence in what you have to offer.
How do you see the future of the furniture industry?
I think the industry is much bigger than people think. I certainly realised just how niche my involvement within furniture is when I attended the Young Professional Industry Experience program. Therefore, I think that it is possible for those entering into it (particularly after leaving education) to feel frustrated, lost, or overwhelmed. Especially if they find they don’t ‘dovetail’ into one specific section or role. I discovered that it is okay to carve out your own pathway, if you don’t see one that already exists. By welcoming a wider range of people to its fold, and by providing support and encouragement for them to grow, and contribute whatever they have to offer, then I think the UK furniture industry can have a very bright future.
Can you tell us some of your own future plans?
Specific plans include the printing of This Girl Makes Volume 2, which will be complete in the next couple of months; watch this space for details of the publication date. As well as my work at Rycotewood, developing the Saturday Club, and possibly other courses that target young people. However, my general plans for the future are to always enjoy the work that I do, and to continue to develop as a maker, teacher and activist. I might even get around to making some more furniture for myself too!
You can follow Hattie’s journey and find about more about This Girl Makes through the following platforms
Look out for This Girl Makes Volume 2 in your local Axminster store or contact This Girl Makes to find out how to get your copy.