Alf Sharp, a custom furniture maker in Woodbury, Tenn., is the newly elected Furniture Society president. The studio furniture group is a national organization committed to promoting the art of furniture making and design. Reflecting back on how he was welcomed, educated and inspired when he first joined the group in the late 1990s, Sharp says he wants to give that same treatment to other artisans.
“I always felt I should help this organization help other people in the same way I was helped. One of the things I’ve always been personally interested in is sharing techniques with other woodworkers. When I first started out as a furniture maker, I found lots of resistance from other woodworkers — they were working in some guild mentality not to let the secrets out or were worried that I might somehow become their competition — so I determined very early on that I was going to share anything with anyone who wanted to know it. This position is an extension to that,” says Sharp.
Sharp first learned about the society in the late ’90s when he was asked to conduct a furniture making demonstration at the group’s annual conference. The conference is held in various locations throughout the nation, and this was near his home at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tenn. The event had quite an impact on him. He enjoyed being around other like-minded individuals who engaged in stimulating discussions about furniture.
“I had never had anything to do with The Furniture Society at that point and didn’t know anything about it. I went and found all of these passionate people and a lot of famous woodworkers I had heard of in this idyllic rural setting talking about wood for three days. It was just fantastic. My batteries were charged for a year after that conference.”
Sharp went to every annual conference after that and remained involved with the organization’s happenings. He eventually joined the board of directors and has been working on the board’s strategic planning committee, which formed several years ago to grow the group and offer more services to its members. His plans as president include increasing membership, providing better services to members, coordinating speakers for next year’s conference and developing the society’s website.
The society currently has about 750 members and is conducting a membership drive, encouraging members to reach out and ask others to join and engaging in an e-mail blast program. Sharp acknowledges that membership is much lower than in previous years, topping out at about 1,200 five years ago.
“I think one of the main reasons membership is low is because of the economy. It’s not terribly expensive to join the society, but professionals are counting every penny. Others have expressed the wish they have something else to tie their membership with besides the annual conference because many can’t afford to go due to the travel costs.”
Sharp says the conference is the group’s biggest annual event. He and other board members are currently planning for the next conference, scheduled for June 14 -16, 2012 at the Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine. The conference theme is “Design, Community and the Sublime,” covering topics such as labor, sustainability and education.
In an effort to help members who can’t attend the annual conferences, Sharp is currently looking to have the society involved with regional exhibitions, where members can receive discounts to show their work.
“This is at the top of my agenda. We have created a marvelous modular booth to take to various shows that will accommodate up to 30 pieces of furniture on display. We want to be able to take that to regional events with regional members to help them display and promote their work,” he says.
Sharp says the group’s website will add interactive features for members to share in discussions and connect with one another. He says a committee is actively looking at possibilities, options and prices.
He anticipates searching for an executive director and screening candidates with fellow board members.
“This is a volunteer organization and, unless you have someone in the position of undertaking initiatives and following them through, it’s very hard to get a whole lot of serious forward momentum going.”
Sharp’s position will run through 2012.
Contact: The Furniture Society, 111 Grovewood Road, Asheville, NC 28804. Tel: 828-255-1949. www.furnituresociety.org
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.