The French toast-of-the-town!

In a sleepy corner of Mysuru, French master craftsman Monsieur Bram Rouws is shaping his dream factory and design studio for custom-made hardwood furniture, and seeking to leave a legacy of excellence in woodworking education and training. Roy Thomas tells you how…

‘The Wall’ from the Ratio Collection. Bram says he doesn’t believe in measurement, only in ratios that respect the line.

As one enters the rather nondescript shed that houses Bram Woodcrafting Studio (BWS) on the outskirts of Mysuru, 160 km west of Bengaluru, you cannot help but wonder whether there is a mismatch of sorts between the building and the rather grandiose sounding name.

It is only when you experience, first-hand, the palpable energy and joie de vivre (joy of living) that flourishes within the confines of the industrial premises that you get an inkling of what the studio is all about.

Bram, the ebullient Frenchman and promoter of the enterprise, is a highly skilled carpenter by profession who lives and breathes wood – and BWS is an atelier in every sense of the word.

It is not surprising that the first question people usually pose to Bram is to enquire how he ended up in Mysuru! He comes from a family of bakers – his father used to run a patisserie in Limoges, Central France.

But the restless young man, who had initially decided to open a patisserie, decided to follow his heart and take up carpentry. Starting as an apprentice in the Guild (see box) at the age of 18, the itinerant Bram travelled as a Journeyman in France and abroad. He worked for over 12 years in various cities in Romania, Belgium, Ireland, the US and eventually India.

India calling

The year 2011 found Bram, who was still an apprentice in the Guild, join as a volunteer and work as a workshop manager with the Kolkata-based non-government organisation, Terra Indica.

It is a community-driven working space, where all inventors and innovators are allowed to get their hands on the right set of equipment to bring their ideas to life – and to teach carpentry to street children.

Bram was totally enamoured by the experience in the city. By 2014 he was an affiliate in the Guild when he returned to Kolkata to work as a production supervisor and furniture designer with Terra Indica.

If there is a Frenchman around, could amour be too far behind? It was his love interest – an Assamese girl, who he had met during his initial stint in Kolkata – and the urge to settle down that convinced him to go ahead with his India plans.

“Having worked in over 15 locations, I reached a point in my life where I increasingly felt the need to settle down and prove to my family – and more to myself – that I was not a rolling stone!” Bram says.

The idea was to open his business in Kolkata, but the reality of the business environment prevalent in that city came home and Bram started looking at alternate locations. “While on training assignments at Makerspace, I had heard about Bengaluru being a great place to set up my woodworking business. I also interacted with architects and other businessmen and picked their brains for ideas and suggestions,” he recalls.

Visiting IndiaWood 2014 was really a defining moment for the young craftsman-turned-entrepreneur. He came in touch with the Mumbai-based Caple Industrial Solutions, which him identify and procure SCM and Festool machinery – among them a circular saw, band saw, planer thicknesser with a mortiser, a spindle moulder and Festool power tools.

Mr Arthur Denzlin, a Bengaluru-based metal fabricator, helped Bram set up a private limited partnership company in Mysuru. Arthur is the local partner, as stipulated by the investment rules for foreigners. Bram poured all his hard-earned savings into building BWS as it stands today.

Bram’s USP

While Bram has nothing against the mass manufacture of furniture he believes “furniture that has very little human involvement has no soul”. He prefers designing and manufacturing custom-made, superior quality hardwood furniture and unique spaces to help clients transform ideas into wooden masterpieces.

With his outstanding professional experience of designing tailor-made furniture in different artisanal environments and his specialisation as a designer and trainer in carpentry, he and his team are able to offer ornamental, contemporary designs – as well as restoration of antique furniture.

While setting up the factory for both commercial production and training Bram took a conscious decision to work in the luxury sector. “If I started slowly I would never be able to generate enough income. Only in the luxury sector will I be able to provide the scale to make my business sustainable,” he notes.

Working in sustainably certified Ash, Beech and Oak, Bram and his team of a Production Manager, Mr NzanthungKikon from Nagaland, and a couple of native machine operators, have put together their first collection of theme furniture, which they named ‘Ratio’.

‘Ratio’ collection

Ratio draws from the design principles of the glorious Greco-Roman period of architectural elements into wood crafting. “We don’t believe in measurement,” explains Bram, “Only in ratios that respect the line.” The collection has masterpieces that serve as samples of the kind of furniture design work that the studio is capable of.

The response from the industry has been very encouraging, with enquiries pouring in from architects, furniture manufacturers, designers and connoisseurs from Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata. Recently BWS sold its ‘Ratio’ collection to one of its furniture manufacturing customers with design (intellectual property) rights.

The ‘Ratio’ collection will soon be available at TWM Mallet Pvt. Ltd. in Bengaluru (www.themallet.in).

Among BWS’ customers and collaborators are architects, designers, and entrepreneurs. They include Bengaluru-based architects and designers, among them Mr JayanthGopal, Mr GeethGopinath, Ms Annabel ViegasDemello, Mr NatarajKalyan, Mr Rueben Jacob, Mr Karl Zehnder, the Mysuru-based master craftsman, Mr Bhanuprakash, and Mr Tony Kordolia from Goa.

Founding principles

The company is built on three pillars that define what it is and the vision and goals that it has set for itself. The team strongly believes and practices sustainable development. A permanent commitment to work with a maximum of local wood, a sustainable selection, certified wood and non-toxic products are part of the team’s values.

During the whole manufacturing process, they are concerned about recycling the products they use. The team chooses to make maximum use of timber from sustainable production and fair trade practices.

BWS offers complete transparency and traceability of its creations. Its customers can, at any time, follow the process of their order, starting from the first sketch, the manufacturing, the finishing and finally the installation.

Consultancy in furniture design, manufacturing and training in woodworking skills are given equal importance. “Even as we create, we are all conscious that we are still learning,” explains Bram. Fair remuneration and continuous training of company employees are part of the core values of the enterprise.

Practising what it preaches, Bram’s studio is an interesting opportunity for students of design, woodworking artisans and amateur enthusiasts. Even in the course of his structured workshops, students have free access to communication and shared knowledge in a co-working space, aptly named ‘Dimension’.

Among the stocks of sawn wood, array of machines and rows of tools, a group of professionally trained and dynamic team from BWS helps students and customers alike to realise their individual projects and dreams.

What next?

Bram hopes to break even in this financial year. Over the next 5 years he plans to scale up operations by installing machinery that include 3- and 5-axes CNC machines, a hot press, lathes, a bench press and a wide belt sanding machine manned by a total staff strength of 50.

Ever the Guild member and Journeyman, Bram wants to focus on teaching and training with apprenticeships and internships for school and university students – training in wood engineering, furniture design, engineering and joints, value addition, prototyping, manufacturing and finishing.

The Frenchman isn’t shy of becoming a part of a network of institutes across the country that are authorised to provide Skill India certification.

Then there is also the consultancy channel, to help woodworking units choose machinery and set up production lines, their installation, maintenance, repair and factory safety, as well as training machine operators and artisans. Bram finds the adoption of CNC technology in workshops as a move in the right direction.

With such a commendable mix of business plans that work in tandem with altruistic and social-uplift objectives, the aims of the company could serve as a model for other similar ventures. To tread the difficult path is truly an example of courage and perseverance – and Bram is, indeed, a fine example of that indomitable spirit of a human being.

 

Brams-Carpenter-Guild :Becoming a carpenter in France (as in many parts of Europe) is a very structured process that revolves around the Guild, an organisation that dates back to the 12th Century. Today, the Guild maintains the principle of an initiatory society consisting exclusively of its members.

The Guild was recognised by UNESCO in 2010 and included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. France also has conferred the society with the ‘Arc du Republic’ recognition.

The French Compagnonnage system is a unique way of conveying knowledge and know-how linked to the trades that work with stone, wood, metal, leather, textiles and food. Its originality lies in its synthesis of varied methods and processes of transmitting knowledge: national and international educational travel (known as the ‘Tour de France’), initiation rituals, school-based teaching, customary learning and technical apprenticeship.

Those aged 16 years or more who wish to learn and/or develop their skills in a given profession can apply to join a Compagnonnage. Training lasts on average 5 years, during which apprentices regularly move from town to town, both in France and internationally, to discover knowledge and ways of passing them on.

To be eligible to transmit this knowledge the apprentice must produce a ‘masterwork’, examined and assessed by the compagnons. The system is popularly perceived as the last movement to practice and teach certain ancient craft techniques, to deliver true excellence in craft training, to closely integrate the development of the person and the training of the worker, and to perform trade initiation rites.

The society is based on strictly regimented communal life with professional strictness and high moral ethics and the entire experience is known as the Tour de France.

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