Career Change: Trevor Neal’s Switch from Global Pharmaceuticals to Recycled Furniture Maker Melbourne

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Furniture Maker Trevor Neal, Melbourne

Lara Knight – 8 August, 2019

Many furniture makers transition from construction, welding or some kind of trade qualification. Trevor Neal, a maker on the Mornington Peninsula, swapped boardrooms and corporate travel for a sawdusty workshop and a simpler way of life.

Trevor shares why he made the change.

Tell us a little about your previous career before becoming a furniture maker.

I remember reading a Canadian piece of careers research in the mid eighties while at university. Among other things it looked at the average number of career shifts over the course of a Canadian resident’s working life. The number was 3 and it seems that short read impacted me in some way.

I began my working life as a secondary school teacher but after 10 years of study and classroom decided it was time to “spread my wings”. I stumbled into corporate life and over 14 years worked my way into senior management within the global pharmaceutical industry. I was pretty well looked after through that time, met some wonderful people and got to see a little of the world. That said, I wasn’t without my internal struggles and it got to a stage where I needed to discover that third work place.

Today, I suppose I’m most comfortable calling myself an emerging furniture maker who enjoys crafting unique, functional one off pieces with a story to tell. I’ll often make for customers with unique requests but also have a particular design aesthetic that I’m enthusiastic about sharing.

What made you decide corporate work was the wrong direction for you?

The short answer is that I was values conflicted. Every time I took a step forward with my career or achieved something significant with my work I would feel hollowness. Instead of being elated or proud, I would find myself asking, “Is that all there is?” Somehow I had lost sight of the meaning of work to me and after an unsavoury European experience decided it was time to do something about that.

So you quit your job. What happened next?

I recall running down the stairs of the Vienna office building thinking “I’m glad that’s over”. I was referring to the European experience in that moment, but in hindsight it was much more.

I took some time out to think about things for a bit. I wanted to put myself in the best place for me. I was learning that if I was willing to take good care of me, then everything good will follow. This was more than counterintuitive and there were countless struggles with the time it was taking. I was offered this saying at one stage… “Time is running out, so you’d better slow down a little then”. I liked what it was suggesting and I think it made some difference to the way I considered things.

I thought a lot about the right questions to be asking myself at that stage of my life. I knew exactly where I didn’t want to be and understood where I currently was and that I didn’t want to be there either. I figured the best question I could start with was, “Well, what DO I want it all to look like?” It was the ‘dream’ question … and even the answer to that took some effort and time to fully picture.

There was a lot happening through this time but what became apparent to me were my creative interests. I decided I wanted a simpler life with these at the core of my way of being.

Did you have any formal training in furniture design?

No. I’ve learnt along the way and continue to do so. I’ve discovered that I’m a better learner when learning about the things I’m really passionate about. I believe in mentors, those whose worlds are bigger than mine. I’m fortunate to have found generous, kind and insightful people willing to pass on their knowledge and wisdom.

Early on I discovered a small tribe of like-minded people here on the Peninsula. We come from all walks of life and gather each Saturday morning to learn, laugh and chat under the guidance of our master craftsman/host. It’s a great place to be for a few hours.

As a furniture maker, why do you use reclaimed timber?

I prefer working with reclaimed timber for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I’m intuitively drawn to the struggle that seems to flow from the weathered, gnarled and battered appearance. There’s a real sense of history on display and I find that accentuating those experiences where possible brings a characterful quality to the pieces I create. I can look at a design and think it striking or I can look at a design and the materials used and think it beautiful, simply because I am feeling something beyond what I see. That’s the soulful quality of reclaimed wood to me.

The other reason is connected to environmental friendliness. I realise I’m not necessarily making a massive contribution to this question by sourcing and rejuvenating the reclaimed. However it is a contribution nonetheless. I’m at least doing something and it sits well with my overarching view around my responsibilities to the planet. Really, in the bigger scheme of things, I own nothing, I am a custodian, I’m passing through and so none of this is mine to screw up.

Upcycling a raw material like timber can go either way in terms of future recycling and end of life disposal. Do you put much thought into the types of glues and finishes you use for furniture making?

Yes, I do. I’m not a fan of epoxy but use it if I have to. I’m forever thinking about and looking out for the most environmentally friendly oil and wax finishes. There is compromise on this, it’s certainly not perfect and I get by with pragmatism I guess 🙂

Do you check for unsafe chemicals in pallets and old paints?

It’s always a concern and I no longer use pallets. I worry about working with old paints and their lead content. Again, it’s a trade off because my signature is to incorporate a little colour splash into my collection. It’s for aesthetics as much as it is a reminder that the piece carries an environmentally friendly sentiment.

I’ve got my hands on quite a bit of silky oak lining board, taken from an old Queenslander built in the 50’s. The colour palette is a little special and I try not to mess with it. However, to do that I need to seal it off and unfortunately a 1mm layer of epoxy is how I approach it.

Woodwork, photography and travel seem to be your current passions. How has changing your career changed your focus?

It hasn’t and in fact the reverse is true. Changing my focus has changed the work I now enjoy doing. Once I became aware that work wasn’t at the centre of things, rather I was, everything began to change. I worked at understanding all that was important to me, I began to appreciate my own particular taste and I learnt to live with the unknown. It’s freeing, it can be daunting and it is extremely satisfying, mostly!

What have you read or who have you met on your journey that influenced where you are today?

Gosh, that’s a tough one. I read the question and immediately went to who I am, not to where I am.

I’m a big believer in that who we are today is fully shaped by the collection of experiences gathered throughout our lives. So many people pass by us that we may not even recall some that have subtly influenced us but in quite profound ways.

More recently however, I recall sitting in a conference toward the end of my corporate work, listening to a keynote address offered by Ervin László , a Hungarian philosopher of science, systems theorist and classical pianist among other things. He had written a book called The Chaos Point: The World at the Crossroads and was sharing his views about finding ourselves at a critical point in our planet’s history. The time was calling for profound and universal decision making around two polarising possibilities. During question time a gentleman stood up and quite aggressively offered ….“that’s all very good but what do you want us to do about it?” The moderator was a little embarrassed by the tone of the question but the sage László interjected and said “It’s ok, the answer is simple”. He said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

It was a borrowed quote but it resonated with me and it has been a bit of a mantra ever since.

Where can people see more of your work?
Instagram @neal_furniture

2 Responses
  1. Thanks Gary, it’s great to speak to people who’ve followed an unconventional path to something they love. I think people naturally look for something more mid-career, and learning something completely new is a great way to stay engaged with life.

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