Furniture tutor, Norbert Gutowski leaves after 25 years

by David Dorning (with thanks to Graham and Rosemary Marley for additional information)

Having worked at West Dean College since 1996 Norbert Gutowski is leaving us at the end of the summer term 2021.

Over his quarter century at the College Norbert has made a significant contribution to the development of our Furniture conservation and making discipline, and has seen through many developments in his department, which now offers a Foundation Degree, Graduate Diploma, and MA in Conservation Studies.

Norbert’s interest in Furniture developed after seeing the care taken by his Grandparents over their own furniture, and his career started with a traditional three-year apprenticeship in bespoke furniture-making in his home town in Germany. After acquiring an essential range of craft skills he looked for further opportunities and applied to the College, where he spent the year 1983/4 adding to his skills by studying furniture restoration with Stanley Block and Humphrey Sladden.

1983/4 was significant as the last year when the Oak Hall was used as the Bar, and the Steward’s Room as the Dining Room. Edward James also visited that year, probably his last time at the College before his death in 1984. Norbert is one of the few members of staff who have a link with the College in Edward James’s time. The photograph hung outside the Furniture department shows the department in action around that time.

As a student Norbert was noted for applying himself to his studies very seriously, and it has been reported that his concentration was so intense that he would have little idea what else was going on in the workshop. None of us will be surprised to know he was a dedicated student, but he did have his diversions. The theme for the student Christmas Party that year was “punk”, and one of his fellow students still has a photograph of Norbert dancing energetically, in heavy makeup. Let’s leave the visual details to our imagination, but it is clear that as a young man Norbert knew how to enjoy himself! He is actually a party animal, and he resumed his attendance at the Christmas parties when he returned as a tutor. I have a particular memory of him coming one year as Atlas, complete with a very large inflatable globe. And rather hilariously another student, who actually was a giant of a man, altogether much larger than Norbert in every way, had also come as Atlas, but he had an inflatable globe much smaller than Norbert’s. They were a very comical pair of Atlases.

But returning to his early career, after graduating from West Dean College Norbert worked alongside several of his fellow students, at Manfred Schotten’s workshop in Burford, Witney Antiques, for a period at a workshop in Switzerland, and then took on a daily bus commute from his home in Oxford to Ronald Phillips in London. His next move was into teaching Furniture Restoration at Ryecote Wood College. Around that time Graham Marley, now a successful local conservator and one on Norbert’s fellow students, recalls meeting and subsequently marrying one of the guests at Norbert’s wedding. Rosemary Marley is of course another longstanding staff member at West Dean.

I first met Norbert at Ryecote Wood when he invited me as a visiting lecturer to teach a day of conservation science to his course. I was immediately struck by his serious attitude to his course and to his students, and his organisation of the day. He brought the same attention to detail when he arrived back at West Dean in 1996, and soon impressed us all with his organisation of the workshop and his teaching preparations. Staff and students alike will remember the granular detail in which he planned each working week in the Furniture Department, not to mention the hours he put into achieving his aims. He brought the experience of working commercially, and combined his many contacts in the trade and collections with a knowledge of historic furniture and deep respect for craft practice, and visiting lecturers who were highly respected in the field.

Norbert has high expectations of his students, which makes him a demanding teacher, but one who always leads from the front. He is always well informed about his students and their progress, and it is clear that he cares deeply about all aspects of their life at College. By the time they graduate they regard him extremely highly. I remember a few years ago after the end of Summer Term, one of them put a notice on his door saying simply, “Norbert, you are a legend’.

Over the past 25 years there has been a continual development in the Furniture department, an evolution of working practice, and expansion into new spaces. Developing courses brings the demand for appropriate accommodation, and Norbert has shown himself to be very astute at adapting and designating all his available space to best advantage. Well, more than that actually, newly-vacated rooms on the top floor are prone to being quickly filled with items of Furniture! But serious related point is to acknowledge the efforts made by all tutors, and not least Norbert, to rearrange their workshop spaces to adapt to the Covid crisis.

Norbert is so obviously dedicated to his work that one could be forgiven for assuming he has little time for other interests. Not so. A few years ago he gave an occasional talk to tutors and we learned that he is fascinated by Ferrari sports cars, and in particular the method used to form shaped body panels in the 1950s. His talk and demonstration on the use of the English Wheel to form these panels revealed an area of interest and expertise that none of us knew about. Not only had he travelled to study the cars and the technology, he had bought himself an English Wheel and gave us a demonstration of its use. We all learned a lot, not just about the English Wheel but his depth of knowledge in this area.

There are few who have as long an association with West Dean as Norbert. He was a student here at a time when the Furniture Restoration department was closely associated with and validated by BADA. He has seen the transfer to University of Sussex validation, and been an active participant in the College’s move into the discipline of Conservation. He has also used the skills and experience developed throughout his career to develop the FdA strand of our portfolio of courses. And he still very obviously retains the interest and fascination for his work that began so long ago with his Grandparents’ furniture. His immediate plans involve a return to commercial work both in conservation and Furniture Making, but to continue to live in West Dean. It would not surprise me to see him around from time to time.

His contribution to the College has been huge and he has been ever-present for a quarter of a century. He is the stuff of legends.