Earlier this year, the RCA and the American Hardwood Export Council launched a new project: Out of the Woods. The premise was simple. Thirteen students from the RCA's MA in product design were invited to camp for a week in Sir Terence Conran's West Berkshire estate. While there, they would work in Benchmark, the furniture workshop that neighbours Conran's home.
Sleeping in tents, the students were given the run of the grounds. They could bounce on Conran's trampoline; swim in Conran's pool; play with Conran's terrier, Gus. The sole condition was that by the end of the week, each student had to have manufactured a hardwood chair of their own design.
On its most basic level, the project was a simple exploration of the properties of wood as a design material. But it also served a deeper purpose. It was an opportunity for students to experience a commercial workshop and develop their understanding of manufacturing and material processes.
Forty years ago, projects like Out of the Woods were common. Now, opportunities for students to gain practical experience of manufacturing are rare. Among the heads of UK design schools, there is growing concern that as students spend less time in workshops, their knowledge of materials and material processes is receding.
"Students create everything on computer systems," says Sebastian Wrong, the co-founder of Established & Sons and one of the RCA tutors who oversaw Out of the Woods. "Most of them have very little experience of working with materials and processes. But that experience is essential. You can't ever be a great designer if you don't understand how materials work."
The lack of material knowledge among students has been driven in part by the increasing homogeneity of the design and art worlds. As design and art intersect, conceptually innovative works are pushed to the fore over those built on more mundane manufacturing principles. Artistic expression has thrived at the expense of realisable, functional design.
Simon Maidment, the head of Kingston University's design school, believes that creativity has supplanted practical knowledge among many young designers. "The world is not short of creative people," he says. "But it is short of people who can contextualise that creativity and turn a concept into a practical, realisable outcome. There has got to be some sort of practical edge underpinning a design education."
Maidment's colleague, the designer Jon Harrison, agrees. "The design degree I got eight years ago is nowhere near as good as one you would have got 20 or 30 years ago," he says. "Budgets have been cut and there is not enough money to cover everything. Unfortunately, for a lot of courses elsewhere, that may mean that the manufacturing, thinking through making, side has been sacrificed."
Out of the Woods is a reaction against this trend. As schools respond to diminished budgets by promoting 3D modelling programmes - CAD systems - over costlier workshop-based classes, the importance of one-off projects like the RCA's has increased.
"I went to the RCA to get back into making things," says Sam Weller, a student who worked on the project. Weller produced the Tensegrity stool, a seat composed of three wooden rods held together by interconnecting wires. "I've spent a lot of my life sat on the computer modelling things, but that can only get you so far. Actually making something is always the most effective way of approaching design."
Not all schools agree with this viewpoint and many have begun to heavily reduce the amount of manufacturing that students do as part of their courses. When Ravensbourne College moved from Kent to its new site in south-east London in 2010, it dramatically cut the size of its workshops.
"Ravensbourne has fully embraced digital technologies like CAD systems," says Will Pearson, Ravensbourne's director of technology. "We've disposed of some of the heavy industrial machinery because their value to students was mired with very mundane concerns like health and safety, power consumption and the cost of maintenance.
I ask Pearson if physical manufacturing has disappeared from Ravensbourne. "Not completely," he replies. "We still have a bandsaw and workbenches with vices and clamps. But we now do a lot more conceptual design work: it's more accessible and less intimidating for students."
But although CAD systems allow designers to work quickly and cheaply, some tutors fear that they have had a damaging effect on the quality of design produced. What is achievable on a screen is not always achievable in practice, and CAD designs frequently need to be altered heavily by manufacturers before they can be created.
Nick Rhodes, the course leader of Central Saint Martin's industrial design MA, believes that CAD systems have encouraged designers to become lazy. "Because renders can look so convincing and plausible," he says, "designers lull themselves into the notion that that's their work done. But it's not. The job isn't done until you have a finished product.
"CAD designs often become seriously compromised. It may look lovely on screen, but what actually comes back from the manufacturer can be a shock."
Rhodes's view is supported by the lessons learned from Out of the Woods. Although the students successfully produced 12 different chairs, one design failed to reach the manufacturing stage. "It just wasn't getting to a point which was actually makable," explains Sebastian Cox, a designer and maker who oversaw the students' work.
But the 12 successful designs highlight the positive impact that manufacturing experience can have on students. Nicholas Gardner and David Horan collaborated on Phyllida, a wooden plank balanced on top of thin sheets of plywood rolled up to form legs. "I've made a lot of furniture before," says Gardner. "I had a studio in Melbourne where I'm from and I made small bits and pieces for clients. But nothing on Benchmark's scale. A studio like this is new to me."
Norie Matsumoto created Folded Chair, a sculpture made out of parts of ash chairs. When required, the sculpture folds out into a dining chair. "My starting point was making a beautiful timber object," she explains. "Then I tried to figure out a way to open it up." Folded Chair appears simple, but its folding mechanism is technically complex. I ask what manufacturing experience Norie had prior to Out of the Woods. "Basic skills in how to work with wood from my BA," she replies.
In spite of the students' lack of experience, the objects produced for Out of the Woods reveal the benefits of allowing students the opportunity to experiment with manufacturing. The finished products, which are now on display in the V&A museum throughout London Design Festival, take in a range of processes, from latticework, wood turning and boatbuilding, to wood bending and the chemical production of bio resins.
Having led the project from its conception, Wrong is convinced of its positive impact upon the students. "The opportunity that has been presented to them is something that has never been given to them before," he says. "They've got the space, the knowledge, the equipment, the material and the time to do thing that they have never been able to previously."
I ask Wrong whether the range of processes the students used is a sign of the pleasure they took in Out of the Woods. "Let's say they're confident in their abilities," he replies smiling. "They've got a confidence which is not always..." He breaks off. "Well, I suppose they've still got all their fingers."