Words: Michael Sharp.
Photography: Ashley Mackevicius.
When Stuart Reid was at boarding school in Sydney studying for his Higher School Certificate, he asked the headmaster for permission to go to an interview for an apprenticeship with a furniture maker. The request was declined.
“You’re better than that, Reid,” Dr Paterson told him. “Knox boys don’t do trades.”
Fortunately, Stuart’s father intervened, he went to the interview and his career as a cabinet maker commenced.
The Reid brothers grew up very happily on a sheep and wheat property in Cootamundra. Their father, John, had been a builder in Sydney but became disillusioned with the proliferation of project homes and decided to move to the Riverina region in the mid-1960s with his wife, Marie, and try his hand at farming.
Stuart was 3½ and Cameron was six months old when the family moved to the country “so our whole upbringing was on a farm”. They went to a primary school in Eurongilly that was run by a husband and wife teaching team and boasted about 30 students.
While Cameron always wanted to be a farmer, Stuart was born with a love of woodwork.
“As early as primary school, I’d drag Dad’s tools out and make something,” Stuart recalls. “It was usually pretty bad, but I just loved it. I got a natural pleasure from working with wood. No one really encouraged me, but no one discouraged me.”
The brothers started at Cootamundra High School, but when it seemed likely that Stuart wasn’t destined for a life on the land, he was sent to board at Knox Grammar School in Sydney. He did very well at woodwork, but that subject wasn’t available for study beyond Year 10.
“By that stage I’d decided I was going to be a cabinet maker. I did some work experience with some builders, but I hated it because there was no precision. Dad encouraged me to do some work experience with some furniture making firms and I thought: ‘Yes, this is it.’”
After high school, Stuart spent four years doing his apprenticeship and then, like so many Australians, he went to the UK for a working holiday.
“I needed to earn money and the first job I got was as a cabinet maker with Peter Hall & Son in the Lake District. They made only bespoke pieces and it was an epiphany for me. The English, with their respect for crafts and centuries of tradition, did things so much better than we did. In Australia we were very good at making furniture at a production level, but the English were so superior at making beautiful, bespoke, hand-made furniture. And that’s also where I fell in love with oak.”
Stuart returned to Australia and, as luck would have it, he met a young woman named Sue from the Lake District who was on a working holiday in Sydney. He followed her back to London, where he found work with another firm of cabinet makers, and the next year he and Sue were married.
Cameron, meanwhile, had followed Stuart into the world of wood.
“Mum and Dad always said that before we could be farmers, we had to do something else first, so we were a bit more worldly. I went to visit Cam in the boarding house at Knox just before his HSC. He knew the rules about doing something else before farming and I said I could get him a job where I was working. That made it easy for him and he decided to do it. He thought he’d do a trade for four years and then be a farmer. It turned out that Cam is a much better furniture maker than me.”
When the Reid brothers were younger, they would visit relatives in The Southern Highlands around Christmas time.
“It was hot and dusty on the farm in December, but it wasn’t that hot in the Highlands and it was still reasonably green. Dad used to say that when he and Mum sold the farm they would move here – and they did, in the late 1980s.”
Soon after their wedding, Stuart told his wife Sue that he wanted to have a go at starting his own business, based in the big shed his father had built in Bundanoon. It was only decades later, not long before he died, that John Reid admitted to his son that he had built such a large shed because he hoped his sons might use it.
“We were so naïve,” Stuart says. “We started a business in a shed in a Bundanoon paddock, intending to make the best furniture you could get. And it was 1992, so we were in a recession. But we put our Reid Brothers shingle up and gave it a go. We are both perfectionists and we were determined from the beginning to be the best. We want our furniture to be functional art – to do its job but to be as lovely to look at as the paintings on the wall above it.”
This striving for excellence was inherited from their father.
“As a farmer, Dad had a reputation for producing very high quality lamb and wool. He thought if you are going to do something, you have to make sure it’s really good. And Cam and I can’t do something that’s just ‘good enough’.”
Their first customers were “sympathetic family and friends who gave us little jobs like wall units and TV cabinets”. Their reputation slowly spread by word of mouth, but it took five years to become consistently busy so that they could justify employing a third person. Reid Brothers today still only has seven employees, including the two brothers, and they have no desire to grow larger.
“Labour is expensive and skilled labour is very limited, so most joinery firms have become computerised. That means you have to dumb down the designs and we don’t want to do that. We are not in any way businessmen, we’re still tradesmen, and we are not at all savvy about how to promote ourselves apart from doing a job well and being honest.”
For their first 25 years, most of their clients were based in Sydney. But since 2018 they have been able to be more selective and almost all their customers are now based in The Southern Highlands.
Stuart and Cameron are pleasantly surprised there is still demand for their custom-designed, hand-made, premium quality furniture. In fact, their pipeline has never been stronger.
“I think it’s because we’re getting old. When we started, in our late 20s, we weren’t that confident and we were asking people to invest a significant amount of money in furniture when we could only show them the drawings. Now we are more confident – and I’ve got wrinkles and I’m bald.”
Stuart is 60 and Cameron is 57, so succession planning is front of mind. They both have three children, but all six are pursuing other careers – in law, nursing, teaching, geology, physiotherapy and farming – and have no interest in carrying on the family business.
“They think this is a mad way to make a living,” Stuart laughs.
They say they are in a “purple patch” with their current team of skilled workers at Reid Brothers, several of whom have been with them since they were apprentices, but while they all love their career in the workshop “none of them wants to run the show”.
Stuart and Cameron recently attended a Lost Trades Fair which focused on lost and rare trades and crafts.
“We went because we discovered that cabinet makers were on the list – and that’s very sad.”
To read more about Reid Brothers (who are not related to Michael Reid in any way) visit reidbrothersfurniture.com.au
Michael is the Gallery Manager at Michael Reid Southern Highlands. He has previously worked as a lawyer, journalist and senior practitioner in Australian corporate affairs.
Ashley discovered photography at the age of 15, which proved to be a lifeline for the academically challenged son of Lithuanian migrants. He has had a long and successful career and lives in The Southern Highlands.