Get to know the team at GauFab, a set-design and build workshop for indoor and outdoor work and performance environments.
What we don't know
"We're not techies. Computers are not an easy thing for us. Weird, isn't it? I guess we're not really with the times on this matter. Let's say we're more focused on hands-on work."
When listening in on their conversation, at first you would think you're eavesdropping on a chat with your parents, your DIY uncle or even your grandparents. But that's not the case. Alex and Sarah-Jeanne are both 27 years old. They work at GauFab, a set-design workshop founded by Alex in Montréal's Rosemont neighbourhood. GauFab is home to six craftspeople that design furniture for clients big or small, for events, commercial and institutional use. Temporary outdoor setups, stage props and commissioned artistic pieces are just a few examples of the type of work they do on a daily basis.
Being the only handy people in their circle of friends, the couple has a long waiting list of things to build: furniture, shelves, and any other request they receive from their acquaintances.
Every year, the number of people with manual skills decreases. We are more informed, but never have we been so unskilled. With an impressive amount of resources at our disposal, we are still inclined to buy things, rather than create them ourselves. The scenario is the same for renovation. When a problem arises, we prefer to call a professional, rather than fix it ourselves.
It makes you wonder: when have we lost interest in learning manual skills? Not so long ago, almost everything was done by hand. For previous generations, the ‘old-timers', building a bedroom in the basement or redoing the front porch was a no-brainer, they knew how to do it. Now, the vast majority of people out there are handier with keyboards and touch screens. Not so much for installing a light fixture or putting up curtains.
Building your own business
It all started in 2016, when Alex graduated from the École nationale de theatre's production program. "Back then, my friends would call me up and ask for help with their artistic projects: ‘Gauvin! Make me this! Make that!'". At that time, he was also technical director for a few shows and events. "The problem was that I could only find big set-design workshops with a lot of employees and only looking to work on the big projects. I realized that there was no one out there looking to work on smaller-scale projects". And, out of necessity, Gauvin Fabrique became a reality. Alex's great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and brother are all entrepreneurs. It just seemed natural for him to start his own business.
The most important thing for Alex was that he didn't want to always do the same thing day in and day out. "I had trouble figuring out if I wanted to become a welder, a carpenter, or a project manager. I like doing accounting, but it's not something I would do 40 hours per week. Starting my own business has allowed me to do whatever I want."
"Starting my own business has allowed me to do whatever I want."
In the beginning, his plan was to tinker alone in his workshop, and work on small projects on his own. "I quickly realised that it couldn't be done that way." Once Sarah-Jeanne and four other employees joined Gauvin Fabrique, they renamed it GauFab to better represent them as a collective.
All roads lead to the workshop
Alex takes after his family for his manual skills: "My brother is a carpenter-joiner, my father was an electrician and lineman, my uncle is an electrician, my father-in-law is a plumber..." From an early age, he would spend his time working on old bikes that he found here and there.
For Sarah-Jeanne, her love for manual labour appeared later in life while she was in college: "I was studying television production, but I was really passionate about anything that had to do with sets. Unfortunately, there wasn't any training for that type of work". With her newfound passion, she signed up for and completed a bachelor's degree in set design, where she met Alex. Although Sarah-Jane is GauFab's artistic director, it doesn't stop her or Alex from always ending up working on practically anything. She oversees every step of the production process, including the finishing touches. Her favourite thing? Finding solutions: "What inspires me is always trying to find a solution for a specific goal, and that goal is always evolving."
Sarah-Jeanne is from Lac-Saint-Jean, a region north of Québec City. Alex was born in Saint-Bruno, a suburb of Montréal. According to them, whether you're from the suburbs or rural areas might dictate your affinities for manual labour. "People own their home, they have more space. They have tools and a workshop; they want to build their own patio or do the repairs on their home. This is something we see less often in large cities. Fewer are homeowners and there is also the space issue. So yes, maybe coming from a smaller town has its advantages."
But even if someone grows up surrounded by jack of all trades in a more rural area, that person still needs to be interested in doing that kind of work. Some people are only truly happy when they make something that is tangible. "In my case, it's a must to feel accomplished," comments Alex. "I loved how I could start a project and work with my hands, and then see the result: it made me feel proud of what I was doing," adds Sarah-Jeanne.
Too little time on our hands
While Alex and Sarah-Jeanne know how to handle a hammer, drill, saw, and paint brush with ease, the same can't be said of the newer generations. "I hope that working with our hands won't become a marginal thing and be forgotten," Alex says with hope. "I wish that we'll see the opposite, that as the world changes, there will still be an interest in being self-sufficient through manual labour."
If you had to name two people who appreciate the benefits of being a gifted handy person, it would be them: "You're so resourceful. You can make or repair stuff on your own, like we did in our home. It's very satisfying." There is also the economic aspect that plays in the balance : "The work we do in our home gives us twice as much back than if we had paid someone to do it."
"The work we do in our home gives us twice as much back than if we had paid someone to do it."
That's why trades like welding, plumbing, or electrician are well looked at in society. "In a few years, fewer people will have the know-how", he explains, "and manual skills will become more and more valued. The skilled ones will be quite coveted."
A blend of both worlds
When Sarah-Jeanne was in university, she heard her projection design teacher say: "Projection will replace sets. It's a lot less expensive and it can be very realistic." She didn't agree at all and now confides: "I grew scared because I thought I was going to lose everything I had put in to mastering the trade."
And that's what Alex and Sarah-Jeanne are trying to avoid as technology becomes more and more advanced. According to them, technological progress is good, as long as it doesn't replace humans.
"Take a drill, for example," Alex says, "it might seem pretty basic, but before we had them, we had to use crankshafts to drill and screw. Everything was handmade. My stage carpentry mentor lived to see it, and for him, it was a revolution. That's what we should focus on: developing technology and manual skills hand-in-hand, even if only for the safety of workers and efficiency. I hope things will evolve in that direction, and that we don't end up with only robots to take over and build everything."
In their line of work, technology can have a big impact on productivity. However, it will never get to a point where it will replace everything. Many steps will always be done by hand: "A friend of ours has this huge machine to cut out massive pieces of wood; this helps us a lot: it saves us time, plus it's very accurate. What would usually take a day by hand can now be done in 15 minutes by this machine. It's useful, so we take advantage of that. But there is always a part of the job that needs to be done manually, like assembly. What we do is very custom, it's something that can't be found elsewhere. If we had to program everything that is done only once in a lifetime, it would take way too much time. That's why assembling or putting the finishing touches will always be done by hand," as Sarah-Jeanne explains.
Our legacy to Lou
Lou is their little boy, just shy of being two years old. When asked if teaching him manual skills is important to them, Sarah-Jeanne immediately replies: "Well yes, of course! Absolutely!"
"I remember going to Rona with my dad as a kid. I wanted to make birdhouses. It's such a vivid memory. And it's probably what got me into what I do today. We are very well equipped to make birdhouses in the workshop by the way," she adds with a laugh.
For both parents, school is important, but so is hands-on training. "My parents used to say university is the key to success, and I believe it's true only if that's what you want to do. Learning manual skills and how to be self-sufficient is just as worthy."
As he grows up, Lou will develop his own tastes and preferences. However, this will not stop his parents from wanting to introduce him to their way of life: "We'll take him to the workshop and let him work on little projects. This is what we do for a living and also as a hobby. We build our own furniture, and we hope he'll take a liking to it."
Sarah-Jeanne ends by saying, "When he'll move out and into his own apartment, which is still some time away, he'll have his toolbox and go out and about in life. Maybe he'll even inspire his friends to do the same. And so on."