Tuesday, August 31, 2010

500 Tables

In "500 Tables" by Lark Books esteemed juror Andrew Glasgow selected a wide array of table styles and forms, from pieces that showcase masterful artwork to ones that feature alternative materials and aesthetic sensibilities. Published in 2009 this book features more than 300 artists.

We had the good fortune of having three tables selected for this publication.

This Cuff Link Table measures 12" dia and 18-1/2" high and is made of a wood called Madero Acero. The wood on the top was cut into a sunburst pattern, with the grain allowed to cascade as a waterfall down the tapered cone sides. A polished stainless steel collar separates the split cone segments.

"Solomon's Desk" measures 50-7/8" long by 18-7/8" wide by 29" high. It was crafted from a rare sampling of Narra timber that came from of the very first batch of wood to be sustainably harvested on the Solomon Islands in the early to mid-1990s. This Narra made its way into North American by way of Eco-Timber in California.

A pencil drawer with bevelled edge was discretely inset into the edge of the top.

Inside the drawer is a lidded tray made of Hawthorn and Sassafras woods. Both of these woods were used in traditional medicine for their aromatherapeutic and Ayurvedic properties. These scents accumulate naturally inside the drawer while it is closed, before being released when it is opened.

The drawer box is literally a puzzle that is fitted together by means of sliding dovetail construction. The back mitres are joined by a solid walnut dovetailed key, while the Narra bottom is set into dadoes on all 4 sides.

The finger pull inlay on the underside of the top is crafted from a special sampling of Black Walnut (Juglans nigra). It is relevant that this is located in a place that is frequently touched because Native American medicine women discovered through many generations of trial, error and observation that this wood has medicinal properties said to be conducive to healing. It was believed that simply touching this wood would release the active molecules to the surface of one's skin, where they could be naturally absorbed into the pores.

Although such claims were initially dismissed as little more than old wives' tales, these active molecules (known scientifically as ellagitannins) are currently at the leading edge of research into finding a cure for cancer.

The Whale Tail Desk was crafted from a reclaimed flitch of Macassar Ebony veneer, with the high gloss finish helping create the illusion of a Right Whale breeching in preparation for a deep dive.

An anthracite grommet in the top allows wiring to access the floor by means of a vertebrae wire management system hidden inside the lower torso of the desk. Stability is achieved by securing the desk to the floor by means of hidden fasteners.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Diego and Inamorata Casegoods

A few years ago we received a special commission to make a custom Irenic Bed out of East Indian Laurel. In addition to the bed the clients were keen on having complementary casegoods made - namely a pair of dressers and a pair of night stands.

Inspired by the sweeping arc of the bed design we conceptualized a casegood profile that would emulate the door sweep of the Diego Humidor.

The resulting casegoods are shown below. To counterbalance the warmth of the wood we introduced the coolness of steel through the use of large polished steel pulls. Given the vibrant presence of the wood grain it was necessary to make the size of the custom pulls substantial, with the grips and detailing crafted out of black rubber.

The back of the main dresser was fully finished, which is a standard feature incorporated into all of our custom furniture designs.

The tall chest shown below was initially conceived of as a shorter dresser until a problem was discovered with how the builder proportioned the master bedroom. This unexpected glitch was quickly resolved with the suggestion that we transform the dresser into a vertical chest of drawers, thereby allowing it to fit a niche in the room.

Once again the back is fully finished.

Each of the night stands has a single drawer, with storage below for books.

In tandem with this we crafted another version of the Irenic Bed as shown below - this time out of natural Cherry. Because of the subtlety of the Cherry grain it was decided to cut the wood at slight angles to create a radiating pattern to symbolize a rising Sun.

For this commission the client requested large center drawers on the dresser, and smaller cubbie drawers on each side. Since the wood grain of the Cherry was not as intense as the East Indian Laurel, a more subdued satin nickel pull was selected.

This 7 drawer cabinet is called a semainaire, which is derived from a French word used to describe a lady's lingerie chest having one drawer for each day of the week.

One key feature of this custom piece is the discrete locking compartment that was integrated into the underside of the top. The compartment was lined in black Tuscany leather. Both the lock and hinges were plated in 18K gold.

The night stands each feature 3 large drawers...

and a fully finished back.

This corner detail shows the cascading grain pattern on the pilasters.

Inlaid into the back of each of the cabinets was a small convex inlay of a wood known as Narra. This particular selection of Narra carries a special provenance in the world of sustainable forest management because it comes from the last remaining board known to exist of the very first wood to be sustainably harvested on the Solomon Islands in the early to mid-1990s. This Narra made its way into North American by way of Eco-Timber in California.

All drawers are dovetailed solid maple, running on concealed linear ball bearing self-closing glides.

For management of various electronic devices some custom charging stations were built into each of the night stands, so that cell phones, Bluetooths, Blackberrys and digital cameras could be simultaneously stored and charged.

The power bar and excess wiring were concealed under a removeable tray that was inlaid with slots and pockets for storage.

This resulting casegoods collection is called Inamorata.

Inamorata comes from the Latin words "in" and "amore", with the loose translation being "to inspire with love".

Sustainable, Environmental, Eco Lifestyles, Healthy, All Natural, Home and Garden, Interior Design, Eco Friendly, Green Furniture, Green Furnishings, Green Designs, FSC Certified, Reclaimed Materials. Organic, LEED compliant, NAUF. CARB2, Bamboo, Natural Fibers. Non-Toxic, low-VOC, Non VOC, Natural Finishes.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Irenic Bed - The Story Behind its Creation

Shortly after relocating our shop in 2001 I began to consider some new furniture design ideas. I was particularly intrigued with the notion of making a custom bed that would be a synthesis of all the holistic and ecological principles I was dabbling with at the time. This loose amalgam of ideas became known as the Irenic Bed.

The word irenic is Greek and means: “fitted or designed to promote peace; pacific; conciliatory; peaceful.” This seemed highly appropriate considering my underlying intent to weave together many divergent elements into a holistically balanced and restful whole.

For most of us the bedroom is the most important room in the home, with the bed being the focal point of this sacred space. Our bed is the place we turn to for comfort and refuge, and it is also here that we can find the time to think and reflect.

Our bed is the place we can be vulnerable and share intimate moments with those we love. Our bed also offers protection, and is the place we go to when we need to heal.

Because we spend about 1/3 of our lives in bed (based on the assumption of 8 hours sleep per night) it can be argued that a bed is the most important piece of furniture in the home.

An initial prototype was made in 2002 out of a dark wood called Wenge, and upon completion it was sent to Chicago for display at the Lee Weitzman showroom.

Although much positive feedback resulted in the ensuing months, it languished in the showroom for a while before finally being sold. For the next few years I toyed with the idea of making a second version of the bed, but refrained from doing so largely because it was a difficult piece to display due of the large area of floor space it covers.

And, so, the idea stalled - but I never gave up on it entirely.

Then one day in 2005 I was discussing furniture concepts with an eco-designer by the name of Jill Salisbury, when she began telling me about this amazing bed she had seen in Chicago a few years earlier. It didn't take long to figure out it was the Irenic Bed she was talking about, even though at the time she had no idea who made the piece. I was fascinated by how much the finest details of the design ended up resonating so powerfully with her. Inspired by that discussion I decided to make another version of the bed.

The second incarnation of the bed was done in natural flat cut Cherry. Slight angles were added to create a radiating sunburst effect on the head and footboards, which was meant to emulate the image of a setting and rising Sun. Beaded corner details were also set into the edges to give a gentle softening effect to the design.

The head and footboards were each constructed as heavy monolithic slabs, with the bed sides being suspended between each by way of mortised steel bed hooks that were discretely inlaid at the intersections. As an added convenience: no tools are required for assembly, and once it's together it is absolutely rigid and thoroughly grounded in place.

All wood used in the making of the Irenic Bed is FSC certified for using wood that has been sustainably harvested from well managed sources. This is verified by independent third party audit under Smartwood certificate #SW-COC-000055. In addition to being FSC certified the plywood core material is also NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde) which, in turn, makes it CARB2 (California Air Resources Board) compliant.

The glue used in our own lamination process is a Titebond product that is non-UF (non-urea formaldehyde), while the water based finish is a low-VOC (low-volatile organic compound) water based urethane from AFM that is so ecologically sound that it is doctor recommended even for those with chemical sensitivities.

It is for these reasons that the Irenic Bed is Greenspec listed at http://www.buildinggreen.com/
The Irenic Bed is also consistent with the sustainability standards set out by the U.S. Green Building Council’s stringent LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, namely the MR-7 Credit for certified wood use; the EQ Credit 4.1 for Low Emitting Solvents and Materials; and the EQ Credit 4.2 for Low Emitting Materials, Paints and Coatings.

The bed as shown in these photographs was displayed with Hastens boxspring, mattress and bedding. Many consider Hastens to make the finest beds on the planet, with the bonus being that their focus on green and ecologically sound principles is consistent with our own.

As a finishing touch the back of the headboard is also fully finished. Inlaid into the back of the headboard (just below the top) is a small convex detail of wood that carries a special provenance in the world of sustainable forest management. This wood is known as Narra and it comes from the last remaining board known to exist of the very first wood to be sustainably harvest on the Solomon islands in the early to mid 1990s. This wood made its way into North America by way of Eco-Timber in California.

Inlaid into the face of the headboard (and located discretely behind the pillows) is a small ovoid shaped stone known as a Narmadeshvara Shiva Lingam. This is a Hindu sacred stone that has been ceremoniously gathered once a year from the muddy banks of the Narmada River, one of the 7 sacred holy places of pilgrimage in India.

It is an Indian belief that millions of years ago a meteorite collided with the earth at what is now the source of the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh, a mountainous province some 300 miles northeast of Bombay, India.

The tremendous heat of the collision caused a fusion of the ambient rock and the meteoric material. Over the ages a river began to flow through this area and the combination of these factors produced the unique condition in which pieces of the fused matter, revolving in the river bed over thousands of years, take on a distinct ovoid form. The oval form is markedly different from the flatter, thinner rocks normally appearing in the riverbed.

Once a year, after the long dry season and just before the monsoon, when the river is at its lowest, the villagers, working with oxen and rope, go out into the riverbed and pull the stones from the water. The stones are then hand-polished, a large one taking several months to complete. About twenty to thirty large pieces are taken from the river each year.

Down through the ages these stones have been carefully selected from this energy centre during the dry season by a few families, trained in the art of collecting, shaping and polishing the stones to bring out the natural markings called the "yoni". The lingams are handled in accordance with ancient Vedic tradition, and are thus highly blessed.

They have been allowed to come out of India at this time because of the desperate state of the planet. The Lingams are energy generators of balance, of Soul consciousness, and healing. It is believed they are impregnated with spiritual light resonating with the fifth Chakra, or Heart Chakra; thus their particular job in healing the planet is through opening the heart, healing the pain in the heart that obscures the harmony and knowingness of the soul residing within.

It is said according to the Vedic knowledge that the Lingam represents the inner being, the energy shape of the soul, or the essence of a human being. The upright egg shape represents the divine masculine energy, the power of Shiva. The marking, called the yoni, represent the divine female energy. Here is a balance of male/female, Yin/Yang, dark/light, knowledge/wisdom, the positive/negative energies unified - the wholeness of the soul, which is neither male nor female.

It is also said that by destiny everyone has their own Lingam. It is as if the signature of one's soul has been alchemically embedded in the stone down from the millenia of its making in the embrace of Mother Earth, and finally in the hands of an esoteric craftsperson. The Lingam draws out our soul qualities. As a result, it is a potent force for healing and meditation.

Typically the Irenic Bed is available in either King or Queen size, but it can be easily customized to accomodate various thicknesses and styles of boxsprings and/or mattresses. In addition we are always more than pleased to custom tailor our design to suit the needs of each individual client. The photo below shows a recently made custom version of this design which was made from a combination of stainless steel and a rare sampling of wood known as East Indian Laurel.

For this project the clients were also interested in having a matching dresser, chest of drawers and pair of night stands made to complement the Irenic Bed design. This invariably led to the creation of the Diego series of bedroom casegoods - which will be featured in the next post.

Sustainable, Environmental, Eco Lifestyles, Healthy, All Natural, Home and Garden, Interior Design, Eco Friendly, Green Furniture, Green Furnishings, Green Designs, FSC Certified, Reclaimed Materials. Organic, LEED compliant, NAUF. CARB2, Bamboo, Natural Fibers. Non-Toxic, low-VOC, Non VOC, Natural Finishes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Buying Quality vs. Not Buying Quality

One of my good friends is someone I've known over 25 years.

We met while he was still in school, and back then his finances were so lean that he could barely rub two nickels together.

However, even under those circumstances this guy had an affinity for buying quality products whenever he went to the store, and he'd save up as necessary to buy things that were decent.

His shirts, for example, were usually Armani - and people were often bewildered as to why someone with so little money would insist on buying something so "expensive".

His explanation was always that quality merchandise is a sound investment, and paying a little more to have something that lasts will end up costing less in the long run.

"Saving" money by shopping on price alone, he reasoned, would cost you more because you'd have to buy the same things again and again and again.

How has this philosophy worked out for him?

Well, today you won't find him standing in any check-out line at Wally World.

Instead he's shopping for a new car, which will be either a Maserati....

or a Turbo Porsche:

Yes, it is wise to invest in things of value.

Ugly Furniture

There's "ugly", and then there's "Fugly".

Fugly happens when ugly and hideous are used in the same sentence.

My favorite line from the video is: "Believe it or not, most of this stuff came to us this way."

All humour aside it never ceases to amaze me how much fugly crap continues to flood into North America by the container load. It's not just furniture, but also appliances, clothing and even food. (Yuck)

When you consider the sheer scale of this phenomena you'll come to realize that somewhere in China there's probably a factory exclusively dedicated to producing fake rubber dog sh*t for export to novelty stores in North America and Europe.

Is this the sign that the Western world has achieved its apex as a civilization?

The photo below shows a massive container ship, but it's difficult to tell whether it's bringing in the fugly or shipping out the $$$ and jobs necessary to support the factories of fugly offshore.

Probably both.

Of course when it comes to fugly furniture it's common knowledge that most of it will fall apart and end up in your local landfill long before the easy payment plan is paid off.

When I ask people why they buy this crap, the usual answer is because it was cheap.


So is it any surprise that you got what you paid for?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Knowing What Pants to Wear Around Here

I've learned a few things after 25+ years of marriage.

One lesson learned is that the 11 most powerful words are: "Yes, Dear", "I'm sorry" and "would you like a glass of wine?"

I've also learned that it's wise to chose your words carefully.
For a guy this usually means keeping your mouth shut when in doubt of what to say.

Perhaps the most important thing I've learned in the last 25 years is how to coordinate my wardrobe. The following will explain how this works in my world.

When I was single the process of deciding on what shirt to wear would usually involve going through my laundry pile to see which shirt was least wrinkled; had no stains, AND passed the armpit sniff test.

Now that I'm married this decision making process been radically upgraded - with today being a classic example of how this works.

Today there happens to be a large BBQ happening on my wife's side of the family, and I went upstairs a while ago to shower and get dressed for the occasion. Upon entering the bedroom I saw 2 piles of clothes laying side by side on the bed. On the left was a pair of demin shorts with black T-shirt, while on the right a pair of olive coloured shorts was laid out with a matching shirt of its own.

There were no socks with either outfit, which translates as: wear sandals.

I chose the demin and black, to go with my Birkenstocks.

What is apparent from this dynamic is that although I still make the ultimate decision on what to wear, the process has now been greatly simplified for me. Perhaps best of all is that I no longer have to come up with an answer for: "Is that what you're going to wear?"

Yep, life is good when you can simply shut up and smoke your cigar.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jesus Woodworker and the Decision to go CNC

After reading the last 2 posts you're probably wondering what a "Jesus woodworker" is.

My friend Lee Weitzman and I jokingly coined the term many years ago to describe a type of individual who would sometimes come into our employ as cabinet-makers.

It has nothing to do with religion.

To hear Lee describe it, a "Jesus woodworker" is a person who is so caught up in the craft of woodworking that they are oblivious to the notion of producing anything in a timely fashion. Taken to the extreme this type of artist/craftsperson will consider it their sacred duty to spend countless hours in meditation with a tree in order to intuitively discover what the tree wishes to be made into. Upon discovering this Truth in a moment of Zen the artist/craftsperson will then embark on a painstakingly long and time consuming process that will one day (hopefully) result in an actual piece of furniture being made.

If this happens to be the kind of furniture making process that stirs your gravy - no problem.
But do it on your own time, and don't pursue it as a vocation on someone else's dime.

My definition is a little simpler than Lee's because it simply acknowledges the Biblical Jesus of Nazareth as a woodworker who had the ability to walk on water.

In that context a "Jesus woodworker" is a person who feels that they too have the ability to walk on water - if only because they too are woodworkers.

Over the years I have met more than my share of cabinet-makers who suffer this affliction. Sometimes it comes from one who is older, and already set in his ways.
Other times the attitude would come from one of the young bucks - fresh out of school.
With diploma in hand they figure they already know more than I ever could.

In my lifetime the greatest archetype of a "Jesus woodworker" to ever cross my path showed up at my shop in late 1994. For the purposes of this post I'll refer to him as "Tom" (acronym for The Omnipotent Master).

By late 1994 we had so much work coming in that we were compelled to hire more people.

Tom was one of the applicants who showed up looking for a job as cabinet-maker. His resume seemed to check out, because he had worked at some of the better shops in the area. I still remember the interview, because my heart went out to him as he told me his sob story about being out of work for so long and not having money to buy Christmas gifts for his kids. I too had young kids and had suffered the downturn, so I decided to give the guy a chance.

Tom had more than his share of trouble getting up to speed. At first I tolerated his mistakes in the belief that our processes were new to him and he simply needed time to adjust. But even the simplest of tasks were tripping him up.

One day we were making Concerto Tables, which have a round wood top set into plywood rings. The grain pattern of the inset tops were diamond matched (as illustrated below) and in order to make them round we used a brad point bit to partly drill a 3/8" dia. hole into the underside of the top at the point where the veneer seams meet. This hole was then used to set the top on a pin, where it would be spun on an overhead router to make it round.

I gave Tom clear instructions on what to do, and left him to complete the job.

Upon my return a short while later I was shocked by what I saw. Each of the tops had a 3/8" dia hole drilled clean through the face.

"What the heck did you do?" I asked.

"Oh, I thought it would be easier to drill down through the face rather than measure from the underside" was his reply.

"But you drilled a hole clean through every top. What are we supposed to do about that?"

"Umm, maybe we could just putty it in."

"Are you nuts? This is high end stuff. You don't putty that in. And besides, where did you get it into your head to do it this way? I clearly explained what to do, and you didn't do it. Why?"

(What comes next is Tom's answer to this question, and I am not making this up)

"These tops getting screwed up are actually YOUR fault, because nowhere on your drawings does it say NOT to drill a 3/8" hole through the face."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He was blaming me for his own incompetence.

At this point I had to take a deep breath because in this moment of clarity I found myself fully aware of the fact that I live in an egalitarian country where it's not against the law to be stupid.

However, it is against the law to slap someone upside the head for being stupid.

With that in mind my thoughts suddenly raced to the world of mathematics. I knew how much I was paying Tom per hour, and how much his drug, dental and medical plans were costing me. Add in the statutory holidays, sick days, EI insurance, EHT, pension plan contributions and all the other costs of keeping this guy in my employ - and when my mental calculator punched out a total I suddenly realized that the hourly cost of giving this guy a paycheck every week was virtually identical to the financing costs on a 5-Axis CNC machining centre.

It was not difficult to figure out what my next decision would be.

Considering that I have always been an equal opportunity employer, I decided to give all the other employers an equal opportunity at Tom's services.

To use a sports analogy, Tom was now an unrestricted free agent.

How Things Get Made in My Shop

Before explaining how a "Jesus woodworker" can be detrimental to a shop such as mine, it is first necessary to explain how things actually get made around here.
Most woodworkers doing the kind of custom work I do tend to function as a one person shop. This kind of arrangement works well if you're making furniture as a sideline or hobby, and not depending on it as your primary source of income. Ideally this kind of set-up also requires an extremely low to non-existent overhead, which usually means working at home out of your basement or garage. Under this latter arrangement it would be difficult, but not impossible, to eke out a living in most circumstances.

In my own situation the economics of being a full time furniture maker requires me to operate on a less than tiny scale. This means I need to have people working with me to help defray the costs of running a shop such as this.

In 1992 I was working with a staff of 5 people, namely 2 cabinet-makers; 1 helper/machinist in the woodworking area; 1 finisher; and 1 finisher's helper (who also did polishing). Although I was tremendously hands on with all pieces being made, my day to day reality involved many distractions including telephone calls with customers and suppliers; dealing with quote requests; creating/revising drawings; ordering materials; and general day-to-day trouble-shooting.

Although the 5 people working with me were doing their various assignments independently, they were not really doing things on their own as much as they were doing things by extension from me. For example, let's say I was looking to build a custom dining table. I would make drawings and give them to one of the cabinet-makers - explaining how I wanted it made; what wood to use; how to run the grain; where to put mortise and tenons, etc. Typically this cabinet-maker would already be familiar with most of the nuances of what I wanted done, so he could pretty much proceed on his own without too much hands-on direction from me.

The helper/machinist wouldn't report directly to me. Instead he mostly worked by extension from the cabinet-maker who was himself working by extension from me. I would oversee the cabinet-maker, and the cabinet-maker would oversee the helper/machinist.

My finisher also worked independently, but also by extension from me. I would explain to him what kind of colour/finish/sheen I wanted and he, in turn, would work his magic to tangibly create whatever it was that I wanted to have done. His helper, in turn, would work by extension from him - often to sand and prep things as required by the project.

Collectively the 6 of us functioned as a team, which meant that I effectively had 6 pairs of hands creating my work, instead of just one.

Over the years this type of dynamic has usually worked well for me, provided I could maintain a shop size of roughly 7 people. This number always seemed to be the proverbial sweet spot for some reason, and I invariably learned that once that magic number of 7 got exceeded speed wobbles would usually appear somewhere in the shop.

During the 1980s when we were extremely busy we often had as many as 20 people working in our shop. Although the extra manpower did result in higher output I also found that the larger staff size created inherent inefficiencies. For example, a productive cabinet-maker who could easily manage one or two helpers could quickly be overwhelmed if he was called on to manage a small crew. With large numbers of projects being in the shop at one time details would sometimes fall through the cracks and mistakes would inevitably get made. These mistakes then required either me or one of my more experienced people to make things right again.

Finding a happy balance was always difficult during these times, because there was never any way to accurately predict how much work was coming in. Although we did occasionally not take on work, turning customers away was always something I tried to avoid as much as possible.

When we were at our busiest in the 1980s I began to explore the idea of integrating some CNC equipment into our shop. CNC is an acronym for Computed Numerically Controlled, and this is essentially a machine that utilizes a computerizer software package to generate code the will accurately cut and/or rout parts to particular shapes and sizes with extreme accuracy and efficiency. The precise logic of CNC appealed to me immensely, because the only mistake it could ever make was the one you programmed into it.

For me to admit thinking about CNC, let alone using it, is considered heresy and sacrilege to many in the studio furniture community. However in my mind a piece of CNC equipment is merely the latest advancement in the evolution of tools used by an artist or craftsman.

Today, for example, there are many studio furniture makers who feel quite comfortable using hand chisels to craft their work. To the furniture makers of ancient Egypt, however, the iron chisels of today would seem like advanced technology compared to the crude and soft copper tools they had available to them. In a similar way one can look at a table saw as a major technological advancement compared to the old way of hewing wood by hand with an axe.

I spent many years ruminating over the idea over going CNC, but it was never with an eye to automating my work. Rather, I ultimately viewed this technology as merely another tool that could also be utilized as an extension of my own hands.

Given the nature of the work I do, there always has been and always will be a considerable amount of hand work required in the making of one-of-a-kind custom pieces. These aspects of craft can never be automated cost effectively on a one-off basis. And having said that, I really don't think that using CNC to cut a table top into a perfect elliptical oval shape is in any ways compromising the integrity of the work just because the same shape wasn't created using the old school string and pencil technique.

Times change and we need to change with the times. Otherwise we as a species would still be hunkering down in caves, grunting back and forth in debate over the relevance of rubbing two sticks together for fire.

But I digress...

I ended up spending the better part of 5 years agonizing over the thought of going CNC.

Thanks to a "Jesus woodworker" I finally saw the light.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 12) - Ramping Up Again

Having experienced the severity of the economic recession of the early 1990s I had surprisingly mixed feelings about the surge of new work coming in from places like Brueton. Although one part of me was thankful to be busy once more, there was another part of me that dreaded the thought of ramping back up to warp speed again.

When we were at our busiest in the 1980s I was constantly working long hours, including evenings and weekends. This made it difficult to do simple things, such as spend time with my young family. Although it was tough to decelerate the business as orders dried up, it was also a welcome relief in some ways because I was simply burned out.

During these down times I began to sketch out all kinds of ideas of furniture concepts I wanted to have made. This became a surprisingly enjoyable exercise and it had an almost meditative quality for me. Deep down I loved the creativity of it all - conceiving ideas; sketching them out; then figuring out how to go about making them into reality. The latter part was easy because the science of making was something I had down to a fine art already - after years of taking other people's ideas and transforming them into finished product.

The first prototype I ended up taking from sketchbook to bench was a Biedermeier style desk - very similar to the Rainforest Desk shown below.
An old bundle of Myrtle Burl veneer that had been stored away for years was used to make the inset of the top, while offcuts of Macassar Ebony were utilized to make the apron, legs and plinths. Not long after the desk was completed I was fortunate to have it sold - to an author who was looking for an inspiration place where he could write his books.

The success and sale of this first piece - especially one that was wholly of my own creation - actually inspired me to consider scaling my shop down even smaller, to focus exclusively on making and selling my own designs. This fantasy, however, was short-lived because the economic reality of the situation had its own facts and figures.

For one thing I was now the father of 3 young children, and as much as it might be righteous and honourable to pursue the path of the starving artist - also starving one's family in the process was not a viable option.

In addition, despite how cool I thought my furniture pieces were, the marketplace as a whole was not sharing my enthusiasm. Aside from the initial desk sale, three consecutive years of displaying at IIDEX did virtually nothing to stimulate any interest in my designs although, to be fair, the recession going on at the time wasn't conducive for sales either.

Around 1992 or 1993 there was also a Call for Entry for furniture designs to be submitted for an upcoming book entitled "Conservation by Design". This was a collaborative effort by W.A.R.P. (Woodworkers' Alliance for Rainforest Protection) and the furniture design program at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) to select tangible examples of sustainable furniture designs. I was thrilled beyond belief at this opportunity to be published, and felt certain that my Rainforest Desk would be one of the pieces selected.

Sadly, of the 76 furniture makers accepted for publication, I wasn't one of them.

About a year later there was another Call for Entry - and another rejection - once again from RISD. This time it was my "Tower of Power" that bit the proverbial dust.

It was shortly after we started ramping up with Brueton that I had a lengthy discussion with J. Wade Beam on what my business focus should be. Wade advised me to abandon my efforts to develop my own pieces and focus, instead, on being an OEM supplier to companies like Brueton. At the time this seemed like sage advice, for a couple of reasons.

First, given the rejections I was getting it seemed obvious that my furniture pieces weren't resonating with the more knowledgeable design academics of the world. Second, thanks to the recession there was now a seismic shift under way in the way in which companies had their pieces made. Making things in-house was now falling out of vogue as more and more designers began to outsource rather than invest in their own production. (Of course, taken to its extreme this ultimately led to the almost complete offshoring of production that we now see today).

As the 1990s wore on our base of OEM clients expanded to include not only Brueton but also Vladimir Kagan, Rick Shaver, Monroe Sherman (Sherman Designs), and Lee Weitzman. To keep up with the growing influx of work we were soon compelled to expand the size of our staff.

Although I was never keen on having large numbers of people working for me, in many ways I had little choice if I was going to keep my customers happy.

But it was only after I hired a "Jesus woodworker" that I decided to go CNC.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Contemplating: Who Reads This Blog?

When speaking with other bloggers the comment I hear most often is: "I can never tell if anyone is even reading this thing, because no one makes any comments."

I am no different when it comes to questioning the level of interest in my writing, because after 17 posts (not including this one) only 3 people have bothered to comment so far.

Although I could be disappointed by this, in all honesty the lack of response doesn't really bother me at all - for several reasons.

First, my underlying reason for starting this blog really had very little to do with how popular it might become. In reality, given my son's interest in doing what I do for a living I wanted to document as many of my experiences and life lessons as possible in the hope that this might somehow be of benefit to him. After all, to paraphrase Winston Churchill: "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

Second, for a long time I have wanted to write a book on the trials and tribulations of making a living as a full time furniture maker. Writing this blog has forced me to take a major step in that direction, because I am now compelled to sort through my memory databases, paperwork junk piles and photographic archives to assemble my thoughts and experiences into some kind of (hopefully) coherent story.

Third, despite the lack of actual comments this blog receives I am helped by the fact that I have installed a widget called Lijit here. What is Lijit? Lijit is basically a piece of software that provides metrics on what people see and like about the blog. In essence, it tells me a little bit about the type of reader who does visit, and why. (You'll notice a tiny map with flags in the top right corner of the main page, which highlights the location of recent visitors).

Lijit is actually pretty cool. While it doesn't tell me specifically who my actual visitors are, it does tell me what location blog hits are coming from - and why. For example, I know there's a reader in Denmark who has checked out my postings a couple of times because they Google searched "Furniture Society Faculty Selects". I have a couple of readers in Mexico, including Oaxaca; and two new readers from Germany and Argentina, respectively. Plus there's also someone in Kathmandu, Nepal who has checked in once or twice.

Nepal? Who would have thought that anyone in Nepal would be reading something here?

A number of hits have also come from Google in Costa Rica, plus others via Google engines in Australia, Brazil, Dubai, the Netherlands and UAE. Lately it seems that Google searches for the term "500 Cabinets" is one of the biggest drivers of interest.

Perhaps the biggest thrill of all came a couple of days ago when I suddenly found my Lijit page lit up with hundreds of hits. This happened just after my post about the New York Yankees boardroom table, and my first thought was that maybe I hit a literary sweet spot that piqued reader interest.

Upon further investigation it turns out that what really happened was that someone in California posted a link on a forum saying, in effect, that this was an "interesting blog". Thanks to that shout-out alone I have received well over 400 hits (and counting) in only a couple of days.

While none of these new readers have posted any replies, the coolest thing for me is knowing that my writings are actually resonating with people outside my immediate circle.

And, so, to the reader in California and to everyone else who have come here to check out these writings, I say: "Thanks". Your interest is an added boost that encourages me to keep writing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Journey Continues (Pt. 11) - The Call From Brueton

When I was told that J. Wade Beam from Brueton was on the phone I thought for sure that someone was playing a practical joke on me.

Brueton at the time was one of the world's elite high end furniture companies. Wade was both the chief designer and Director of Sales and Marketing for them, and for the past five years I had been trying (without success) to meet with Wade each time I travelled to New York. Each effort made at their showroom in the D&D Building was rebuffed by the same reply: namely that Brueton did their own woodwork and didn't require outside vendors.

After confirming the call was for real I asked why he was calling. Wade told me that Brueton's primary focus was stainless steel, and they had near zero in-house woodworking capacity. They were looking to expand the wood side of their business with some new designs, but to do this they needed talent. Apparently he'd heard of us through the industry grapevine and was calling to see if we were interested.

Were we interested?

Let's put it this way: If you're a car maker and a guy named Enzo Ferrari calls to see if you want to build some high end cars with him, what do you say?

Hell, yes !!

For months on end we worked intensively with Wade to develop a wide range of new designs, which were eventually unveiled at NEOCON in Chicago. It was during NEOCON that I finally met the company's owner, Leo Fromm.

Mr. Fromm was a successful publishing magnate from Germany who owned several companies. His interest in owning Brueton seemed to stem from his absolute love for fine furniture. I got the impression that, for him, owning Brueton was akin to why some men own professional sports teams - for the love of what the franchise represents, and a passion for excellence.

In the photo above Mr. Fromm is reviewing one of the new Concerto Table prototypes. He especially loved how the 4-way box match of the Crotch Mahogany top formed a pattern that, to him, looked like a butterfly's wings. I was astounded at how something so seemingly simple could move this man so deeply.

It wasn't long before company president Howard Chapman sat down with me to write out a slew of orders. With several strokes of the pen we were suddenly very busy again.

The ensuing years turned out to be an especially exciting time for us, because many of the designs coming out of Brueton really pushed the envelope of our woodworking and finishing capabilities.

The Virginian Credenza was probably the most difficult of all the new prototypes. Maybe for that reason it was also one of the most satisfying pieces we have ever produced. The main body was comprised of two half shells - each made of an inner and outer kerfed ply filled with epoxy resin, which was then vacuum formed around an elliptical plug.

The back shell was fitted with shelves and dividers, while the front was cut into doors. The top was center butt matched Crotch Mahogany trimmed with ribbon sapele. The stainless steel detail at the floor is actually convex in shape, to emulate the curve of the casework. All exposed woodwork was finished in high gloss polyester to accentuate the grain.

The Virginian Table presented some challenges of it's own. While the elliptical base was easy enough to make, shaping the bottom of it to match the freeform curve of the stainless steel plinth as challenging to say the least. The box matched Crotch Mahogany top was encased in a 3" band of solid ribbon mahogany, which needed to be step routed by hand with custom carbide to achieve its deep elliptical profile.

Concerto Tables had quirks of their own, especially in final assembly. The holes in the stainless steel ring had to align perfectly with the leg bushings for these tables to be symmetrical.

During its peak years Brueton was a magnet for creative talent such as Mitchell Pickard - shown here testing out his new Melrose Chair. In subsequent years we would collaborate with Mitch on on many of his furniture designs, including the Angeline Console which was recently featured in "500 Cabinets" by Lark Books.

As a testament to his creative range Mitch is currently designing and building some very cool custom motorcycle wheels and parts at his own company, Pickard USA

Our collaboration with Brueton allowed us to produce some exceptional custom furniture pieces, including this 22' long boardroom table for the New York Yankees professional baseball team. What isn't apparent in the photo is how we managed to subtly blend 3 elliptical spline segments into a functional ergonomic shape. This table would otherwise have been "pointy" at the ends had a pure ellipse been used.

Prior to shipping we stuck a Toronto Blue Jays sticker to the underside of the top.

I never heard if George Steinbrenner found that funny.