Archive for Studio North

Artisanal Furniture Making Has Become Cool

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Interior Design, Studio Furniture, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2014 by johnwiggers

Although designing and making custom furniture is one of the more challenging ways to earn a living in today’s world, one of the upsides is that artisanal furniture making has now become cool.

On the television series Sex and the City Carrie’s long term boyfriend Aiden Shaw was portrayed as a sweet and good natured furniture designer.

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Channing Tatum, in the movie Magic Mike, plays a male stripper whose biggest dream is to become a custom furniture maker.

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The real life Brad Pitt actually designs and makes his own line of custom furniture out of a studio in New Jersey.

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And finally there is Nick Offerman, who portrays Ron Swanson – the manliest man amongst manly men – in the television series Parks and Recreation. When not on the set the real life Offerman makes custom furniture out of his own woodworking studio, located near Los Angeles.

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A few weeks ago I attended the Interior Design Show (IDS14) in Toronto. For all intents and purposes the IDS has become an upscale version of a home show. Although corporate mega-exhibitors such as Ikea have become behemoths at these events, one has to admit that these brands are doing an effective job of marketing their wares to the mainstream audience that enjoys watching home improvement and DIY interior desecrator shows on television.

But to be fair I have to admit that when comes to design Ikea has come a long way from the days of the Allen key.

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For me, the best part of the IDS is Studio North and Prototype, which is a tiny display of micro booths that is usually tucked away in one corner of the main show.

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Studio North and Prototype is where student work and the wares of emerging makers gets displayed, and in my book this is the coolest and most inspirational part of the show.

At this year’s show, however, I noticed something unusual. There were all kinds of skinny jeans and an abundance of plaid shirts milling about, but the attire looked more American Apparel than proletarian Mark’s Work Wearhouse. It was only when I noticed the odd handlebar moustache and numerous well combed gnarly beards under a sea of carefully coiffed bedheads that I fully understood where I was. Studio North had become Hipster Central, and Hipsters were everywhere checking out the latest artisanal stuff.

Hipsters have become the butt of many jokes and parodies in recent years, but as a small scale furniture maker I actually appreciate the fact that they exist.

What I like most about Hipsters is their intense dislike for commercialization, mass production and mainstream brands. This, I believe, is one of the prime drivers behind the reemergence of craft in America, with the ‘Maker Movement‘ and the embracing of All Things Artisanal making it cool to be making things here again.

Of course, when it comes to making things, embracing the artisan and being the artisan can be two totally different things.

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Ellipse II Table – The Story Behind Its Creation

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2012 by johnwiggers

In 2002 I began to experiment with ideas on how to bend wood across complex three dimensional planes. In the course of doing this I inadvertently created a tapered elliptical cone shape that, at first glance, looked ideal for a dining table base.

After building a prototype of the cone my next challenge was making the top. After heeding advice to “keep it simple” I settled on a pure elliptical oval shape with bookmatched grain and flat edge apron. A 1″ high stainless steel plinth was added to the underside of the base. The resulting table was finished in Tobacco Mahogany, and named the Ellipse Dining Table.

Although the resulting table looked OK, there was something about it that was just plain missing. What bothered me most was the finish – which was a basic chocolate/mocha/expresso brown. At the time this was a safe finish to use, because just about every professional in the interior design industry was using it in one form or another since it “went with everything”.

One could probably credit Holly Hunt and Christian Liaigre with first introducing this look to the high end of the market in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, however, the finish was everywhere and I soon realized that to be the main problem. Namely, because of the finish this table was looking like everything else out there – even the cheap dross knock-offs that were now beginning to flood the market by the containerload from offshore.

By 2006 I decided to refine the design with some subtle changes. I began by using a wood called Nero Chaquiro, which is a lesser known species that comes from an FSC certified forest in Brazil. In addition to being certified as sustainably harvested the use of this wood also helps support an indigenous community living along the banks of the Amazon River by providing a tangible incentive for the peoples living there to manage their surrounding forest responsibly.

The main structure of the table was crafted out of FSC certified ply, which was also NAUF and CARB2 compliant due to the fact that there were no added urea formaldehydes in the glues and binders. To minimize the heaviness of the top the grain pattern was changed to sunburst and the edge profile became a deep undercut bevel. The stainless steel plinth was removed in lieu of a small convex inlay of Narra being added as a subtle detail. The resulting table was finished in a low-VOC water based urethane, and renamed the Ellipse II Table.

Taken together these changes created a more sculptural look to the design, and the response from the design community was tremendously positive. Our ability to custom tailor this design to meet the requirements of each individual client has since resulted in the Ellipse II Table becoming one of our most popular offerings today.

In October 2008 a custom commission of this table for interior designer Wendy Blount was even published in an issue of Metropolitan Home magazine.

Thanks to the positive response this article received, the table photo was subsequently republished in the book “Glamour: Making it Modern” by Michael Lassell.

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.

Custom Furniture for an Executive Office – Case Study (Part 2) – The Initial Site Meeting

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2011 by johnwiggers

In my previous post I described my first meeting with our client JLT at the 2005 Interior Design Show. For a variety of reasons more than 5 years would pass before any tangible work would begin on the custom furniture for his office.

On some level this was a good thing, because it gave me ample time to mull over ideas and consider the most appropriate design for his furniture. From talking with him I knew that JLT dislikes clutter, so any design would have to be done in a way to ensure that everything had its place – out of sight as much as possible.

JLT also insisted that he didn’t want a “throne”,  so I knew the desk would have to be light in design – ideally with no modesty panel. He also liked the possibility of the Gentleman’s Valet reconfigured as some kind of Scotch Bar, and having a big screen T.V. that could be hidden from view when not in use.

With these parameters in mind we had our initial site meeting to discuss possible options.

The photos that follow show the raw office space that would soon be renovated to create JLT’s new executive office.

At first glance it seemed obvious that JLT’s desk should back onto this corner. Notice the tiles and the fluorescent lighting in the ceiling – I insisted on replacing these with proper fixtures, since the limited spectrum of fluorescent light is too narrow to do proper justice to fine woodwork. (Fluorescents simply “wash out”  the warmth and natural beauty of wood.)

I also made note of the locations of outlets and phone jacks. Since JLT wanted to hide all wires and cables to the greatest degree possible, it would be necessary to have outlets and jacks moved to where they’d be hidden by the built-in furniture.

In this photo the wall on the left was slated for removal so that the adjoining room could be merged with the corner office to create one large space. The door in the foreground will also be replaced with an extended wall from the right, to allow for the installation of a flat screen television that is to be hidden in a motorized lift mechanism.

Next: Custom Furniture for an Executive Office – Case Study (Part 3) – The Renovation Begins

Custom Furniture for an Executive Office – Case Study (Part 1) – Introduction

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2011 by johnwiggers

In 2005 we displayed our Gentleman’s Valet Stand in the “Studio North” area of the Interior Design Show in Toronto.


At one point the inlay work on this cabinet caught the attention of a visitor from the United States, and before long he and I were engaged in a lengthy discussion about design and the works of Art Deco masters such as Jules Leleu and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann.

Given this fellow’s extensive knowledge of furniture design and craftsmanship, I assumed he was either an architect or a designer. It turns out he was neither.

Instead, this fellow turned out to be an entrepreneur who owns a mid sized company located in a major American city. He said he was shopping for ideas on having custom furniture made for his executive office, although he was in no particular rush to have anything done.

In the ensuing years we stayed in touch, until last year when things finally progressed to the point where we were able to move forward with a tangible proposal.

This will be the first post of several that will become a case study of the creative process behind the designing and making of custom furniture for the executive office of our client – who will be referred to from this point forward as JLT.

Next: Custom Furniture for an Executive Office – Case Study (Part 2) – The Initial Site Meeting

Kidney Shaped Desk – The Story Behind Its Creation

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2011 by johnwiggers

In 2002 I was experimenting with ideas that would ultimately manifest as the Kidney Shaped Desk. My initial concept was an organic form that would incorporate a variety of green and holistic elements into the design. Given that Feng Shui principles consider a kidney shape to be most auspicious for use as a desk, I used this as my starting point.

During a visit to Miami in April of that year I floated the idea to Amelia Hyde and Monroe Sherman, who were partners in a showroom called Carriage House which was then representing my work in South Florida. Amy seemed quite receptive to the idea, which was no surprise given her interest in spiritual philosophies such as Tao and Zen Buddhism.

About a week after my return Amy called and asked me to explain more about the Ayurveda I was talking about during my visit. I didn’t have a clue what she was referring to and told her I could barely pronounce the word, let alone spell it. But for some reason Amy insisted that I had talked at length about Ayurveda and as she described what it was about she mentioned the connection of Ayurveda to yoga, and the connection of yoga to a famous supermodel and yoga practitioner by the name of Christy Turlington.

As soon as she mentioned Christy’s name I heard my fax line ring. It was an incoming fax from New York, from a furniture designer by the name of Vladimir Kagan. He was inviting me to a special party being held later that month. The invitation was for an event being hosted by Ralph Pucci in his Manhattan loft, which would be a joint unveiling of Vladimir Kagan’s furniture pieces alongside a new line of yoga inspired clothing by Christy Turlington.

Because of this unusual coincidence I decided to trust my intuition and immediately decided to accept. Since the party coincided with a major New York design show called the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) that I was planning to attend anyway, the logistics worked out perfectly.

After arriving at the designated address in lower Manhattan I stepped out of the cab thinking I was in the wrong location. I had been told that Pucci’s loft was magnificent, but the neighbourhood I was standing in was anything but. Nevertheless a discrete elevator ride to the loft soon confirmed that I was at the proper venue.

As soon as the elevator doors opened I was greeted with a palpable buzz of energy and excitment. Scattered throughout the 15,000 sq. ft. minimalist loft were countless bisque mannequins that were essentially full-scale reproductions of Christy Turlington herself. These mannequins were shown in a variety of different yoga poses and, naturally, each was also attired in various examples of Christy’s new clothing collection, called Nuala.

At the far end of the loft Vladimir Kagan was holding court amongst examples of his classic furniture collection. As soon as Vladimir saw me walk in he called me over and gave a big hug. It was wonderful to be greeted in this manner by such a design legend, because I had long admired his work.

When I was younger I used to enjoy reading various design publications to see examples of the most beautiful and exquisite furniture pieces ever made. A Rosewood desk by Vladimir Kagan had long been one of my favorites, and never could I have imagined at the time that one day I would be working with this icon to build some of his actual furniture.

As I walked around the loft and mingled with other guests I began to ponder the coincidence of being invited to this party. At one point I did get introduced to Christy, and did have a brief conversation with her. While our discussion did not provide any particular answer or overt moment of enlightenment for me, I was definitely struck by Christy’s open sincerity and genuineness. She is one of the very few people I have ever met who have an aura of presence that absolutely radiates positive energy.

By the end of the evening I left party pondering the enigma of attending an event that displayed beautiful, sculptural furniture alongside an ancient holistic principle such as yoga. When considering Ayurveda as the thread connecting the two, how would it be possible to merge them together as one?

The answer, I soon discovered, lay with someone I already knew.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is an award winning author, independent scientist and passionate environmentalist living near Ottawa, Canada. On a secluded rural property shared with her husband Christian, Diana has spent many years and considerable effort researching and documenting the interconnected relationships that exist between trees and forests, and the wildlife that abounds within.

She is highly regarding for her illuminating and seminal work, and amongst her many admirers are colleagues such as E.O. Wilson of Harvard. In the 1960s Wilson effectively became the founding grandfather of the global environmental movement when he first coined the phrase “bio-diversity”.

I first learned about Diana in 1999 when I read a newspaper article describing her “Millenium Project”. The vision of this project was to share and distribute seeds from Diana’s collection of rare and endangered tree species. By doing this she hoped to establish new living examples of genetic strains that were at risk of becoming extinct.

In addition, by distributing these seeds widely it was also hoped that the resulting seedlings would become isolated pockets of bio-diversity, as well as a form of insurance policy in case disease, blight or other disaster happened to wipe out the sentinel trees that provided the original genetic material. Since in some cases there were only singular examples of these rare trees known to exist, this was a very valid and noble ambition.

Her “Millenium Project” sounded brilliant, and I contacted her to learn how I could participate. At the time I was in the planning stages of building a new shop, and the notion of introducing rare and unusual trees to the property seemed like a perfect one. Diana helped develop a bioplan for what I was intending to create, and over time our discussions evolved into an ever expanding exchange of ideas.

After my return from New York I continued to wrestle with the idea of how to meld holistic Ayurvedic principles with sculpture furniture design. Simultaneously I was talking with Diana about her latest book manuscript, entitled “Arboretum America”. She was having great difficulty getting this book published, and in an effort to get the word out she went to great lengths describing what the book was intending to say.

I listened with great interest as Diana explained the book, and how each of the 20 tree species described within were presented by way of their biological eco-function within the larger global garden. My interest was piqued further as Diana explained how each tree had a particular holistic attribute, or “gift”.

Apparently much of the information collected by Diana had originally come from Native American elders and healers. Her desire to document this traditional wisdom was driven by the fact that many of these elders were quite old, and once they died they would take their knowledge with them to the grave. Considering that most indigenous cultures base their information sharing and retention on oral tradition -with very little being written down – it was quite apparent that once this knowledge was lost it would be lost forever.

Eager to help Diana get her book published I invited her to an informal gathering that was to take place in Ottawa later that year, in conjunction with an FSC Canada board meeting being held there. Given that the event would be filled almost exclusively with people interested in protecting the forest, I felt certain that something beneficial for Diana would unfold.

On Saturday October 19th a number of us were gathered at the home of one of the Board members, who happened to live nearby. Diana and her husband Christian were in attendance as well, but before long it appeared that the evening would not unfold as hoped for.

After a day of intensive Board meetings most people were simply looking to unwind. Diana, on the other hand, was quietly eager to network and find means of clearing hurdles to her book. But aside from some polite discussion and general exchange of ideas no one was expressing any serious interest in her research. I felt disappointed that they may have wasted their time coming here.
At one point, however, one of the Board members was casually flipping through the manuscript when something caught her eye. In describing the medicine of a tree called Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), Diana had pointed out that this tree’s active molecules (known scientifically as ellagitannins) were currently at the leading edge of ongoing research into finding a cure for cancer. Apparently Native American medicine women had discovered through many years of trial, error and observation that this tree’s natural properties were helpful in preventing disease.

Within minutes several women were tightly huddled around the book, reading with intense fascination. I glanced over to where Diana and Christian were sitting, and exchanged a smile. Not only had a catalyst been found to suddenly pique interest in the manuscript but I too had discovered, by default, the vehicle for melding Ayurvedic principles with sculptural furniture design.

Why not create furniture that incorporated discrete inlays of holistic woods, and let these examples become a tangible and tactile means of communicating the same message that Diana was trying to say on paper?

In the months that followed my ideas surrounding this concept continued to swirl in my mind. Ultimately they became manifest in a design called the Kidney Shaped Desk. Using careful mathematics and sacred geometric proportions based on Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra principles, this desk was also designed to utilize discrete inlays of wood that were ultimately suited to their particular holistic attributes.

For example, special cuttings of Black Walnut would be used to make finger pulls on the underside of drawers. In this way the act of opening the drawers would allow the active molecules of the wood to come into contact with one’s skin, where the molecules could be naturally absorbed into the pores. Inside the pencil drawer woods such as Hawthorn and Sassafras would be incorporated for their natural holistic and aroma-therapeutic properties. The scents of these woods would accumulate naturally inside the drawer while it was closed – and released each time the drawer was opened.

For the time that her manuscript remained unpublished, Diana asked me to sit on the information. Her concern was that if the knowledge was shared too early it might scuttle publication of the book. Out of respect, I complied. In the meantime the hiatus gave me ample opportunity to tweak and fine tune the proportions of the desk until everything was perfect.

It wasn’t until the following year that Diana called to say that University of Michigan Press had committed to publishing her book. At this stage she also gave me the green light to proceed with the desk, and help communicate the medicinal knowledge of the trees.

“It’s time”, she said.

Although eager to see this design manifest into reality, I was in no financial position to undertake the building of a prototype simply because it seemed like a great idea. Unless a buyer could be found who would commit to buying the finished piece before it was made, this design would have to be shelved indefinitely.

Little did I know that within days a buyer would end up appearing, in the form of a design visionary by the name of Todd Marckese.

I first met Todd while exhibiting at the Chicago Design Show in 1998. At the time he was principal of Marckese Design Studio in Orlando, Florida. His client list was prestigious and his work was recognised in many design publications including Architectural Digest, Florida Design and Showboats International.

Todd was exploring the idea of branding his own furniture collection, and he asked if I might be interested in doing product development and prototyping with him. We exchanged business cards, but it would be almost 5 years before we spoke again.

When he called in the summer of 2003, Todd asked if I remembered our conversation in Chicago. I did, largely because of the unusual business card he left behind. Measuring just over 2 inches square this card stuck out both literally and figuratively. Todd laughed at my observation, pointing out that it was necessary to be different in order to be remembered.

Todd went on to say that he was working on an upscale residence and the project required many unique pieces of custom furniture design. One of the pieces he was looking for was a desk, but it came with the proviso that his clients had strong holistic inclinations and, therefore, a conventional desk would not work.

As he described the parameters of the project my interest level piqued because it seemed the Kidney Shaped Desk design I had been tweaking for almost a year would meet the specifications perfectly. I faxed him the drawings and explained in detail the holistic attributes of the various woods I was intending to use as inlay.

After presenting the proposal to his clients, they fell in love with the idea and ended up commissioning the desk. The resulting piece measured 75″ x 35″ x 31-3/4″ overall height.

The main structure was crafted from FSC certified ply, and laminated with Macassar Ebony veneer. The inset of black Tuscany leather was bordered with a radiating grain pattern of wood that was cut to allow it to cascade like a waterfall down the vertical sides of the apron. The plinths on the legs were satin stainless steel.

Inset into the back of the desk were 3 drawers crafted from solid cherry. These drawers were mounted to the Macassar drawer fronts my means of sliding dovetail construction.

Inside the pencil drawer was a pair of trays made of a wood called Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Sassafras carries within it an oil based complex of compounds that are naturally saturated within the wood itself – both as a wax and as oil. Through handling and the bumping action of contents (i.e. pencils and pens) rolling against the fibers of this wood, the oils contained within the Sassafras are released as an aerosol each time the tray is opened and exposed to air.

The oil of the Sassafras is related to Myrrh, one of the legendary woods of the ancient world. Sassafras is also the wood used for spiritual cleansing by many tribes of North American indigenous peoples, in the traditional sweat lodge ceremony.

Centered between the trays is a small storage compartment crafted from a block of rare wood known as Hawthorn (Crataegus). Hawthorn is a traditional healing wood that has been used in medicinal practice for a considerable period of time. It was well known to the ancient Greek herbalists, and records indicate that it has been used in Ayurvedic medicine dating back almost 5,000 years.

Hawthorn is an aroma-therapeutic healing wood since it produces an aerosol of complex compounds – all of which are medicinal. The primary benefit of the aroma-therapeutic properties of the Hawthorn is to help alleviate stress and strengthen the heart. According to Diana Beresford-Kroeger this aerosol is considered to be a tonic to the human body, since it helps to promote an overall feeling of well-being. This state increases the ability of the deep centers of the brain to promote increased and clearer thinking.

The Hawthorn storage compartment was covered with a lid that was crafted from the same cutting of Black Walnut used to make the inlaid finger pulls on the underside of the drawers. Set into the face of the lid were inlays of the three traditional healing metals of gold, silver and copper. Working with a jeweller these precious metals custom crafted into the shapes of an Eagle, Turtle and the sacred Tree of Life, respectively.

Collectively these 3 images tell the aboriginal story of Creation, which is essentially a parable that tells of the emergence into the current world after the previous one was destroyed by a great Flood.

Flood legends are found in the mythology of most ancient civilizations; from the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians of the Middle East, to India, China and in the Americas in the myths of the Mayans, Aztecs, Hopi and numerous other Native American tribes. In Western society the most recognised of these legends is the story of Noah and the Ark, as recounted in Biblical story of Genesis.