{ Category Archives: comfort }

Kathy’s Table

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Coffee Table in Paradox Walnut, 7’L x 30″W x 20″H

My brother in law recently commissioned a coffee table for my sister’s 50th birthday. The table was to be the centerpiece of the ample living room of a large house they recently moved to outside of Philadelphia, to be situated in front of a nine foot sofa opposite a grand, stone fireplace.

The challenge for me has been to design and make a table that compliments both the open, contemporary plan of their new home, a converted carriage house with large interior volumes, and the more traditional profile of their existing furnishings. They wanted the table to have a certain formality for entertaining, while being relaxed enough to accommodate and encourage daily lounging- the table needed to double as an ottoman and auxiliary dining table, without too much worry about supporting the inevitable feet up, dishes and glasses, reading materials and such. I also embraced the challenge of making a piece of furniture with a distinctly Californian provenance that worked in the fairly traditional interior of a home in my native Philadelphia. Most important, I relished the opportunity of making a beloved family heirloom for my older sister that will feature so prominently in the daily life of her family.

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I styled the top to suggest a vintage, ‘egg’ surfboard

To support a conversational ring of seating surrounding the table, I opted for an oblong oval, and based the shape of the top on vintage surfboards known as ‘eggs’, knowing the reference would not go unnoticed by my brother in law and two nieces, all avid surfers. I made the entire table of wood milled locally from the same tree, a Paradox Walnut I had been saving for just the right thing for over a decade. The top is laminated from two solid, book-matched slabs, measuring about 7’ x 30” by 1.75” thick. Further obviating the surfboard theme, the top has a gentle figure, reminiscent of lapping waves. I referenced traditional Chinese furniture in the proportions and unadorned styling of the base, giving a nod to the influence of Asian art in both contemporary ‘studio furniture’ and late colonial furniture design. The base gains structure and functionality with the addition of a slatted shelf beneath the tabletop, a place to stow books and magazines, keeping the top clear and strikingly visible.

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The rack beneath adds both structure and functionality

This is the second coffee table off the bench, and I thank my brother in law for prompting my thinking about this form of furniture. Coffee tables have such a rich history, and feature so prominently in American homes, I’ve become somewhat obsessed, and plan to make a series exploring possibilities for innovation within the form. My research has taught me that ‘coffee tables’ first appeared in public life in England in the 16th century, along with coffee, in coffee houses inspired by exchange with the Ottoman Empire.

Known as ‘one-penny-universities’, English coffee houses of the 16th century were popular public meeting places where ideas were exchanged around low tables recalling those used by bedouin traders. A century later, the form morphed into portable ‘tea tables’ in aristocratic circles, reflecting the new-found popularity of tea, following colonization of India. Beginning in the Victorian era, low tables came into vogue in domestic interiors throughout Europe and America, heralding the emergence of a sophisticated, middle class with the leisure, dedicated space and time to host public gatherings at home.

The form has remained a ubiquitous staple of family life ever since, with subtle variations in styling to adapt to new materials, technologies and patterns of use along the way- radio, TV, laptops, etc, but the primary function of providing a place for convivial gathering has remained constant. I’ve become an enthusiastic advocate for encouraging the role of coffee tables in domestic life, and am very grateful that my brother in law had the insight and trust to commission my first. Thanks, Jeff!


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Pencil Panic

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Front and back of my last box of Blue Band Velevet #5572

As a daily comfort I prefer quality, vintage pencils, which I use in the course of drawing, writing and working with wood. I’m in a bit of a panic, down to my last box of Blue Band Velvets, manufactured by the American Lead Pencil Company in the 1920’s, that I inherited from my grandfathers (not sure which one), along with some drafting tools and hand planes of the same vintage. Luckily, I’ve discovered Bob Truvy’s website dedicated to the historic archive of pencils from around the world. Unfortunately, his collection is not for sale, so I plan to continue my search, knowing that contemporary pencil manufacture is not up to snuff. I’m even considering making my own as we prepare to fell a pair of incense cedar trunks on our property, the best wood for making high quality pencils.

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our twin trunk incense cedar, limmed and ready to be felled


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Lunchentach

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Stilleben, 1613, Flores Van Dyck

Making the time for a lovely lunch is a fundamental privilege, motivation and reward for any hard-working artisan.


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On Waiting

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I love the string of well-worn Windsors at our local laundromat

My friend Mike High was well known in our art school days for coining mock mottos and platitudes that were equally absurd and profound, a grey zone that defines the genre. One of my favorites was, “when I launder, my mind wanders; when I wander, my mind launders”. It’s been over 25 years since I last pondered this, and almost as long since I’ve spent any time in a laundromat, which is where I found myself by hazard the other night when our washing machine suddenly broke down.

I’ve had a rare confluence of circumstances over the past week that left me ‘stuck’ in situations, stripped of all options but to simply wait. It’s got me thinking about how much I miss things like riding trains, going to the laundromat, or being snowed in, and what a lost art waiting has become in contemporary life. When I managed to get my truck stuck in the mud on a remote site visit the other day, with just enough charge in my phone to call a friend to tow me out with his tractor, my only option was to sit tight for the afternoon, enjoy the sunshine and take a delicious nap in an apple orchard.

I didn’t realize the extent to which I keep occupied during the course of the day, having successfully eliminated unnecessary pauses and delays from my routine. I had forgotten the feeling of deep comfort and centered-ness and that can accompany unanticipated bouts of boredom. It seems that communications and information technologies have relieved us of many of the anxiety-causing situations that require waiting, but they’ve simultaneously distanced us from the delights of uninterrupted daydreaming. I look forward to retooling my days to increase the odds of idle reverie, and thank fate for having intervened.

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some elegant Windsors at a laboratory waiting room in Santa Rosa


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Shed Metrics

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My Shed Chair concept was inspired by fences built by local frugal farmers

I’ve been paying particularly close attention to the vernacular forms of Sonoma County’s family scale agriculture- the fences, coops, crates and outbuildings associated with our region’s numerous orchards, ranches and vineyards. My friend Cindy Daniel is in the process of realizing an innovative, hybrid retail/cafe/event space in Healdsburg called Shed, for which she has commissioned me to design furnishings.

I’m truly inspired by her vision for an energy efficient, two-story, seasonally open-air building sited along Foss Creek, housing a ground floor garden center, deli, community ‘larder’, cafe, and upstairs restaurant and space for events and performance. Shed will be a modern interpretation of the time-honored General Store or Grange, featuring the artisanal foods, goods and services of local purveyors. The building, an ultra efficient pre-engineered metal structure is designed by Mark Jensen of Jensen Architects in San Francisco. I’m honored to be working closely with such a visionary team, and have been enjoying developing a language for the furnishings that resonates with Cindy’s sophisticated take on Sonoma County living, and bridges the high modernist utilitarianism of Jensen’s building.

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1/4 scale model of a dining chair and table concept I’m developing for Shed.

The major challenge of designing furnishings that range from retail display to dining has been in inventing a structure system that allows for low cost flexibility, durability and variability, while telling a story and making a memorable, unique experience. The furnishings need to reinforce the Shed ‘brand’. As I research ready-made systems to appropriate for retail display, I’ve begun to experiment with chair and table concepts, knowing that it will be easier to have these inform, rather than be informed by, the look/feel of the ready-mades. The dining furniture is sure to evolve, but I like the basic idea of a chair that stacks into a sculptural column when stored in the space, and a table that transforms into a low, Japanese style version, using the chair’s cushions for seating.

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The upper portion of the Shed Table concept converts to a low version, using the chair’s cushions for a more ‘Eastern’ dining experience.


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Design for Quiddity

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I reserved the best of the clear and quarter-sawn stock for cabinets and doors

Today when my interior design project in Marin passed final inspections and the stress of pushing for completion began to recede, I was reminded of my initial inspiration- to make a place that has a distinct smell, identifiable with local flora. Whenever I travel back to the East Coast and spend time in old farmhouses and barns, I find a visceral comfort in the sweet, woody perfume of white pine and oak, still resonant in buildings over 100 years old. While the equivalent can be found throughout the Sierra, I wanted the same effect in the densely populated Bay Area, especially for the rustic interior I’ve prepared over the past year for a Guest House nestled among live oak, buckeye and coast redwood trees. I wanted the guests of the cottage to experience an instant calm the moment they walk inside, to associate the perfume of deodar cedar with the enveloping glow of its grain. I will be curious to experience how the smell of the cottage develops over the years.

Craft is most rewarding when it continues to engage all of the senses over time.

To read more about the development of the Guest House interior, click here and scroll down.


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Exuberant Frugality

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We tested my Greens Chair at Greens Restaurant over a four course dinner

On the eve of our first full week home after six weeks of travel, Ene, Aili and I celebrated with a prix fixe, four course dinner at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. Mike Hale, Greens’ manager, generously comped the meal as a gesture of thanks for the chairs I recently designed that now populate the restaurant’s expansive interior.

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My lovely ladies enjoying a delicious dinner, as the sun set over the Golden Gate

By all accounts, the chairs are a tremendous success, adding a touch of structure and formality to the dining experience without detracting from its casual simplicity or bohemian legacy. More importantly, we got to test the chairs over an elegant, beautifully prepared and presented vegetarian feast, and they proved to be perfectly comfortable all the way through coffee and dessert. The Greens Chair is the first furniture commission at this scale where I have not actually made the furnishings myself, hadn’t touched and shaped each piece of wood with my own hands, yet I was pleased to feel the same pride of authorship as if I had.

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Most of the Greens Chairs are made of maple, with just 16 in walnut

As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on our way back up the coast in the lingering twilight, while Ene snoozed and Aili surfed her iPod, I began to reflect upon the relationship between craft and design, content with the fruits of my labor. I’m called more and more frequently to shift roles between maker and designer, and I find it helps to make a smooth transition by keeping a foot in either world.

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the view from our table at Greens, looking West towards the Golden Gate

‘Craft’ is too broad a term for consensus on its meaning, which can range from implying a level of skill in handiwork, to standing in for pre-industrial technologies, to being a kind of hobby or therapy. For the sake of clarity, I think of ‘craft’ more as an artisanal production model, connoting things made using local resources- material, knowledge, and energy. In such a craft-based production model, ‘design’ is often an afterthought. The final thing more or less emerges from the constraints of tradition and the limitations of resources. Most products of this system live in the past- the Windsor Chair, basket-making, vernacular architecture in general- but they still influence the visual culture of design. From this perspective, ‘craft’ and ‘design’ are mutually exclusive.

While craft is a bottom-up strategy, design is a top-down one. Design most often begins with a visual representation of a thing to be made, but exactly how it is made is incidental to its final manifestation. When called to design something made at an industrial scale, I begin the process by thinking as a traditional artisan might, given the resources of labor and technology in today’s world. I don’t have any preconception of how anything will look, but trust in an ethos of Exuberant Frugality. I try to optimize material and structure, nest functions and eliminate waste, knowing that this will make room for quality to emerge at all stages of a design’s development, and that the ethos will resonate with anyone who works with their hands.


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