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Experiments in Wooden Planing Hulls

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Top and bottom of my latest bellyboard, laminated from cedar and walnut veneers.

I’m a purist when it comes to riding waves. Or maybe a minimalist. Or both. I grew up bodysurfing on the Jersey Shore in the Seventies, learning about tides and wind, sandbars and swell. We surfed beach breaks exclusively, daily, no matter the size of the wave, which rarely raised higher than overhead and generally capped out at chest height. Some used surfboards and boogie boards (which were just finding their way to the East Coast), but the break was never very far from shore and the set up was generally over a sandbar, where a bodysurfer could often stand to catch a wave unaided. With a little swimming over the gully, you could ride the bigger waves all the way to shore, catching the second break when the tide was just right.

I’ve continued to bodysurf since we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area over twenty years ago, adding a wetsuit and fins to suit the more extreme conditions. I’ve flirted with standing surfboards but have yet to get past the learning curve to really enjoy it. I also just prefer direct body contact with the wave, especially given my lack of dedicated time in the water. I began to research bellyboards as a possible alternative a few years ago, and have recently been making experimental prototypes as an extension of my skate deck manufacture. I use the same laminations cut from local woods I’ve milled and dried myself, molded over improvised forms and hand shaped for optimal hydroplaning and adequate buoyancy.

My latest design is a hybrid of traditional Hawaiian Alaia and Paipo shapes, informed by the hydroplaning experiments of naval architect Lindsay Lord. Measuring about 3′ 6″ long by 19.5″ wide, the board is composed of a sandwich lamination of two cold-formed layers; two 3/16″ thick, book-matched claro walnut veneers on the bottom, and three 3/8″ thick veneers of Western red cedar on the top. The specific gravity of the cedar, left to its full thickness, adds to the board’s buoyancy. The relatively hard walnut veneers are shaped to taper to about 1/8″ or less at the edges, making for a sharper edge and abrasion-resistent surface. The combined stability of each layer, combined with the slightly cross-grained lamination, prevents the finished product from undo warping or cupping.

 

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Dream Shop

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I recently completed a new deck at the entry to my dedicated, 20′ x 30′ wood shop

After over five years developing our rural home and studio on the Sonoma Coast, the constant challenge has been to both maintain and improve our facilities to meet the increasing scope and scale of our projects, while optimizing the compound to allow for a new round of aesthetic inquiry and exploration.

I’ve devoted the second part of the summer to converting an out-building on the compound from our wowhaus office into a dedicated woodshop. I’ll keep the heavy machines in the open-air atrium of the main house, and use the new space as a bench room for handwork- assembly, laminating, steam-bending, etc.. A portion of the space will be dedicated to producing the Deep Deck longboard I’ve been developing over the past two years, using hand-milled logs from horticultural salvage. I’m also eager to begin realizing some new ideas I’ve been brewing for sculpture and furniture using wood milled and cured on our property.


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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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A Chair for Mindfulness

greenschair1the Greens management team loved my prototype Greens Chair

Like the Golden Gate Bridge that looms across the Bay from San Francisco’s historic Fort Mason Center, Greens Restaurant is a Bay Area icon. With close ties to the San Francisco Zen Center, the restaurant has embodied an ethos of attentive living and eating for over thirty years, heralding a new age of vegetarian cuisine. I recently presented my prototype Greens Chair, which I was commissioned to design by the restaurant’s management team, and was truly honored to have it pass their rigorous requirements of functionality and aesthetics. The Greens management team includes acclaimed chef Annie Somerville and at least one ordained zen Buddhist priest, and everyone took turns testing the chair with earnest focus. The team agreed that the chair encourages mindfulness for both diners and staff, which is the highest compliment to me.


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Giant Eucalyptus

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Taking a break under a giant bluegum eucalyptus on Whitaker Bluff

The eucalyptus was planted extensively throughout California by Australians during the Gold Rush for use as timber. They mistakenly thought the wood to be well suited for railroad ties, but the trees took differently to the soil and tended to grow in spirals, the grain twisting when cured.

“They went on to note that the promise of eucalyptus in California was based on the old virgin forests of Australia. This was a mistake as the young trees being harvested in California could not compare in quality to the centuries-old eucalyptus timber of Australia. It reacted differently to harvest. The older trees didn’t split or warp as the infant California crop did. There was a vast difference between the two, and this would doom the California eucalyptus industry.”

Santos, Robert L. (1997). “Seeds of Good or Seeds of Evil?”. The Eucalyptus of California. California State University.

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Ene, Aili and I have been enjoying cycling the ranch roads West of Petaluma, where the eucalyptus were planted in lines along ridges and roadways as windbreak. I’ve used the wood in several projects and love its grain character, though its hardness and twisted growth patterns make it difficult to work. Several years ago I developed a chair design (see below) that capitalizes on the inherent attributes of the wood, which I found well-suited to sliding dovetail joints and narrow dimensions, which are less prone to twisting.

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The Euc Chair (1995), which I developed after the Oakland Hills fire, when there was an abundance of eucalyptus cut for fire breaks.

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A Chair for Mildred’s Lane

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I made this sketch of a sixteenth century dining chair I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The chair is thought to be either English or Scandinavian in origin, and we did see many like it at folk museums last summer while traveling around Norway and Estonia. The type is well suited for production on a human-powered pole lathe, like the one I designed for use at Mildred’s Lane, and might be a good starting point in developing a unique Chair for Mildred’s Lane in the future. I plan to experiment with the design as I complete my own pole lathe on the Wowhaus compound.


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A Wholesome Chair

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modified Windsor chair concept with steam-bent, bundled parts

Most of my furniture design over the past ten years or so has developed either from a particular need or from the properties of a particular material, usually wood. Lately I’ve been wanting to broaden my target by channeling my resources into the creation of a signature chair, a Deepcraft icon that adds to the canon of classic chair design. One of the goals of this experimental site is to unpack exactly what that means and hopefully discover how to translate a design philosophy into a truly sustainable production model in the process.

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If and when I succeed, the thinking behind the chair will fold into the chair’s broad appeal as one of life’s Simple Good Things and I will assuage any guilt about burdening consumer culture with yet more stuff. More ambitiously, the chair will stand in for a philosophy of design with the potential to more broadly influence the built environment and contribute to the (critique of) public taste. Ultimately, my interest is in how the natural and the built environments can work in congruency to suggest mutually beneficial loops. What follows are some of the discursive questions I have that guide my thinking in the process: Continue Reading »

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