{ Category Archives: furniture design }

Introducing the BLAKE

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The BLAKE table in situ (photograph by Mimi Gibion for Remodelista)

I call my latest table design the BLAKE as an homage to the pioneering surfer/shaper Tom Blake, inventor of the hollow surfboard.

BLAKE is a minimalist sculpture as much as a functional dining table, a floating white torsion box, compatible with Shaker and surfer alike.

The top is a seamless, folded miter skin of MDF around a honeycomb core, covered with six coats of a durable resin, polished to a high gloss. The legs are solid walnut, milled from horticultural salvage in Northern California, finished with hand-rubbed tung oil.

BLAKE is the latest in my ongoing exploration of tables and chairs and their relationship to community and place. BLAKE is available exclusively through TURPAN.

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tom blake

 

 

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Shed Barstools

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The stools look great lined up at Shed’s lovely zinc wine bar (photo: Naomi Mcleod).

I’m very proud of my new barstools for Healdsburg Shed. I designed and made a batch of eight for use at Shed’s wine bar, and they will soon be available for sale as a made-to-order item for Shed, along with my matching Cafe Chair and a version of my Community Table. Both chair designs are made from Oregon white ash, finished with a matte clear coat to maintain the wood’s natural blond glow. I’m considering offering a dining height version of the barstool, and possibly a version in a darker wood, maybe walnut.

To read more about my furniture design for Shed, click here and scroll down.

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Reconsidering Shellac

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Shellac is a natural by-product of the lac beetle’s secretions.

Like so many craftsy kids who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, I had my own rock polisher, a wood-burning set, access to my dad’s tools, collections of yarn and twine, old National Geographics, mucelage, rubber cement and shellac, and a basement, attic and garage for a studio. Whether I was making fake antique signs or a decoupage vase, I always seemed to have an open can of shellac, and learned to associate it’s candy amber gloss with other craft icons of the era such as tie dye, macrame, stamped leather, etc. It’s peculiar how such ancient techniques were consistently defamed by their appropriation into middle class America in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I haven’t changed much since then, and I live in a place that is almost entirely and un-self-consciously unreconstructed since about circa 1978, so maybe it’s fitting I should be reconsidering shellac. But there’s more to it. As a wood finish, shellac meets my requirements on several key levels:

1. Shellac is a non-toxic by-product of secretions by the lac beetle (lacifer lacca), whose flakes are easily dissolved in denatured alcohol, another bio-degradable agent, so it uses no harmful chemicals or petroleum products.

2. Shellac can be applied at almost any reasonable temperature or humidity level, so is particularly well-suited to our typically cool, damp conditions; and it dries fast, reducing time for application of multiple coats.

3. Shellac penetrates the wood and seals it while protecting from darkening through exposure to light. Also, by using de-waxed flakes that have been processed to make a clear resin, it’s possible to attain a very pale finish on wood.

4. Shellac is easily repaired, and its surface can be rendered virtually flat either through the use of polishing abrasives or integral ‘flattening agents’.

Shellac has been used in some form since ancient times as a wood finish, gaining wide-spread popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries in the form of a technique called ‘French Polish’, but was rendered practically obsolete during the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of varnishes and oil-based resins. I’ve spent the majority of my wood-working career trying to match my approach to wood with an appropriate finishing technique, having most recently convinced myself that wood is best left raw, gaining a patina through exposure to the elements over time. My recent rediscovery of shellac has me thinking otherwise, and I’ve begun using it exclusively for all of my interior projects. Who knows, maybe I’ll break out the rock polisher next.

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Bull Kelp Harvest

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Each winter since we’ve lived on the Sonoma Coast and made a daily practice of walking the beaches, I become mildly obsessed with the bull kelp that washes ashore in great heaps after storms. I’ve tried weaving the kelp into seat blanks, drying it as an iodine-rich jerky, and brewing it for a savory stock. My experiments have not been utter failures, and the waste product makes for nutritious compost, but I have yet to find its ideal use.

This year, I harvested several large heads of the kelp, selecting the freshest and most well-formed. I’m considering casting these in bronze as a table leg for a new design commission, and have carefully cleaned and wrapped them for freezing until I’m ready to make the molds.

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Furnishing Healdsburg Shed

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Early sketch of my Shed Cafe Chair concept.

I think of the new line of furniture I designed for Shed as belonging to the same extended family. Consisting of just four unique pieces- a café chair, a barstool, a ‘community’ table and a multi-use, ‘demonstration’ table, the line evolved slowly over the past two years, or co-evolved, along with Cindy Daniel’s vision for Shed as a ‘modern grange’. Jensen Architects set the bar high by designing such an elegant building, whose pared down modernism manages to evoke agricultural vernacular without succumbing to nostalgia or rusticity.

I’m grateful that Cindy included me in early meetings with the architects as focus shifted to the building’s interior. Before actually designing anything, I had a hand in shaping a design direction, inspired by the region’s agricultural legacy and Healdsburg’s historic role as a major hub. My eyes turned to things like pallets, packing crates, fences and barns for inspiration, and I made a series of experiments and prototypes, leading eventually to a cogent formal language. The entire process was highly collaborative, a triangulation between the building itself and its built-in components, the functionality of the space, and the emerging ethos behind Shed’s product line and services.

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My first breakthrough came with a concept for a massive table that would double as a method of curing wood I milled myself from locally-sourced ‘horticultural salvage’. A giant slab of unfinished sycamore would rest atop two stacks of neatly stickered wood, the weight of the slab ensuring the drying boards not warp. Each year, when the wood was adequately dry, it would be removed from under the table and made into something useful for Shed, either in the form of a limited production product for sale, or as an item for use in-house. The dry stack would be replaced with freshly milled boards and there would be a year to decide what to make with them. I love the idea of a table that also functions as a kind of ‘crowd source’ process piece that gives me an ongoing role as Shed develops over the years. To prototype the table, we milled a pecan tree and laid it up under the sycamore slab to dry over the past year. I’m now making pecan tabletops for the café, and the remainder is being made into small serving platters.

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The first iteration of my Demonstration Table, set up to dry a load of pecan wood.

The next piece to emerge from my experimentation was the barstool, which I conceived as just a very high, simple chair, like a lifeguard stand. I didn’t want it to appear ‘designed’, but more like what might pop into your head if you heard the word ‘chair’, only taller, kind of high waist-ed. I also wanted it to evoke a character by its posture and the way it was put together, very straightforward and rigorous, screws exposed, made to last but repairable, practical like a farmer. Farmer Modern. I made the prototype with cedar I had on hand but knew the stool needed to be made of white ash for Shed. Ash is very pale, with a pleasingly straight grain, excellent strength to weight ratio, and is used extensively to make tool handles, baseball bats, lobster traps and boat parts like thwarts and tillers. I’ve always thought of white ash as a quintessentially American wood, and it grows throughout the deciduous forests of the US and Canada, so is available FSC-certified at a reasonable cost.

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Prototypes for the Shed Barstool and Cafe Chair, to be slightly modified in production.


The Café Chair developed next from a structural experiment. I had an overstock of vertical grain Douglas Fir lathe I had been making into stickers for drying wood, dimensioned rough at about 1” x 2”. The lathe is milled nearby in Cazadero, sold as offcuts from making dimensioned lumber, so it’s very inexpensive despite its straight, clear grain. I thought it would be a great challenge to make a comfortable dining chair using only lathe and a single fastening system; it would also be in keeping with the Modernist Farmer character I had invented. The experiment mostly worked, producing a reasonably strong, somewhat comfortable chair, but it needed tweaking. I abandoned the narrow parameters of using just 1 x 2 lathe, but kept the basic form, dimensioning structural parts for greater load bearing, and seat and backrest parts for greater flexibility and comfort. I made the next prototype in ash to complement the barstool. The new chair retains its airy permeability and still evokes the homemade-modernist paradigm, but also meets the requirements of comfort and durability. With its slat construction, exposed screws and whitewash finish, the chair shares elements with the barstool while exerting its own personality. The two are obviously related, but don’t match at the expense of their individuality.

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I assembled the Shed Community table outside my studio for a trial fit.

By now I knew where the furnishings would be in the space, how they would interrelate and what would surround them. I just needed to design a very long Community Table for the center of the dining area, and it needed to anchor the collection and choreograph movement through the space. Because the 15’ 6” long table would be shared by people who did not necessarily know one another, I wanted to imply that it could be infinitely long, a table for everyone to gather round. I also wanted the table itself to be extremely minimal in order to draw attention to the food and the collection of people and how they naturally compose themselves. Knowing that Cindy was keen on using backless stools for seating, I also wanted the table to appear to be floating, to be as unobtrusive as possible, a meeting place more than an imposing thing. I pictured two identical boards running parallel to each other, separated by a narrow gap, allowing air to circulate through the middle of the table, unobstructed. I decided to make the boards of glued laminations of white ash, cut from full-length stock so there would be no seams. The boards are mounted on a base of three X-trestles made of 3” square tube, welded together and hot-dip galvanized, like farm equipment or fencing. At 33” wide the table invites intimacy while allowing more room for circulation around the space. I’m very proud of the Community Table and am excited that Cindy will be offering shorter versions for sale through Shed on a commission basis.

Working with Cindy and designing these furnishings for Shed over the past few years have been among the most challenging and rewarding endeavors of my career. We share a deep philosophical alignment and I’m truly honored to have been part of bringing Shed into being. I’m confident Shed will become a vital mainstay of the community and a major destination in the Russian River Valley.

To read more about the development of Furnishings for Shed, please click here and scroll down.

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Shed Tabletop Installed

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The completed Demonstration Table is just over 14′ long

Yesterday I installed the top to my Demonstation Table for Shed. The table will spend the next year in Cindy’s studio warehouse in Healdsburg while the building is under construction nearby. By this time, the stickered wood comprising the base will be dry, and turned into auxiliary tabletops for the SHED cafe, to flank the Demonstration Table, which will be installed with a new batch of freshly milled wood when the building is ready.

The completed table is just over 14′ long, with a base of pecan, stickered to dry, and a top of solid sycamore, milled from a Sacramento street tree. For now, the top has ‘live’ edges, and varies in width from about 38″ to about 46″. We may decide to trim at least one of the edges square, but will explore scenarios around the table before a decision is made. Next, I will finish the sycamore top in situ, with multiple coats of a durable, non-toxic polymer made from whey, a by-product of cheese manufacturing.

To read more about the details, process and background behind my Demonstration Table for Shed, please click here.

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the sapwood of sycamore has a lovely, lacey pattern

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I inlaid an 8″ ‘butterfly key’ to keep a check from growing at the base of the slab.


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Stickered Table for Shed (process)

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Two identical bases of green pecan, ready to receive the top, a giant slab of sycamore.

Whenever I design and make a new piece of furniture, I’m always keenly aware of how it will age, and how the piece might transform over time to encourage and support future, as yet unforeseeable patterns of use. I’ve been collecting choice local woods over the years, all neatly stickered in the barn, so my design process usually begins with rummaging through my piles for inspiration, making measurements and drawing directly onto the wood with white chalk. My primary criteria at this early stage is whether the piece of furniture I have in mind is the appropriate final destination for the wood- will it do the tree justice? I’ve always thought of my furniture as a way of extending the life of a tree, as a way of simultaneously storing and appreciating wood by putting it to good use; living daily life as an extension of making.

As I continue to collect and store local woods, and especially as I begin to mill trees myself, I’m becoming more attuned to the value of locally sourced, well-sawn, air-dried wood as a commodity. An increasingly scarce resource, fine wood is a good investment and increases dramatically in value, especially if it has the added cache of ecological responsibility, streaming from the urban forest, or as ‘horticultural salvage’. Because handmade furniture ultimately needs to compete in the marketplace with an increasingly sophisticated range of mass-market comparables, it can be challenging to offer a price point in proportion to the value of the material itself, which is a dilemma, even if the quality of the finished product is markedly higher. This is especially the case when ‘studio furniture’ needs first and foremost to meet rigorous functional, as well as aesthetic requirements.

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I milled grooves into the stickers for better air flow and to allow for movement.

While my way of thinking about wood-as-commodity has lived quietly in the background of most of my furniture design to date, I’ve been wanting do make a new body of work where the concept is front and center, both in the process of making and in the process of using the furniture. To this end, I’m grateful to my friend Cindy Daniel, who commissioned a ‘Demonstration Table’ for Shed, her Healdsburg-based café/retail/community hub offering local foods, goods and quality wares. Shed is Cindy’s contemporary spin on the traditional country mercantile store, and I’ve enjoyed working with her over the past two years designing interior scenarios for the new building currently under construction, a large, open air metal structure designed by Mark Jensen.

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My original thumbnail sketch for the Stickered Table

As much as my Demonstration Table for Shed will serve as a gathering place in the café, it doubles as a process piece for the duration of the enterprise, establishing a kind of invented tradition. The table’s base consists of two nearly identical stacks of green pecan wood I recently milled from a dying tree, neatly stickered to allow the wood to naturally air-dry. The table’s top, a massive slab of sycamore, rests on top of the two piles, acting as a gravity clamp to keep the material from cupping. I milled V-grooves into the stickers to allow for better air flow and to decrease friction as the boards inevitably shrink. After one year, when the stock is adequately dry, the top will be lifted and the material removed and converted into functional wares for Shed, either to be used in the café or sold as product to customers. This first batch will likely make small table tops for the Shed café, slated to open in October 2012.. The two bases will then be re-constructed, stacked from freshly milled wood each year, that will in turn be made into a small production run of whatever item surfaces in the course of its drying.

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I typically shellac and wax the ends of boards to prevent undo checking.

I like the idea of adding an element of ‘crowd-sourcing’ to the design development of an annual product, taking advantage of a constant flow of people gathered around the table while the material slowly cures beneath. I also look forward to maintaining an ongoing relationship with Shed as a kind of artisan-in-residence, collaborating with Cindy to design products that exemplify the Shed ethos.

Please click here to see the table with the top installed.


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