"A tree is our most intimate contact with nature. " — George Nakashima
“A tree is our most intimate contact with nature.” — George Nakashima
Glass is all that glitters in Northwest art. But there is another form here close to our roots, so to speak: furniture-making.
Its artists work, often in obscurity, sawdust and with supportive spouses who keep the heat and lights on, creating one-of-a-kind pieces that honor and transcend the trees from which they came.
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Some would argue that furniture-making is a craft, but Michael Monroe, director and chief curator of the Bellevue Arts Museum, has said, “Dividing lines between art and craft have collapsed, as they should.”
Or, as fan and collector Margaret Minnick puts it, “These people are artists. This happens to be the stuff they make.”
We will work from that.
“As a society, we are not attuned to look at furniture much,” Minnick says. “Our studio furniture-makers really reach perfection, and so little of what we see is perfection, tangible manifestation of perfection.”
Minnick is, perhaps, the Northwest furniture-maker’s best friend. Her Mercer Island house is like a studio-furniture hall of fame. She is also an authority. The personal-property appraiser has taught furniture at the college level and has served as acting director of Northwest Fine Woodworking, the 28-year-old Pioneer Square co-op that is the touchstone of this community.
Studio furniture consists of exquisitely designed pieces of excellent craftsmanship and materials created with a well-reasoned approach. Or, as Minnick puts it, “You could put a piece upside down or backward and it would still be beautiful.”
Fine-furniture-making is a tradition as old as this country. But studio furniture, as unique as its maker, evolved much later — beginning in the East with Wharton Esherick in 1930 and out here around 1940 with Sam Maloof in California and George Nakashima, who was raised in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
Nakashima said, “It is a stirring moment when out of an inert mass drawn from nature we set out to produce an object never before seen — an object to enhance man’s world; above all, a tree will live again.”
This reverence for wood in its natural state “is one of the principal differences to what’s going on elsewhere,” Bellevue’s Monroe says. “It is cherished and worshipped for its beauty and its grain and its integrity.”
This is why natural-edge pieces, mastered by Nakashima, are so often seen, and why many of the furniture-makers prefer to work with reclaimed wood.
Minnick says pieces should be leaping out of the co-op. “But I know exactly why they don’t. A lot of fine art can be intimidating. There’s a mystical element to it. Furniture is old shoe. You use it. Everybody has furniture.”
Monroe, who was curator of the Renwick Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum, points out, “These are not impulse items. These are long-term decisions. And when they’re making a dining-room table with six chairs, that’s a long-term decision. The makers can’t afford to do a lot of pieces on speculation.”
Below are profiles of but a few of the Northwest’s studio-furniture-makers. They vary in age, style, training and technique.
The fourth-generation cabinetmaker has been making furniture for 71 years. Sodergren taught furniture-making at the UW from 1958 to 1973. He is particularly known for his tansu chests (for which Sodergren makes his own hardware, because he couldn’t find any that he liked) and the sleek, timeless Sculptured Chair. It is included in the permanent collection in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Artist Morris Graves once traded him three paintings for a chair. Sodergren still takes on apprentices, and, at 88, works seven days a week out of his home on the northern tip of Lake Washington. He has been featured in the Living Treasures Project as a pioneer in the contemporary craft movement.
Each Sculptured Chair requires 200 hours of labor to create. Why is Sodergren still driven to the work at this age? “Hey!” he says, “You’re only old once.”
The Fremont furniture-maker began his career working for Thos. Moser in New Gloucester, Maine, cutting his chops on Shaker pieces. Woodworking is how Wurtz expresses his interest in design, but he also stresses the traditional aspect of handwork. In contemporary designs he seeks to bring out the movement and animation of the woods. “Out here it’s more a reflection of nature,” he says of the Northwest. “It’s a little freer here, like this embracing of live edges; this embracing of the material itself instead of trying to control it. Because we’re more removed from other parts of the country we can go our own way — create our own voice.” His clients include local entrepreneur Paul Brainerd and actors Rob Morrow and Natasha Richardson.
Furniture-making is an intimate craft. But Richards is a loner’s loner, working from his rural Maple Valley farm in his shop of one. It took him about a year and a half to make one secretary he priced at $125,000. He mills the logs himself. He uses no veneers. Richards also built his own home and workshop. There are no knots in those timbers. Richards admits, “I can’t afford me.”
Richards is self-taught, began working with his father in the family’s garage wood shop in the next house up the road. Six years of drafting work at Boeing convinced him to follow his dream.
The singular Richards specializes in one-of-a-kind pieces. “His rockers?” says friend John Thoe, “visually there’s not anything like it. It’s sculpture.” One is on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum.
The furniture-maker and master architectural carver who lives in North Seattle and studied in Norway and Germany. He spent his second year in Norway learning to make one style of folk chair, skiing the five miles to work. He holds a fine-arts degree in sculpture from the University of Iowa. Thoe came to Seattle 21 years ago to restore carvings at the Leary Mansion at the Olympia Diocese of the Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. And stayed. He’s the only one he knows of in the Northwest who is trained to do the deep, intertwined, detailed Baroque and Rococo carving. He also makes, among other pieces, a contemporary Chippendale chair.
“Chairs are my bread and butter,” he says. “Chairs are the pinnacle of furniture design. It’s a combination of comfort and aesthetics.”
His pieces can be seen in the lobby of the Washington Athletic Club and the Benson Hotel in Portland.
Known for her marquetry work (like inlay, but using veneers), Ames was a cabinetmaker before becoming intrigued by the creativity of chairs, tables and beds, which she has earned her living making for 22 years. Ames and her husband, Hank Holzer, another accomplished furniture-maker, have something of a co-op of their own in their Madison Valley shop, renting space and sharing tools with Joel Shepard, a master craftsman for more than 40 years, and until recently John Kettman, who reproduces 17th- and 18th-century masterworks.
“I like the technical aspect of furniture-making, but I love the art part, the design,” says Ames, who originally intended to become an architect. “This is a great way to do both.”
Working among other young artists in Georgetown, Withycombe, 35, sees furniture as interactive art. He is inspired by farms and carnivals, and likes to incorporate found or discarded objects into his work as industrial design meets furniture design.
“The most enjoyable part is watching people’s reaction to it,” he says, sitting on the Queen of Spades, his corner bench with shovel heads for backrests.
Surprise and laughter are good responses, says the graduate of the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Withycombe also attended the Rhode Island School of Design for furniture design. Experience his work at All City Coffee, 1205 S. Vale St., Seattle, and at Grey Gallery and Lounge, 1512 11th Ave.