For me design is an evolution, not a destination. With each new piece I revisit my design decisions and perfect the overall look. Could the top be thinner, or thicker? What about the legs? I don't think perfection can be achieved, but that isn't a reason to strive for it. Most of the time this process leads to changes so subtle few would ever notice, however sometimes it generates radical new results.
My dished Moon side and Orbit coffee tables have been in production for a while now. I like to have the live edge of the slab interrupt the geometric perimeter of the table top, but I have always taken it as a given that I cut the oval or circle out of the slab to match the dished area.
Recently I began work on a new Orbit coffee table that threw my whole process into doubt. This piece was to be made with some very special apple wood. I had milled this wood myself three years ago from, quite possibly, the largest apple tree in existence. The tree was growing in a backyard in Portland; it had termites and posed a risk to the surrounding houses. It had to come down, luckily the owner realized what she had and didn't want it to go to waste. She called me to give the tree a second life, and I was happy to oblige. It was well worth the effort as the wood was simply stunning. Apple has dense grain and a wide variety of color, from fleshy white to chocolate brown along with pinks and reds. When it came time to cut out the oval, I couldn't do it. Call it a sentimental attachment, but the wood was just to precious and too rare to remove any part of it. This made me wonder why I felt compelled to cut out the oval in the first place? It seemed like a huge design risk, but I thought it might be pretty cool to dish the oval out of the slab leaving the live edge all around it.
My wife has always been my best design confidant and I always ask her opinion before jumping out on a limb. She never has a problem letting me know when I have gone too far, and I deeply respect her for that. In this case she was strongly against the dished slab. She thought it would look weird, and I felt there was a good chance she was right, yet something wouldn't let me abandon this idea. So despite her disapproval I went ahead with it. Success or fail, I just had to see what this piece would look like.
Making this piece was quite a risk. I only had three slabs from the apple tree, and it would be hard to forgive myself for ruining one. Yet when I first saw the dished slab I knew it had been worth it. Somehow it changed the whole way you looked at the piece, the sunken oval outlined "our" space and left the natural beauty intact all around. Neither part infringed on the other, making the coffee table a metaphor for sustainable living. The salvaged nature of the apple top makes the piece even more poignant. Nature's beauty can enhance our lives, if we are bold enough to embrace it and not try to control it.
The city is my forest for many reasons. First, for the variety. People plant whatever grows. Looking out my window I see trees from Europe, Australia, China and the Eastern United States. What is native falls into the minority. Second, it feels right. As a city grows its trees, the least mobile of its inhabitants, often suffer the most. Why waste such a wonderful resource as woodchips in a landfill? I get many of my most interesting logs within blocks of my home. Crafted into fine furniture the trees live on for centuries to come. In my view the results are well worth the effort, yet this isn’t always the most cost effective of practices.
Milling stumps is a logistical nightmare. First you must dig- a lot. Even a small tree requires a 6’ by 6’ hole to get it out of the ground in one piece. Once at the mill things get even worse. Sand and small rocks devastate blades. Over the course of a trees life its roots grow and encapsulate innumerable pockets of these little surprises. No amount of cleaning is sufficient, you can only hope against hope. Countless times I have sworn never to mill another stump, however the payoff can be spectacular. Stumps often exhibit extraordinary color and figure. So when presented with the opportunity to harvest a burled walnut stump, I didn’t hesitate to grab my shovel and start digging.
In this particular case I was lucky. The tree was growing in a clay-based soil, not abrasive sand, and I was able to mill the entire stump with only a single blade. By comparison I have milled stumps that required a new blade for every cut. The slabs were then carefully stacked and left to slowly air dry. At this point nothing is certain. The wood is saturated with water, and as the water evaporates the wood shrinks and shifts. The more erratic and irregular the grain the more exaggerated the movement in the wood. Again the stump, with its contorted and confused grain, is a recipe for disaster.
Up to this point the process is akin to farming. I can know if a log has potential and I can anticipate the complications in processing the lumber. I can do my best to mitigate all these issues; yet in the end only fate will determine if my efforts are rewarded with lumber or firewood. I consider myself lucky that Nature is kind to me more often than not.
As the wood dries its color, which is often muted when freshly milled, slowly begins to emerge though still cloaked beneath a layer of saw marks and grit. It wasn’t until after the slabs were dry, shaped and sanded that I realized the stump had actually been two trees fused together. Through the process of grafting an English walnut tree had been grown with Black walnut roots. At the point where the two trees meet the color of the wood instantly changes. There are always surprises. I love it.
This marks only the start of the process. All my efforts up to this point yield only raw material, it is still up to me to craft beautiful objects from the lumber I have just created. This requires an entirely different set of skills and presents many new challenges that can easily thwart success. Many woodworkers are content to simply go to the lumberyard and relieve themselves of half the burden. For me however, the magic of woodworking begins with the tree.
My design influences come from many different places; nature and history are the obvious influences, however sometimes my work in one field directly influences my work in another. That is what happened here with the Swell side and coffee tables.
For those not familiar with the Bonsai world a little background is necessary. Bonsai trees are not a specific species of tree; any tree can be a bonsai. Many times these trees are collected from extremely harsh environments where nature has naturally reduced their size. Through a process of trimming and root confinement the tree is shaped to evoke the spirit of its full-sized cousins.
Bonsai trees live outdoors, just as a full sized tree would. Once in a while they are brought inside and placed on a small specially designed table for a few days of display. I craft these display stands. It is not a profession I necessarily planned for, more something I happily fell into by being at the right place at the right time.
A little under a year ago I had a client commission a stand for an interesting Rocky Mountain juniper. The tree had a very lively character; it almost seemed to dance in the pot. To make a stand with a similar character seemed repetitive. Instead I designed a geometric stand with a curved interior negative space fighting to escape its rigid confines. This energy echoed the tree, but in a different way giving the composition variety and interest.
As soon as I wrapped up the stand I knew the design had further potential. It has taken a while to set aside the time to develop this diminutive stand into full sized furniture, but the results have been worth it. The Swell coffee and side tables feature the same dynamic energy of the bonsai stand, derived from the contrast of the curved negative space and the rigid geometric perimeter. Each corner features Asian inspired joinery that produces a clean sophisticated look with no visible end grain. The evolution has been fun, I look forward to more of these crossovers in the future.
Pick up a copy of the next ABS Journal and check out my article on designing and building the three legged stand that elevated Randy Knights Rocky Mountain Juniper to 1st place at the 2015 Artisans cup. Read about the surprising path to this cutting edge design. The magazine will also recap the 2015 Artisans Cup and feature tons of excellent images of killer trees.Read More