As with any art or craft, good woodworking design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We often start by being inspired by someone else’s work, then add our interpretations to come up with our own voice. In my woodworking journey I have found it to be important to make a conscious effort to continuously expose myself to new ideas, both within the woodworking realm as well as other influences. This can push us outside of our comfort zone where we learn new techniques and accomplish things that wouldn’t happen within the safety of our current skill set.
Here are a few of my go-to sources of inspiration as woodworker:
Museums/Art Institutions. Whenever I visit a new city I like to see if there are museums in town that have collections that might interest me. Some of my favorites have included the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Chicago Art Institute, and the Petit Palais in Paris, France. In a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, I had the great pleasure of sitting on a Mid-century Modern bench that was made by the iconic furniture maker Sam Maloof. I savored that experience for years, and after advancing my skills to an appropriate level, I built my interpretation of this bench. In the photo above I am installing the leather lacing that creates the seat for the bench.
Networking in the woodworking community. Most of the friendships that I have developed over the past 25 years have been with people who share my passion for making things out of wood. I enjoy the comradery and I appreciate it when we push one another to advance our skills. The spouted bowl pictured above is an example of this. A friend sent me a picture of a similar spouted bowl, and asked me if I knew how it was likely made. We bounced some ideas back and forth, and I checked with some other avid woodworkers, and we couldn’t come up with a good approach. After some further contemplation I came up with a simple and effective approach to turn and carve a spouted bowl that I’ve been using ever since.
Visiting furniture stores. While most people go to furniture stores to buy furniture, my wife and I go for research. I find design inspiration in many furniture stores, even if construction and materials quality is suspect. In one such visit many years ago my wife fell in love with a French Provincial dresser. I liked it too, but it included several details that I found intimidating; bun feet, dentil molding, and several other pieces of intricate molding. I couldn’t talk her out of it, so I learned how to make all those things, and the photo above is my adaptation of this dresser.
Studying Legendary woodworkers. I’m a sponge for any good woodworking content, but in particular I like to study the masters. I have studied noteworthy woodworkers such as Sam Maloof, James Krenov, Tage Frid, and George Nakashima, and have incorporated several design ideas or joinery techniques through exposure to their work from tours, lectures, books, magazine articles and videos. The photo above is a cabinet that I built after reading “The Impractical Cabinetmaker” by James Krenov. Krenov’s message on the abandonment of practicality in pursuit of artistic integrity challenged my efficient nature. There is nothing simple or practical about building in the Krenov style, and I would never have arrived at this cabinet design without the inspirational nudge from Krenov’s work. And once you build to a Krenov tolerance, there is no returning. You adopt a mindset that influences everything that you produce in the shop from that day forward.
I encourage you to continuously seek out your inspirations, push yourself, and explore this amazing craft with a reckless abandon.
To see more work from Paul Mayer, check out the ToolMetrix YouTube channel.