There has been an explosion of young entrepreneurs along the West Coast that are not in dot-com or finance. These new waves of young business owners are embracing more traditional job paths that forgo IPOs and embrace craftsmanship and old-world skills. They are learning skill sets many fear would be forgotten, tweaking them with today’s technology but still preserving the time-honored tradition of producing finely crafted hand-made goods.
Luke Austin is one of these modern-day artisans and I got to spend the day with him at his Emeryville, CA workshop talking about his background, the craft and what is it about making furniture that drove him to leave the traditional path.
1) What brought you down this path to being a wood worker and craftsman? Did you go to a “traditional” college/university? What did you study? In today’s computer-centric focus, selecting a trade that relies on your hands is a bold decision.
My journey into woodworking began while I was in my senior year at San Francisco State University forcing myself to earn a degree in economics. I had always possessed an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to build and create, and I began fantasizing of a future in furniture design. However, acknowledging my aversion to school I decided to forgo a formal education in design and instead took a job as an apprentice woodworker with a local craftsperson in Emeryville, CA.
2) How did your parents react when you told them that you were becoming a woodworker and craftsman?
My mother has always been extremely supportive in every decision I have ever made and this one was no different. She was well aware that school and the “traditional” path had never been the answer for me. She was incredibly proud of me and my decision to forge my own way.
3) Why focus on wood? What intrinsic or aesthetic qualities about that materials/medium drew you to it?
Geez, what it is about wood?…It’s everything, it’s smell, it’s feel, it’s warmth; it comforts me just to touch and be near it. I grew up in Fairfax, CA just minutes from the Elliot Nature Preserve at the end of Cascade Drive where my brother and I spent most of our childhood immersing ourselves in nature, hiking through creeks and climbing Oak trees. Working with wood somehow reminds me of those days. It’s a material with a mind of it’s own and I enjoy the constant struggle to manipulate it beyond its natural state.
4) Many artisans seek inspiration from multiple avenues. Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any fellow American tradespeople whose work inspires you?
I seek much of my inspiration from many of the great designers of the 20th century: Saarinen, Wegner, Eames, Nakashima, Nelson. I look to nature and to our cities and geography. I draw from my fellow shop-mates gaining inspiration from their passion for furniture and wood.
5) Can you explain a little about the process of how you go about crafting a piece? How does technology play a role in what you do?
It depends on the piece, sometimes I’ll spend hours at the computer attempting to translate my ideas into three-dimensional objects, other times I just stare at the wood for hours trying to figure out what it wants become–cheesy I know, but often the wood itself dictates it’s final form–and there are certain pieces that you just have to dive right into and start cutting. My father used to have a saying, “once you jump, you can’t stop yourself, so you might as well jump.” He was usually referring to that act of literally jumping off a cliff into water below, and really it makes no sense, but when I find myself apprehensive to start a project, delaying that first cut for weeks or months, I finally just tell myself, “it’s time to jump.”
6) Are there particular types of furniture or items you enjoy making? If so, why?
I enjoy every day I spend in the shop, whether starting a project for the third time after messing up the first two, or sanding for 6 hours straight, headphones on lost in my own thoughts. I’m one of the lucky ones and I try my best not to forget it.
7) So does the saying of the “…cobblers children go unshod.” hold true for you? Do you ever make pieces for yourself and family?
I’ve built several pieces for my mom and brother over the years and a blanket chest for a friend’s wedding gift. Occasionally I will build something for myself, just simple objects, purely utilitarian.
8) If money was no object, is there a piece of [American] furniture that you would want to buy for yourself?
If money was no object I would love to own an original cabinet piece or slab table built by George Nakashima in Pennsylvania. Just recently I finally worked up the courage to begin exploring slab furniture; many people try, you can find it everywhere, but no one, save for his daughter, does it like the late Nakashima.
9) What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to get a custom piece of furniture made? What are the common mistakes/assumptions you find people make when coming to you?
Have a lot of patience and be willing to spend some money. Ha. But it’s true, custom furniture isn’t cheap and it shouldn’t be, and it takes a long time to build a single piece meant to last for decades.. People often make the mistake of assuming that we are in competition with the large chains, that we can build similar pieces at similar prices, saying things like, “I saw this piece at blankety blank, can you build it for less and have it delivered in a couple of weeks?” My reply: “I can build it for three times the price and it will be ready for delivery within a few months, give or take.” Truth is that more and more people are acquiring an appreciation for the industry, they want quality, they want one-of-a-kind, and they understand the value of handmade furniture. Can the large chains offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee?
10) Immanuel Kant once said, “The hand is the visible part of the brain…” As a craftsperson, you are bringing to life with you imagine, so what would you hope someone says when they look at a piece of your furniture or a craft you made?
My hope is that people will feel a connection to my work as I do. It’s not a piece of art to look at, to interpret, and analyze, furniture is meant to be used, to sit on and gather around. I want people to see a piece of my work and reach out and touch it, to say, “I want that to be a part of my home.”
Photography: Photo by Adza