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Saturday, January 18th, 2014

Furniture & Lighting: Father & Son

Saturday, January 18th, 2014: Arts, Design.


Family Legacy

My dad grew up making his own toys; as a young adult he experimented with art and music but settled into a career as a rocket scientist. Our first family home was furnished in midcentury modernist style: a sharp break from the antiques of my grandparents. While my dad’s lifelong need to work creatively with his hands found an outlet in a series of hobbies, the works that had the greatest impact on me were his furniture designs: two elegant modernist pieces that furnished my childhood bedroom and grad-school apartment.

But my dad himself was mostly absent, and my grandpa raised me to build practical things in a strictly functional vein, using the tools and materials at hand, “cutting corners” whenever possible to save money and effort. I went to college in Chicago, where I was surrounded and inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s functionalist architectural legacy, and in my third year, when I rented my first unfurnished apartment, I began designing and making my own furniture and lighting.

Dad’s Furniture

My dad’s “golden year” between college and marriage had been spent in the bohemian milieu of Chicago’s postwar jazz scene, hanging out in clubs and occasionally jamming with the cool cats, so it’s not surprising that both of his furniture designs had to do with music.

He didn’t have any experience with, or tools for, fine cabinetry, so he drew up the plans for these pieces and hired a local cabinet-maker to build them. Unfortunately, when we were younger, we took them for granted and didn’t realize how special they were. My brother eventually inherited the bookcase, and sold it decades ago. I unloaded the hifi cabinet on a roommate when I moved into a group house after grad school. And none of us, including Dad, ever thought to photograph these priceless works, so the only photos I have show them unintentionally in the background, obscured by less important stuff.

Music Bookcase

More a work of art than a piece of functional furniture, this irregularly stepped pyramid was sheathed in golden veneer, probably maple, and made to house a vintage phonograph in the compartment at lower right, with a door which swung downward, forming a shelf for your 78 rpm records. The records themselves could be stored in the specially-sized cavity below. Ironically, this piece of furniture was finished just as 78s became obsolete and the hifi revolution began, so my dad’s next furniture design had to address that new challenge.


Hifi Cabinet

With the explosion of long-playing 33 1/3 LP records, Dad surrendered to his passion for music and transformed our living room into a listening environment, with two large pieces of furniture custom-designed to house a Heathkit high fidelity audio system and his growing collection of jazz and world music.

The massive speaker cabinet took up most of a wall by itself, but the tall, futuristic hifi cabinet served as a room divider, with its upper record compartment and cantilevered preamp shelf supported on columns of shimmering copper tubing. Whereas the earlier bookcase design was a modernist echo of ancient monumental architecture, the hifi cabinet looked like an apartment building of the future. The record storage and amplifier compartments were all enclosed behind sliding doors to protect them from dust, while the record-changer turntable sat in the open between the copper columns.

I was 5 years old when this was created, and I helped my dad assemble the audio components, which came as a kit. The resistors for the preamp looked like colorful jewelry; when the power amp was completed and turned on, vacuum tubes glowed with a mysterious blue light inside their metal cage with its elegant perforated patterns.


Max’s Furniture & Lighting

I was poorer than most students at the University of Chicago, and I had been taught to make what I needed. So when I needed to furnish an apartment, I began scavenging the alleys and dumpsters of our Southside neighborhood for promising materials. I designed functional items partly on the basis of salvage, and partly using the cheapest building materials from hardware stores and lumber yards, including raw timbers I sourced from a country sawmill back home in Indiana. Neighbors tended to hate me because I ran my grandpa’s circular saw on the back stairs.

Like van der Rohe, I wanted to foreground the structure of each piece, minimizing the materials used, bolting the unit together for easy disassembly and transport, and completely omitting decoration. The shelving units were the purest example of this; my road sign tables were more whimsical.

Small Room Divider Shelves

Talk about minimal materials! This lightweight unit made of cheap, common pine with long cantilevers on both ends became surprisingly stable when bolted together and weighted with books and knick-knacks, because the support columns were made from 1x2s glued together to form a rigid L-shaped cross section. I made it in 1972, but recently discovered a similar piece from 1981 by the celebrated Italian designer Andrea Branzi in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Glass-Top Table and Pipe Lamp

On a scavenging trip to the famous Maxwell Street Market, I scored about a hundred pounds of heavy thermal glass intended for oven doors, and designed this table to accommodate one of the panes, framed in cheap pine painted black. And in our back alley I found a small but heavy piece of cylindrical steel stock, which I used as a base for this lamp. The problem with basing a design on salvage is that you sometimes have lots of trouble sourcing the right materials to finish it. I needed some sort of “sleeve” of the perfect inner and outer diameter to hold the pipe in the steel cylinder base, and that took me to an industrial rubber company on the far west side; the unique mirrored light bulb came from a boutique distributor on Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile.”


Drawing Desk & Chair

I was scrambling for work in a depressed economy in the summer of 1972. One attempt was at graphic design; I answered a call for cover designs for a new magazine, and created this desk and three-legged chair to work on it. The desk was made of common pine and masonite, with a hinged drawing surface which could be raised to the proper angle.

The chair had a leather-covered foam seat cushion and a tiny back support, also foam-padded and leather-covered, that was hinged to conform to the angle of your back. Unlike today’s fancy ergonomic chairs, it was all made with the cheapest and most common materials from our neighborhood hardware store.


Large Room Divider Shelves

When I transferred to engineering school and began to get paying jobs, we moved to a nicer apartment on the North Side, but it still had a combined living room and kitchen, so I created this massive shelving unit, based on my earlier design, to hide the kitchen, which we barely used, from our bright and airy living area. The cantilevered shelves were reinforced by longitudinal “joists” so they could support the weight of a TV or aquarium, and the vertical columns had a T cross section for extra rigidity. But like the smaller shelves, the whole thing could be quickly dismantled and stacked compactly for transport.


Road Sign Tables

On a visit to Indiana I found these unused road signs and quickly turned them into personal tables which we used for dining in (mostly breakfast, since we usually went out for dinner). The eccentricity of the signs inspired me to make them asymmetrical in height.


Rolled-Foam Sofa

I made this airy sofa by rolling sheets of foam around three longitudinal cores of pine and sheathing them in fabric. Note the Nelson-style midcentury coffee table I found at a garage sale.

Terra Incognita Loft

By the time I moved into this vast raw industrial space, my aesthetic had become much more nuanced, my standards more demanding, and most of my construction efforts went into building out the space itself.

But once the space was fully built out (it had to be done twice), it seemed like I was driven to continue building something, no matter how small in scale, at least once a year, and it’s been like that ever since.

Cabinet Steps

These cubist cabinets formed steps to the sleeping loft of our guest room. I covered each step with industrial carpeting in a charcoal blend.


Stairs to DJ Deck

This little gem was designed with small bevels between the stringers and the steps, which I painted in random pastel colors to liven up our otherwise stark black and white interior.


Firewood Bed and Street Lamp

During my years in the loft I’d evolved from sleeping on a ledge above my art studio, to moving my girlfriend’s bed into the studio, to breaking up with her and taking another room as my studio in the last year, when I finally decided to build my own ultimate bed. My heart belonged to the desert at this point, and I wanted my bed to feel anchored in the earth, albeit I was two floors up above San Francisco in a building that was slowly disintegrating. I started with oak logs from our firewood stash for legs, built a rigid frame of 2×6 douglas fir with a platform of 5/8-inch clear plywood, and sheathed the sides with redwood. I¬†joined everything together with wooden pegs and glue so there was no metal anywhere in the bed. On top of the firm plywood platform I placed heavy Japanese tatami mats, and the sleeping surface was a combination wool and cotton futon. It all weighed a ton, but could be dismantled into pieces, including the solid frame, each of which could be carried by one person. So I continued to take it with me to most of the 15 different places I’ve lived in since then, and like some other beds I’ve known, this dream bed has always been a rich source of memorable dreams, including the dreams I still have of my vanished San Francisco loft.

A few years later when I was living in Oakland, I found two roughly triangular pieces of heavy redwood burl, which I attached to the head of the bed as wing tables, again using wooden pegs, but removable.


Hybrid Desk/Table

This piece began with a laminated drawing table top which I found lying around in Oakland. Shortly afterward I discovered these turned redwood pieces which had actually hung as decorations from a Victorian stairway, and added them as detachable legs. I liked the contrast between the synthetic, minimalist table top and the ornate, organic legs. After using it for years as a desk then as a kitchen table, I ultimately transformed it into my current music workstation here in New Mexico, with speaker stands above and a sliding keyboard shelf underneath.


What I’ve Learned About Furniture & Lighting

I feel so lucky to have been born into midcentury design and organic abstraction! The abstract organic patterns of my parents’ living room curtains were an inspiration for the forms in my later art. And my parents’ living room furniture set the standard for the furniture I love today.

I’m allergic to house dust, molds and pollens, and all surfaces in my home need to be easy to clean and free of clutter. Carpet, which both collects and produces dust, has always been taboo. But even more importantly, experience has taught me that no home is permanent and all my possessions need to be portable.

Hence I love midcentury furniture with its lightweight frames and spindly legs that make it easy to move and clean around and under. I like my interiors to resemble comfortable campsites.

The camping aesthetic extends to lighting, which I’m even more passionate about, since it sets the mood of an interior.

Ceiling light fixtures and chandeliers are an abomination because they impersonate the sun and turn night into a false day. Our bodies evolved with natural overhead lighting that rose, waxed, waned and set with the sun, to be followed by the ground-level light of a campfire, so I make sure that my ambient lighting is positioned low in the room (see photo below).

Whereas lighting designers tend to make lamps into fetish objects, I prefer to downplay the design of the lamp and focus on the light itself and the way it affects the environment. Indirect lighting bounces the light off a wall, so it takes on the warmth of the wall color and more closely simulates campfire light. Task lighting at a desk or table is the only kind of downward-pointing light I use.

Because I’m no longer interested in designing lamps as objects, I mostly use cheap industrial clip lights for indirect ambient lighting. But when I opened my office in San Francisco’s North Beach during the dot com boom, I acquired a set of reproduction 19th-century pharmacy lamps which are adjustable and very versatile for producing the kind of reflected, campfire-style lighting I love to live with.

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