For more than twenty years, William Stranger has been turning wood into beautiful furniture. Only, as he would be the first to tell you, it’s still wood — but not just wood. Rather, in Stranger’s capable hands, lumber that would otherwise be destined for the scrap heap gets a “Second Life” (the title of his recent exhibition at the Fifth Floor Gallery; his show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art was called “Second Growth”). In strong, straight lines, this second life contains and exhibits the first life: dents, knots, cracks and smudges are all preserved under a glossy finish — like beauty marks. To make a slightly ridiculous metaphor, it’s as though an agéd cowboy out of an Elmore Leonard novel came in from the dust to be anointed with linseed oil and placed in a gallery. Or in your living room. His work is, to put it mildly, eco-friendly.
Stranger is a decorated craftsman. He’s a member of the Woodworkers Guild of Southern California, the American Craft Council and the Furniture Society. For his Monolith Bench he won best design at Good Wood 2005, and an honorable mention at the Design Within Reach M+D+F competition for his Tava Lanes coffee table, pictured at left. He’s been exhibited and published all over the place, and he’s created several pieces in conjunction with Pasadena graphic designer Margi Denton.
After seeing his show at the Fifth Floor Gallery (which just ended, unfortunately), I asked Stranger a few questions about wood, work, woodwork, sustainability and the influence of Pasadena. For a chance to see his furniture for yourself, check out Stranger Furniture’s first-ever studio sale this weekend, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
You have said in interviews that you have no formal training. How did you find your way into the design and crafting of fine wood furniture? Why wood in particular?
When I came to L.A. in the early ’80s I found work on a construction site. I quickly discovered that I enjoyed working with my hands and that I was good at making things. After a year I borrowed some tools and went out on my own doing light construction. When I was asked if I could build some cabinets for a law office I said yes and then figured out how to do it. I learned a lot by reading and talking to other cabinet makers.
I started building more cabinets and eventually furniture. I have a natural inclination to work slowly and carefully. I very much enjoy the process of building a piece. I spent many years honing my skills and learning the art of fine joinery. My lack of training allowed me to develop my own processes. This was sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse.
At first my designs were driven by the process of construction. I was interested in exposed joinery and influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement. Living in Pasadena and being exposed to the work of Charles and Henry Greene played a role in this interest.
As I started to work with locally salvaged wood my deeper desire for simplicity and minimal form emerged. In the last few years my work has evolved to the point where the design is driven by the material.
The first time I saw a cherry board I fell in love with wood. Lumber embodies the life of the tree from which it came. The color, texture and smell of each wood that I work with are unique. When I have a fantastic slab of wood in the shop I don’t want to cut into it at all. My recent designs attempt to present the wood as close to its natural state as possible. And yet I am also drawn to the hard, straight lines of modernism. I try to explore this tension between the natural and man-made worlds. Wood is a wonderful medium to explore in.
“Sustainability” is a buzzword these days. One gets the feeling looking at your work, however, that you’ve been thinking about sustainability for some time. Has it always been a part of your practice? Has your relation to the word changed as it has entered more mainstream lexicons?
My awareness of my impact on the environment has grown over the years. For many years I have tried to live as lightly as possible. If You Love This Planet by Helen Caldicott had a huge influence on the way I practice my life.
When I first started using wood I had to think about the trees that were being cut down to make the lumber. I am committed to finding sources of wood that have as little impact on forests and to use materials and processes that harm the environment as little as possible.
As sustainability has entered the mainstream I have used it as a marketing strategy. My business naturally fits into this mold and I am able to reach clients who are interested in the sustainable aspects of my work. I do find that the word is used carelessly and its real meaning has been devalued by overuse. I like the attitude of McDonough and Braungart in Cradle to Cradle. They talk about going beyond sustainability and about completely changing the way we go about designing and making our world.
How do you choose your materials? When you get your hands on a potential new piece, what are the first things that run through your mind?
Most of the material comes from urban salvage. These are trees that are cut down for reasons other than making lumber. I salvage these logs and have them milled or buy them from small operations in L.A. or other parts of California. I also come across reclaimed wood from old buildings or construction projects.
Some pieces I get by chance, others I actively seek. Some projects are driven by the material, others I will design and then look for the right piece of wood. Often a particular shape or form will come directly from the material. An organic shape will be dictated by the outline of the board. Sometimes I will see a particular slab for the first time and a completed piece will emerge in my mind’s eye. This can be a very exciting moment. At other times I may have a piece for many years before I know what to do with it.
For me, at the Fifth Floor exhibition there was one especially striking moment. I was looking at the Tava Wall Hanging, which, like everything else there, has a beautiful, smooth finish. I stepped to the side, and the light hit it in a certain way, and suddenly I could see all the dings and dents and scratches, all the impressions from hurled bowling balls — the entire texture. This sudden contrast seems central to what you are doing — the life of the wood, the tension between organic shape and abstract form, the interdependences of human, object, world. Could you say something about this?
This piece is somewhat unique in that the surface of the lanes has been left unaltered. It is fascinating that the dents and flaws in the surface are only revealed from a certain angle. Most of my work incorporates finely sanded flat surfaces which contrast with knots, cracks and natural edges. In this piece the imperfect texture and the flat machined surface coexist in the same plane. I like your observation that this piece perfectly illustrates my notions about the interaction of the natural and man-made worlds.
You write in your design statement of “the necessity to be fully present” as what draws you to build furniture. How is that presence drawn out by working with wood,?
It is the attention that it takes to cut and shape and join the wood that requires me to be fully present. If my mind is wandering then the work will suffer. Some wise person talked about making things well the first time without having to go back and fix them: “Attention is a better glue.”
Do you have any special affinity for bowling alleys?
There’s a resonance between your work and some of Pasadena’s architectural history — the Greene & Greene houses, of course, and the whole Arts & Crafts aesthetic in general. How has living and working in Pasadena affected your work?
I’ve lived in Pasadena since 1986, and the main lasting influence of the Arts & Crafts movement on my work has been the ideas behind the movement rather than the forms or structures. For me, form follows function has become form is function. The use of joinery as decoration has given way in my work to the use of imperfection as decoration. This aesthetic actually goes back to the Japanese tradition of restraint and reverence for the natural world that influenced the Greene brothers.
For more on William Stranger, visit strangerfurniture.com. And don’t forget his studio sale, November 21 & 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 3202 E. Foothill Blvd #6H, Pasadena. Serious discounts are being offered.