Based out of a shared wood shop in Toronto’s west-end, independent furniture maker and designer Heidi Earnshaw creates unique handcrafted furniture by understanding our interaction with furniture and objects that enhance the rituals of our daily lives. Her beautifully designed and expertly crafted pieces elevate and enrich the spaces they inhabit.
Heidi speaks with Mason Journal to explain the process behind her craft, gives insight on how the tradition of furniture-making has created the industry today and how she sees the evolution of the design industry in Canada.
Mason Journal: What is your craft/discipline?
Heidi Earnshaw: Furniture designer/maker/woodworker
MJ: How would you describe your point of view, and how does this come through in your work?
HE: I am a maker. Everything I do outside of my studio– client meetings, exhibitions, teaching, book keeping – I do because I love to work with my hands. I love the physicality of woodworking and the satisfaction of transforming an idea into something tangible. Design for me is first and foremost about function, where meaning is generated through use and through the intimate physical interaction we have with furniture. My aim is to make useful and beautiful pieces that enhance the rituals of our daily lives. Most of the work I do is client generated so I’m always aware of the end user which prevents me from becoming too self-indulgent with an idea.
A few years ago a colleague coined the term “slow furniture”. As a play on the philosophy of the slow food movement, I thought this brilliantly described the kind of work that independent furniture makers produce. It is literally slow to build one piece of furniture at a time, but more than that the “slow” philosophy focuses on relationships, the environment and a long term view. Having a piece of furniture tailor made is an experience as well as a product and something enriching for both client and maker. I am also committed to using materials responsibly and to building with a multigenerational lifespan in mind.
MJ: Please describe your studio space, how it influences your work and supports your design process.
HE: My studio space is divided between my workshop and my home office.
Always a hive of activity, the workshop is a dusty and noisy space with wood and machines inhabiting every corner. It is a co-op shared by 5 business owners, our employees and a rotating group of interns. We share equipment and resources and often take part in the same exhibitions and fundraising events but most of the spontaneous conversations that take place are about tools and methods of work. At heart we are plaid wearing, George Nakashima loving woodworkers taking pleasure in a well-fitting joint or a particularly beautiful piece of wood.
By contrast, my office at home is a more personal and contemplative space that houses my library, my drafting table and a blank wall to draw and paint on.
For me, the process of design has always been intimately related to the making.
I studied Fine Art at university and discovered early on that I was more interested in the materials and the process than the concept or the outcome. I started woodworking as a means to earn money but immediately fell in love with the versatility of wood, the notion of craftsmanship and the discipline involved in mastering a single material.
MJ: Have you worked, travelled or studied outside of Canada? How have these experiences influenced your approach to design?
HE: I’ve been self-employed in my own studio for more than 15 years which has been mostly a blessing but occasionally a curse. It takes a huge commitment to develop a woodworking studio and the figurative and literal weight of it keeps me grounded here in to Toronto.
I have just signed an industrial design contract with a Belgian Furniture manufacturer that produces solid wood furniture for a global market. I have never considered pursuing an industrial design career but when this opportunity presented itself, I began to get excited about the potential of it. The company is headquartered in Belgium but manufactures in Vietnam, Indonesia and Serbia. I’m looking forward to visiting those places and seeing first hand an approach that begins from an entirely different perspective.
I also “travel” through books and am endlessly inspired by Japanese, Scandinavian and Shaker Design and all forms of traditional and contemporary wood architecture.
MJ: From your experience, how would you describe the Canadian design community as compared to an international field?
HE: Working mostly on commission, my business is very local so I‘ve only had a superficial exposure to the international community. However, most of my extended family still lives in Europe so when I visit and talk with them I hear similar concerns. There is a more structured system of apprenticeship in Europe that facilitates career opportunities but on the other hand, people feel less inclined or able to work independently.
MJ: How would you say your approach or your product speaks to a ‘Canadian’ vernacular?
HE: Here in Ontario in the 18th and 19th centuries there were few professional furniture makers so much of furniture we see in antique markets today was built by farmers and pioneers who by necessity were skilled at many different traditional crafts. In my recent work I have been looking to that tradition more and more, appreciating the simplicity and warmth of the vernacular interpretations of the more formal European styles. In a recent body of work called the Empire series, I in turn took elements from those pieces and distilled them even further so that only the essence of the original style remains.
I am humbled by the rich woodworking heritage we have in Canada and proud to be a part of it.
MJ: How would you like Canadian designers to be perceived on an international platform?
HE: I think Canadian designers are often stereotypically aligned with a rustic, lumberjack aesthetic. This isn’t a problem unique to Canadian designers. Of course our material culture has been shaped by our deep-seated relationship with nature but there is a lot of very subtle and sophisticated design going on that is overlooked because the story is more difficult to tell. As a young country we have always struggled to find a national identity and as culture and industry becomes more globalized I think this will become increasingly difficult.
Here at home our knowledge of design tends to be very regional. Most Torontonians know more about what is going on in Italy than they do about the community in BC for example. We don’t have national institutions that promote the Canadian design beyond our borders and most students wanting to pursuing a masters or PHD in design have to go abroad to do so.
MJ: Do you see any movements within the industry that can be described as unique to young Canadian Designers?
HE: What I see most is a cross-disciplinary approach that has grown exponentially in the last decade. Thanks to an uncertain economy young designers have little expectation of a stable, one-track career. This gives them the courage and the freedom to pursue different kinds of independent projects in a more collaborative way. Social media is also changing the way we engage with design and do business in all sectors and young designers are well prepared to find the advantages in this.
I think we do need to be concerned that we are losing expertise as it becomes more and more difficult for new graduates to start and maintain more specialized, hands on studios. I sat down with a metal working friend the other day that does fabrication for a number of artists in the city and he commented that many well respected and established artists and designers are working out of their living rooms and becoming more reliant on digital technology and sub-contractors to produce their work. I think there is a risk of homogeneity if we aren’t careful to maintain the in-depth material knowledge of craft based studios that fill the gap between hobbyists and industry.
MJ: Do you feel it’s important to be part of community events & organizations, and how has your involvement informed your process?
HE: I make a point of participating in a few exhibitions and fundraising events every year as a way of experimenting with new ideas and engaging new collaborators. I also mentor, teach and sit on juries, which is always inspiring and rewarding.
MJ: What new projects can we look forward to seeing from you next?
HE: I am currently working on a commission that is almost entirely made of brass. It has been a steep learning curve but I am totally enamored with it and I hope to make some smaller objects and accessories entirely in brass for an upcoming collection.
To learn more about Heidi Earnshaw and to see more of her work, visit www.heidiearnshawdesign.com