Nova Scotia furniture maker Jonathan Otter on his studio, straight-grain, and the role that sketching plays in his work.
Q & A with Jonathan Otter
How long have you been building furniture?
Professional maker for nine years.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Starting to become known as a chair-maker, but really I take on commissions of all descriptions and sizes.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Solid wood or veneer?
Figured wood or straight-grain?
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Designed in a mid-century modern tone, this black cherry sideboard and hutch features dovetailed corners and unique, hand-carved drawer and door pulls.
The Best Part
Otter at work in one of his most satisfying occupations; finishing a chair.
Quotes from Jonathan Otter
"My studio is situated in a lovely rural setting in the hills of Nova Scotia that fosters my creativity. I work downstairs and we live upstairs in the loft. Plenty of natural light and wood heat in the winter makes a pleasant and efficient working environment."
"Working from home has its drawbacks, with distractions that would otherwise not exist, but I endeavour to be in the shop by 8:00 a.m., although I often start the day by answering emails or other office necessities."
"Many visitors express surprise at my lack of tools, but I have found that ingenuity and the dexterity of the human hand trumps a lot of sophisticated machinery."
"I recently acquired a massive Ulmia beech bench from a friend, customer and fellow craftsman who could no longer use it. It bears all the marks of his 40 years of woodworking and brings a special gravitas to my shop."
"A well-tuned spokeshave or a razor sharp smoothing plane bring me the most joy to work with."
"I have many sources of inspiration. Shaker, Art Deco, Modern, Danish and Italian might form the top five. The work of other makers also inspires me; in early days I did some blind reproduction of their work. Nowadays, I try to draw from their principles of design, perhaps pushing it further or using it in an entirely different form."
"I am constantly sketching ideas that come to me. I was a fair hand at drawing earlier in life; my skills were honed in high school, mostly in math or history class. From these bits of paper or my chalk board, I then shifted to the drafting board to make a scale drawing. Some of my customers request the signed original drawing and frame it as a piece of art in their home. Sometimes I make a life-size drawing on plywood, or even on the concrete floor in my shop."
"I believe I see a trend towards greater appreciation on the part of the public towards studio furniture making, and therefore the increase of small shops. I suppose technology will play its role, but I hope that traditional methods will thrive."
"The moment I love best is when the first coat of my pure linseed oil, tung oil and beeswax mixture is rubbed into the polished wood. I never tire of it. Next to that, the reaction of the customer when their piece is delivered."
"I encourage the young generation of makers to work first from established principles, instead of designing in your own vacuum. The best design, in my view, is predicated on earlier successes and asks for incremental improvements, rather than bold new ideas. As your confidence and thorough knowledge of the medium increase, inject more of your own preferences."
"Always keep your design simple, adhere to good proportion and allow the sculptural nature of wood to speak for itself."
"For the would-be furniture maker; the amount of work involved is the most misunderstood part of building furniture. To craft well is a labour intensive activity and you need to love the process because the remuneration can be scanty, especially as you’re establishing yourself. For the would-be customer, the most misunderstood part of hiring a maker is the amount of work involved. If you, the customer, gasp at a $1500 price tag for a chair, remember that you would likely not work as long and as hard for that amount of money."
"I find the limitations exerted by external factors such as pricing, customer preferences and delivery dates are the most frustrating part of the job."
"I love the design process at least as much as making the furniture."
"My J-Class Lounge Chair and Footstool was named as a finalist in the 2012 Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governors Masterworks Award. Using the classic continuous arm Windsor as a foundation, I lowered, stretched and widened it to become a very comfortable lounge ensemble, a form I had never seen done in the Windsor style. The flowing curves, the sculpted saddle, the beauty of black walnut and 10 hand-rubbed coats of pure oil make it a piece of free standing sculpture."
"I think Canada is becoming a more welcoming place to build, market and sell custom furniture. Many are beginning to understand the impact of planned obsolescence and are turning away from it."