Peter Coolican, from Toronto, ON, on Shaker design, exotic wood and falling short of his expectations.
Q & A with Peter Coolican
How long have you been building furniture?
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Small-batch furniture, shaker/mid-century inspired, solid wood, mostly seating.
Tell us a couple interesting things about your personal life
I love mountains and lakes. The further I am from my phone and a computer the happier I am. I’ve recently become a little manic about rock climbing.
If you were not a furniture maker what would you be?
If I weren’t making furniture I think I’d be a behavioural economist. How and why people make the choices they do is really intriguing.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Pencil, 6″ square ruler, and Olfa knife get the most use for sure.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Hand tools, as long as they are the most efficient tool for the job.
Solid wood or veneer?
Figured wood or straight grain?
Straight grain. Form and function over spectacle.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
The Sweetheart for sure. I have an old set of EA Berg’s that I hold near and dear.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Geometric shapes. A lot of poor design is camouflaged behind curves.
Least favourite wood?
His proudest piece, and the first piece designed for Coolican & Company, Coolican said the design of this stool is what has inspired much of what he builds and sells today. At first, the seat was made with hand tools. Then a series of router jigs took over. Now, the seat is made on a 5-axis CNC router. (Photo by Ryan Nangreaves)
Simple and Stylish
Coolican has been heavily inspired by Shaker furniture, with its simple lines and focus on function. He also adds beautiful details, like a brass pin to lock a tenon in its mortise, as well as a beautiful and smooth finish. (Photo by Ryan Nangreaves)
Heavily inspired by Shaker furniture, the hand-woven Danish cord seat takes about 10 hours to complete and is made up of about 600' of cord. It’s woven top and bottom, so it looks great when it’s hung upside-down from its lower back stretcher. (Photo by Ryan Nangreaves)
Quotes from Peter Coolican
Coolican & Company is currently a three-person operation, with Chris Jackson behind the scenes managing our sales and Nate Clarke and myself in the shop. We’re located in Toronto’s Lower Junction neighbourhood – one of the last bastions of art, craft and small scale manufacturing in the city. We have 20’- plus ceilings and enormous clerestory windows.
The routine has changed a lot since I’ve shifted away from custom work and towards the line of small batch products.
Small-batch work and a growing team, have forced me to be a lot more organized. That means more time behind a desk and less behind the workbench, which is both a blessing and a curse.
A jig allows a tool to do something that it wasn’t specifically designed to do. It’s a great creative exercise to problem solve within such defined constraints, and it can be very rewarding.
I get a lot of inspiration from the Shakers. I really appreciate their approach to design.
At the end of the day, I want to be proud of my work, and the broadest measure of this is whether or not I can earnestly appreciate living with a piece of my own.
I much prefer speculative work because it requires a lot less email. My designs often fall short of my expectations. It’s a part of my process. I’ve scrapped a lot of nearly finished prototypes because they just didn’t make the cut for any number of reasons.
Policing bad design is exhausting. I’d rather spend my energy bringing good design into the world and trying to educate consumers about quality.
A lot of woodworkers get carried away with roundovers and chamfers. Sometimes an edge should look like an edge. Give it a light chamfer and then leave it be.
The switch from custom work to small batch was a big change. The small-batch line really puts the focus on refined design, and really refined processes in the shop.
We need to cultivate a demand for quality goods to help create jobs for young designers and craftspeople.
“So you’re a carpenter?” or “so you build kitchens?” I get those questions a lot. The majority of Canadians don’t know that you can buy furniture that isn’t mass produced.
Fortunately, the growing ‘maker culture’ is teaching the public that we exist, and Canada’s growing presence in the international design community is generating awareness.
One piece I really like is Heidi Earnshaw’s Butler Sideboard. It combined white oak, brass and marble in a very understated, well-proportioned piece.
I do think that the trend away from exotic and endangered species is definitely a good thing.
I think I’m most proud of my Palmerston stool. It’s a simple stool, with a faceted top and wedged through-tenon joinery. The first one was a speculative piece, and while it’s gone through a few design iterations since then, I’ve more or less built a company around it.
Ron Barter at Rosewood Studio is the easy answer. He is a phenomenal instructor. The skills I learnt from Ron are the only reason I’m able to do what I do.
I think Canadians see ‘custom’ as ostentatious.