James Esworthy, from Vancouver, British Columbia, on graceful curves and careful use of veneer separate this west coast studio furniture maker from the crowd.
Q & A with James Esworthy
How long have you been building furniture?
On my own since 2000 and in the workforce since 1986.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Solid wood or veneer?
Both have their appropriate uses, no need to discriminate.
Figured wood or straight grain?
I hate furniture that uses flashy wood to carry off a less than stellar design. I hate how people see that and still love it. Straight grain can also give an air of sophistication. There is no right or wrong answer. The whole approach is necessary. The design has to incorporate form, scale, purpose and context of environment.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I’m not a tool collector. I have the same tools I bought as an apprentice. Buy the best quality you can afford, learn to sharpen (this includes hammers and screwdrivers!) and never lend. Never lend. And never borrow.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Graceful lines don’t get graceful by accident, whether straight or curved. I think the computer makes us all stupid. It’s good at drawing straight lines and that’s what lazy designers specialize in.
Esworthy has got a lot of mileage from his “Diamond Cabinet” design, which is a favourite of many clients. (Photo by Ken Mayer)
Simple, but Strong
Karelian birch cabinet. (Photo by James Esworthy)
Silverware Case (Photo by Ken Mayer)
Quotes from James Esworthy
My shop is in an old warehouse converted to artist studios. We have a yearly open house, known as the Eastside Culture Crawl (culturecrawl.ca) which introduces people to over 400 artists and craftspeople.
Commission work starts with a phone call then a visit with the client. I listen to what the customer wants. Asking questions is key, as are brief measurements and sizing up where the new piece will be living. I take note of architectural details to incorporate them into the design and make quick sketches of important details. The second meeting is usually at my shop. I’ll have a more polished drawing. The client can see my shop firsthand. I introduce them to the air nozzle when they leave; they seem to like that. I like to make the client feel like they are involved in the process. Send them update photos by email and even take them to the hardwood distributor to see and choose the wood for their project.
My advice to up-and-coming makers would be that there is more room to be noticed by not following trends. Find interesting techniques and capitalize on them.
It takes so many years of experience to be a cabinetmaker. It’s not like other trades. A plumber or electrician can demand high money after five years and get it. No one even questions it. Cabinetmaking can take 2–3 times the amount of experience to be considered good and then there is still the grumbling over the relative hourly costs. Drives me crazy!
Regarding the public’s lack of knowledge of custom furniture, I think it is our own fault. We tend to be solitary people and not co-mingle with each other. If we freely gave our time and energy to local furniture guilds and societies there would be a huge return here. Shows arising from competitions and the sharing of experiences and knowledge would be two of the benefits.
Down the road, only the wealthiest in society will be able to afford custom-made products. There will be a stronger trend towards buying local, and having a start-to-finish experience will be so rare it will become the selling feature.
Being a studio furniture maker, and an entrepreneur, I have to be in salesman mode all the time. That’s the hardest part of my job.
My “Diamond Cabinet” is a piece people loved. I’ve got a lot of mileage out of it.