Kathryn Miller on CNC routers, digital modeling and the importance of maker spaces.
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Q & A with Kathryn Miller
How long have you been building furniture?
The first furniture piece I remember building was a futon frame for my apartment: I was probably 20 at the time. I couldn’t afford to buy one. Since then my apartments and houses have been filled with furniture I have made or altered in some way.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Functional art pieces.
Tell us a couple interesting things about your personal life.
Last fall, my partner and I decided to put all of our belongings in storage, bought a motorhome and hit the road. Our journey has taken us to 30 states and continues across Canada
If you were not a furniture maker what would you be?
I think I would be a house flipper. I love to see transformation from rough to refined.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Metaphorically, my number one is YouTube. Google and YouTube have absolutely transformed how we learn. Number two is persistence; I almost never give up. The third item is patience; if you have to try as hard as I do, you need a lot of patience.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
I respect all tools and use both hand and power tools in every piece that I make.
Solid wood or veneer?
Figured wood or straight grain?
Again I say yes to both. Straight grain offers a calming contrast to figured woods. And figured woods add interest where straight grains would be boring.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I’m going new with this one, Veritas just does it right
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
I could never choose between flowing curves or geometric shapes. My work always includes both.
English walnut is my favourite wood at the moment; the colours can be absolutely stunning.
Least favourite wood?
I risk being unpopular here but I have never liked the look of oak.
This chair pushed Miller’s skill level in many ways. Modeling the piece in 3D was complicated; the ovular chair body swivels on a circular pedestal and is capped by a multi-angled, multi-radius arm rest.
Where the Jewelled Things Are
The inspiration for this wall hung jewelry cabinet was the tangled mess of necklaces found in Miller’s partner’s drawer. It is a place for precious things, and everything has a spot.
The most challenging part of this build for Miller was figuring out how to make a double-tapering, single-piece lampshade. "The answer came to me in Barcelona, where I saw a table made by Gaudi. Straight metal bars angled from the top of the table down to a ring at the bottom created a taper towards the center. If I wove something between the bars, or in my case strings, it would give the shape I wanted," said Miller. "That led me to using wool, and the sweater lamp came to be."
Quotes from Kathryn Miller
Until recently I was a member of MakerLabs, a shared maker space in Vancouver. The building was filled with creative people churning out projects. I had 150 sq. ft. of private studio space and access to all of the tools in the large woodshop.
My work routine had been to go to my paying job in the morning and then take a bus to my studio for the afternoon. Once there I would quickly look in the wood shop to see which tools were being used, and this would determine how I would start my work.
My favourite tool by far is the CNC router, but I also hate it. It is so noisy, big, heavy and expensive. The flip side is that it is perfect and fast. My mid-sized plunge router is my favourite handheld power tool.
Inspiration is everywhere, but often we become blind to our daily situation, missing amazing beauty in so many things.
If my furniture could talk it would literally say “She tried,” or “She sure doesn’t know how to take the easy route, does she?”
The Pacific Northwest and Vancouver itself have a huge influence on my design aesthetic. I like modern design, simple and sleek.
Sometimes my designs start as a napkin sketch or a small clay model but often I jump straight to designing on the computer.
Learn to model digitally in 3D.
My designs don’t usually fall short of my expectations, but sometimes my execution does. I think it comes from being a perfectionist and a relative novice.
Most mass-produced furniture looks tired to me no matter what style. But we can do better. We just have to use our imaginations and take risks.
I’m not really a fan of exposed joinery and don’t usually use it in my work.
I have only ever done speculative work, but could be open to commissioned artistic work. Usually when people commission a piece of furniture they have a pretty good idea of what they want; building something like that doesn’t interest me.
I was once a woodworking hack with a jigsaw, a drill and some screws. Using these simple tools, I built many pieces of furniture for my home over the years.
If we want to bring young people into woodworking we need to create shared community-based public workspaces. Young people want to make, but owning decent tools and finding available space are huge barriers to entry. I believe maker spaces are as important as a hockey rink and a library. Maker spaces foster cross-generational relationships within a community in a way that other spaces do not. Young people are technology savvy and can teach older people how to use 3D printers, CNC routers and laser cutters; older folks are often highly skilled craftspeople who can teach young people proper joinery techniques, tool maintenance and much more.
Wharton Esherick’s library ladder is a really cool piece.
Technology will drastically change studio furniture making over the next 50 years. Within the next ten, most shops will use CNC routers and laser cutters.
Solving the puzzle is the most fulfilling part of building studio furniture. When I create a design, I never know if I will be able to make it work in reality.
The sweater lamp is the piece of furniture that I am most proud of. It's elegant and minimal while still having intriguing texture and form.
I encourage community leaders to provide funding for public maker spaces, and I encourage makers to become community leaders. The arts can only flourish if there is a collective will to support them. Finally, I would encourage people to simply make things just for the joy of making. Be bold, be creative and make your own designs. Stickley has been done; Do You.
December January 2019