Interview with Furniture Maker Jason Lewis
About Jason Lewis
Jason lewis is a woodworker and designer, who runs a custom furniture studio in Chicago, Illinois. He produces and sells a line of his own original furniture designs, also working on custom fabrication projects for residential and commercial clients. Sometimes you’ll even find him designing for other furniture manufactures.
Interview date: 28th of June, 2013
Chicago based furniture designer and maker Jason Lewis featured on the site last year and it’s only now that we’ve got around to showcasing him properly. I was massively inspired by not only his finished pieces, but also his background as a craftsman and the way in which he approaches the design process.
He spent time as an apprentice to Bauhaus guru Berthold Schwaiger in Chicago, who’s an award-winning furniture master craftsman. Schwaiger unfortunately passed away in 2006, but he will be forever known for his complex engineering and elegant design, with a focus on displaying an even flow throughout each piece. For the last ten years Jason has been self-taught, focusing on simplicity throughout his design, and trying to make furniture that’s both beautiful and unique at the same time.
It’s always a pleasure to exchange with like-minded individuals, Jason has many of the same influences as what we have here on the site. Such as being inspired by mid-century designers, like Eames, Wegner and Finn Juhl, also taking inspiration from the Chicago area. As you may well know, there’s some amazing builders, fabricators, manufacturers, ranging from individual craftsmen to big hundred year old companies.
1. For those that don’t know, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I run a furniture design and production company in Chicago – I do a range of work from custom fabrication projects to pure design work for other manufacturers.
2. Furniture design and woodworking is not something that most people get in to, what’s your background and how did it become your passion?
I do have some background with woodworking from growing up, my dad had a home workshop and I would occasionally help him or build things of my own. I never thought of it as a career, but about 12 years ago I spent some time as an apprentice in a local custom woodworking shop and it stuck, I have been doing it full time ever since.
3. We know you use classic joinery techniques, why does this ‘old method’ appeal to you and what have you discovered through learning them?
Part of it is functional, those classic joinery techniques are just a really effective way to build solid wood furniture. Part of it is my background, starting out working and learning in a shop that used and taught that kind of stuff. I should say I am not a traditionalist as far as construction – I have the traditional technique as a baseline but am always interested in more efficient ways of producing something.
4. What goes through your mind when selecting wood to use for your furniture? Do you look for anything specific?
I just look for a quality of grain and color, and try to match the character of the wood to whatever I am working on.
5. Your works all have a stripped back quality about them, using only necessary elements and restricting the form to create something that’s both crafted but modern. Do you think there’s a balance between classic and something that’s a tad sterile, often seen in more contemporary furniture these days?
‘Sterile’ is probably in the eye of the beholder. But I think if you are drawn to designing things that are kind of simple and classic, you are fighting against doing something that is just boring. So you have to figure out a way to add something visual or tactile to give it some interest and draw people in.
6. What designers have influenced you over the years? Is there a particular era you draw from?
From early on I was influenced by midcentury furniture – Eames, Wegner, Finn Juhl, lots of others. Sam Maloof was a big influence as I really got going with woodworking and design – he is probably not as broadly known as those others but in the woodworking world he is huge.
7. You have some beautiful table and storage solutions, when you embark on a new project how do you begin the process. Do you traditionally start with sketches?
I usually start with a rough idea and maybe do a quick sketch mostly so I don’t forget it. I try to work out as much of the detail as possible in my head before I start really drawing it out. The functional constraints of the end product and the constraints of smart construction are always a big part of the design process.
8. Pretty much all of your pieces are functional, what’s your opinion on more sculptural forms that are rising in popularity?
I respond to a sculptural element in furniture, but for me personally a little goes a long way. And I think sculptural, dramatic forms are more beautiful when they can be functional at the same time.
9. Chicago seems like a unique place to be situated. You’ve obviously got all the famous design and architecture in the area, you also have a little hub of creators and makers. What particular elements of Chicago inspire you, could you point some out?
The community of people designing and building in Chicago is great – small enough to really foster personal connections but large enough to have a ton of variety. The history of Chicago is also really inspiring to me – not just the design/architectural tradition but the history of manufacturing, craftsmanship, construction.
10. I read that you were an apprentice to award-winning furniture designer and master craftsman Berthold Schwaiger. What would you say is the most important thing you learnt from Berthold?
Probably the he biggest education was just being thrown into a professional shop full time, learning technique but also just seeing the flow of work and the process of taking something from rough idea to finished product.
11. I like the fact that you don’t hold back when you build a piece of furniture, there’s quality running all the way through. No expense spared. Do you like this feeling of being able to make whatever you want, under your own terms?
There is something nice about doing the kind of work that is small enough to be able to build a given piece completely on my own from start to finish & having complete control, not like a movie or a building or something where there are necessarily lots of people and time involved. That said, there is always some expense spared, some concession made to efficiency of production or something. I try not to design things that are unnecessarily hard to make.
12. I see parallels between your work and that of Shaker design, for example the simplicity, quality and functionality. Are you inspired by them, if so what elements are most profound?
To me the powerful elements are the simplicity and proportions, and the way it all works together – the rooms, furniture, buildings. I do also find it interesting that this amazing timeless design is somehow an outgrowth of a deeper religious belief structure.
13. What are you working on at the moment, are there any projects that you can shed some light on?
At the moment I am doing a lot of fabrication work for a local company, tables and furniture built of locally reclaimed wood that will end up in retail & commercial spaces. I am also working on a rocking chair, I almost always have one of those on the schedule. And a custom commission for a valet chair, a piece that is an homage to Wegner’s iconic version but with my own spin on the details.
14. No doubt you’ve learnt some lessons over the years, what advice do you have for other individuals that want to get in to making?
I don’t know, hard for me to claim to impart much ‘wisdom’. I think if you want to get into it the most important thing is just to figure out a way to keep building things – for yourself, for other people, any way you can find to keep designing and making stuff. I think being continuously involved in that process is the best way to learn and grow as a craftsman or a designer.