Chris Ericson is at home in Newfane. His one man shop has two rooms; one with machines, and one with a workbench. The shop, and the house right above, have been in his family for years.
A traveler himself, this place — the hillside, the property, its good energy, and memories — eventually won out. He settled down to make furniture. The spot is beautiful, in an active way; a reflection of the geography, and personality of the craftsman. “I love it here. I feel so rooted. And there’s a strong artist community,” he says. We’re standing in a circle around his bench, amidst branches and drawings and hand tools, admiring works in process.
Becoming: “I studied Industrial Design in College, at Syracuse. My senior thesis was a mountain bike.” No surprise, he graduated and headed west to a ski town. Would he design for the X-games? “In Jackson Hole, a ski buddy of mine had the idea to chase the winter down south. So we headed for Argentina. I fell in love with it,” he laughed, “and so I was pretty transient for a while.” Coming back to New England, working carpentry jobs, and heading out again. When his younger brother graduated from college, the two lit out together, riding motocycles from Vermont all the way down to Panama. Five months on the road.
He traveled to Indonesia; a trip that, as he put it, really tweaked his perspective. “I kind of arrived here from my time there. I learned what people could do with very little. Economy of space, a can-do attitude. In Indonesia, I saw people building these gorgeous pieces of furniture in these absurdly small spaces. It was there and then I said when I go home this time, I’m going to do furniture. That was in 1997, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” Ericson described all the travel as rude inspiration. “Especially in terms of the base ethic of we can do this, we can do this by hand. That sort of thing really imprinted on me.”
Made by Hand: Ericson’s furniture is distinguished by handwork, with lines and lightness that combine elements of Japanese and Shaker traditions. He prefers domestic wood (local is best!) and personally visits the mills to picks the most interesting pieces. That said, he’s been known to strap something with teeth to his pack (a chainsaw, a machete) and hike out to harvest a “blown down” maple, or the branches he incorporates in his work.
He makes his own handplanes, in the Krenov-tradition. “The narrow blade fits the hand,” he sets a sample out on the bench for us to see and hold. “As the years go on they get the patina from the time in the hand.” Each plane is a little different from the next, and works with certain grain formations. He shows us one that’s for shaping legs, with a flared blade, which he uses instead of a spokeshave. He shows us one built for one particular table, where the client wanted a particular rustic look.
“I love the look of toolmarks,” he continues. “You know, when you’re in a historic building and you look down at the bench and see the handplane marks. That’s cool. I like the subtle imperfections and the history that handwork leaves in a piece.”
His Process: We noticed the pin boards covered in drawings and sketches, and asked the furniture maker how he most likes to work. “It depends on the client and the project, I guess. But I like to have a rough outline. Sometimes I’ll take a full size drawing to the site and see how it fits and feels in the space.” The lattice work is a challenge. You’ll see a lot of it in Ericson’s portfolio, creating interest and adding character to his straightforward pieces, and further dimensionalizing his more artistic work. “The lattice process is a bit organic and it evolves as I go, which is fun for me, and fun for the client if they want to be involved that way.”
Wabi Sabi: Another element distinguishes Ericson from his peers is his keen interest in flaws and imperfections. The interplay between the refined and natural line is of particular interest, and featured in much of his work. “I’m inspired by Japanese furniture and architecture, but with a lighter aesthetic. I love the lines and admire the wabi sabi, treating an imperfection in something as a thing of beauty.” He shows us a pair of lamps in process. “This is so much more interesting to me than if it was perfect. I don’t see it as a flaw. I see it as unique potential.”
Ericson’s furniture will make you pause, and make you smile. It’s friendly, and full of reverence for the wood, the task and the process at hand. It reminds me of quote I read once. I think it was a guy named Pressfield. He said “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.” He urges artists not to cheat, to make their full contributions. To give it all they’ve got. You’ll get traditional joinery in Ericson’s work, and heirloom quality construction. But you’ll also get these incredible, original designs, and you’ll get the stuff that Pressfield’s talking about. The real heart and soul of it. It’s hard to compete with that. Just ask Gita.
Featured Work (top to bottom) Huck’s table. In my kitchen I have a number of things I’ve made with iron pulled from the river. The visiting clients saw “Fran’s table” and asked if I would build them a similar table but replace the branches with things from the river. The discarded iron was once banding around a giant wooden pipeline. Coffee Table Trio in Walnut and Cherry (link). Varied heights designed as a play off of a grouping of temples. Hanging Lamp (in Chris’s Kitchen) with lattice and branch detail. Silk Road Bed in Curly Walnut, Beech and Silk. Queen Size.
See more work from Chris on our site: http://www.vermontfurnituremakers.com/members/chris-ericson
Visit the studios of our other makers: http://www.vermontfurnituremakers.com/category/in-the-studio