Michael Robbins is a designer who calls himself not a designer. He define himself as a woodworker or furniture maker and his pieces reflect this way of self-awareness. His furniture has nothing to with styling. It´s simple, honest, useful and because of this are his products so beautiful. Robbins process is a faithful one, the furniture is produced in small quantities, shaped and joined by hand, using wood from sustainable forestry practices. In an interview gave me Michael Robbins some answers about his work, his understanding of the design process and the nontraditional training he absolved before he started to build furniture.
Hi, please tell me a little bit about you and your work
I run a small furniture studio under my name, Michael Robbins, that is based out of New York's Hudson Valley. In an old barn I design and build wooden furniture, there's a heavy emphasis on seating at the moment, but my floor lamps and dining tables are increasing their presence as we speak.
Is there a concept behind your work?
Three- simplicity, utility, beauty
How important is the craftsmanship in your work?
Probably the most important thing along with design. I think the two go hand in hand. I see a lot of furniture that is impeccably built, maybe almost too well built.....but the design is something that is reminiscent of the Queen Anne era. Not that there is anything wrong with Queen Anne furniture, but that look evokes a certain kind of boredom for me. Most of my chairs rely solely on the joinery, so craftsmanship and the fitting of the joint is of the utmost importance to me.
You run your own little factory. What factors are critical to sell design in the USA?
Working hard to promote your work, getting it out there to the public, believing that you're doing something different and being honest about it. These are all things I'm in the process of doing.....I think another big factor is longevity, keep doing what you're doing.
You produce only a small palette of furniture. What criteria are important
for you if you create a new piece?
A lot of the chairs reference and speak to one another, there is a dialogue that I enjoy between most of my pieces, and that dialogue often naturally informs the newest pieces, sometimes almost subconsciously.... early in the morning, sometimes while walking the dogs in the woods....the relationship to my work is directly informed through how I live my life.
What works differently in mass production and the creation of a single-item and which way of production do you prefer? Mass production usually means large machines are involved and the human hand is reduced to a lesser skilled task. A single item can be a soup ladle that is carved with a gouge at the end of the day. This can take place in a humble shop or under a tarp in the middle of winter. There is a beauty and personality to most things made this way. The imperfectness is in fact a blessing.
Do you prefer a special material?
White Ash is a beautiful wood, and of course Black Walnut has a wonderful smell and depth to it, and tends to work quite nicely, many relate the workability of walnut to that of butter.
Do you have your favorite piece? And why?
I've always loved the success of the sack back Windsor. It's a chair's chair if you know what I mean.... Nakashima's straight back chair ranks high on the list for me as well. It's hard to do better than that!
Design for the individual or for the mass?
Not sure yet.
Where and how you were trained, and how has the training influenced you and your work?
In my early twenties I worked on trail crews in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, building log bridges, log steps..mostly with axes. This was a wonderful introduction to being alone in the forest with only a couple of tools....on your knees, in the rain chopping a white pine log, its a memory I'm not likely to forget. From here I went to work with a very skilled carpenter on a timber frame house in the mountains of Vermont. This was a tiny house by modern standards, and the project lasted for nearly seven years. Of the many things I learned here, the most important was that there is a right way to do something....and that it may take you ten times of failing to get there, but it exists. From there I went out to New Mexico to build a traditional adobe house and shortly after that I bought a lathe and began to teach myself how to make chairs.
What is your inspiration? Do you have any icons or role models?
John Brown, the Welsh chair maker, Roy McMakin's gift of color, farm furniture of the olde days....
What does it mean to you, being a designer?
I tend to identify with myself as a woodworker or furniture maker. I know I am a designer to many people, but I still find that title a bit hard to accept for whatever reason.
What is for you the most important factor in the design process?
Seeing and moving and changing the design as the piece is being built, letting things flow and not being too set on anything.
How do you work and how has that changed?
I work alone most of the time...I prefer not to hear the sound of loud machines and am most happy fitting a joint with a chisel and a plane. I've become more confident in time, I work with more intuition and I am learning to accept the mistakes.
What does it mean to you to live and work in New York? Do you think your style is characterized by the city or a kind of typical American Style?
I live and work about two hours north of NYC. I am able to work in a rural barn and look outside at a forest where a lot of the same species of wood I use to make furniture have been growing for decades. Two of the largest Shaker villages are within an hours drive. Most of the sawyers I buy my wood from live over in the Catskill Mountains. Yet the market of the city is just a couple hours down the road. It's a great place to make furniture.
If you are not doing design what will you be doing?
Probably building adobe homes in New Mexico, or living a quiet simple life in a handmade shack. I've always wanted to raise sheep.