There’s nothing like a handcrafted piece of furniture – every grain of the wood can tell a unique story. We recently had the chance to visit Gabe Sutton at his studio just outside of Portland, Maine, who believes just that. The self-taught craftsman is a part of the west elm LOCAL assortment at our first store in the coastal state. When asked how he got into the furniture making business – “I’m from a family of artists + craftsmen that had heavy influence on my journey. I grew up surrounded by family antiques that had been made by my great great grandfather, my grandfather or my father. It’s that creativity that’s been instilled in me from the beginning.” Tour this LOCAL craftsman’s studio below + learn how the art of woodworking has inspired his pieces.
How did you get into the furniture making business?
When I was twenty I moved to North Carolina and got a job installing hardwood floors. It was the first time I was exposed to working wood and applying it to the building industry. I loved the interaction between builder and client and was the first time I felt pride in what I accomplished during a working day.
Tell us about your studio space.
My current shop is at home in a converted, oversized two car garage. It’s a cozy space that’s easy to heat during the long Maine winters. I have a collection of dependable machines and some fine hand tools, some of which I’ve made over the years. Interweaving my life with my work is important to me.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
It starts with coffee and maybe a surf. Clearing the mind is important. Part of the enjoyment of furniture making, is that every day is different. One day I’m running my jointer, milling stock. The next, I’m sawing veneer or cutting joints. Some days I just sand for eight to ten hours. To this day, I’m still fascinated with every process it takes to complete one piece of furniture.
Tell us about your design and manufacturing process. Any special techniques you use?
For me, the most important aspect of design, is the ability for a piece to function. After that, ornamentation can come play. Typically I start with a simple, scaled drawing that I might do ten times. I then pick out the wood that I feel best suits that piece. I love sawing veneer from beautiful pieces of wood and creating patterns that give a piece texture. Sometimes I use a contrasting wood species if I’m feeling bold and sometimes i use the same species, but alternating the grain direction for a subtle effect.
What (or who) inspires you the most?
Inspiration for me changes constantly. One day I might be inspired by an antique danish piece, the next, I’m inspired by a japanese kimono. Sometimes I look at a building and get inspired by an architectural detail. We’re surrounded by so much beauty in this world that is easily overlooked. I try to soak in as much as possible.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
Being a furniture maker in America is really exciting right now. There’s a lot of energy and ambition to make great products. It took a while for the gears to start turning. When I started my business in the early 2000s it was hard to keep a steady flow of work going and find the clients it takes to support custom furniture. I’m glad I stuck it out. I think, in our current economy, the creative arts and crafts is a large part of the engine and I’m proud to be part of it.
Why do you love the Maine area?
Moving to maine was the best thing I did for myself. I found a great community of friends and like minded people. There’s great support for arts and crafts all through out New England. We have instant access to local farms that grow organic produce and raise free range live stock. I live about five minutes from the beach, where I surf as much as possible. It’s a very peaceful, healthy way of life here. I feel grateful to be here during these confusing times we live in.
What’s next for you?
I’ve always been drawn to japanese art and craft. I admire there philosophy and ability to turn something mundane into a thing of beauty. One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is an old japanese farm coat called “boro” that is sewn together from scraps of indigo fabric. It inspired me to do a series of wall panels with different patterns, using sawn veneer. Maybe, if furniture slows down, I’ll find the time to make it.