Walt Swanson is an artist whose work you don’t hang on the wall or put on the shelf – his work is the shelf or the table or the bed or the seat. Swanson is a furniture maker whose work is nothing like you see at Art Van – it has warmth and personality and creativity. It’s work, like a great painting, that defines the room.
Swanson is a designer and furniture-maker whose interest in theatre set his creative side in motion at a young age. That creative side has appeared in different forms over the years – from acting to directing to carving out furniture and sculpture using wood, metal and imagination – but he uses all of his experiences as a farmer uses a plow.
For example, from his experience as a director and set designer, he sets out to create furniture that adds presence to the room.
“For over 20 years I have been a designer and maker of fine art furniture,” says Swanson, who recently moved his workshop from the UK to Ann Arbor. “Much of that time I was also a teacher of design and furniture making in England. What I learned from set design, that I try to apply to much of my work, is the idea of an ‘obstacle course.’ We go to the theatre to watch dramatic action, which by definition needs to have some sort of conflict. We want to see things going wrong, because life in harmony is pretty dull to watch. A good set design visually reflects the conflict in the play, and creates inconveniences – obstacles – that the actor walks around, leans on, hides behind, etc.”
Swanson says the furniture styles of today – like the ones you see at Art Van – have none of that.
“Sofas have straight, clean lines storage is the most efficient use of space; fashion and design are dictated by employing the lowest-skilled labor possible, wasting the least amount of materials, and making transportation as inexpensive as possible,” Swanson says. “That is the uncompromising starting point for all furniture designers.
“One-off furniture guys like me can’t compete with those economies of scale, so instead, I try to look for something different. I try to create visual obstacles. The chair will be comfortable, the dining table will seat the required number of guests, the storage unit will hold the desired items, but it likely will not be the most efficient use of space. To me, the greatest sign of luxury in a piece of furniture is that there is air around it – that one has the ability to enjoy it visually from a distance as it interacts with the other objects (characters) in the room.”
Swanson grew up in a small town in New Jersey and earned his MFA in Directing at Virginia Commonwealth University where he spent most of his time in the Sculpture and Dance Department and also where he met Graham Campbell. VCU is rated as one of the top three universities for fine art by US News & World Report among others and regularly beats out Yale and Art Institute of Chicago for the top spot.
It was an article in Atlantic Monthly on building pianos that piqued his interest in cabinet making, and he tried “unsuccessfully” to teach himself in the back shed.
Around that time, his brother, Joel, got his first lab at Harvard Medical School.
“He said that from his grant, he could commission me to build a lab table for $1,000,” Swanson said. “I immediately sought out Graham Campbell and said to him, ‘I’ll give you $1,000 if you’ll teach me how to build a lab table.’ Graham had been studying and teaching at the prestigious Wendell Castle School and had come to Richmond to get his MFA in Furniture Making.”
Swanson spent a year “hanging on his coat tails” and learning everything he could from Campbell.
The sister of his then-wife Jane bought a hill farm in northwest England and invited the Swansons to live in their trailer and become shepherds. “We jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “I picked up work as a school janitor and a part-time gig in a traditional joiner’s shop building doors and windows. We bought a small plot of land in the nearby valley and converted two barns into workshops for sculpture and furniture.”
Swanson eventually landed a job at Sedbergh School – a 500-year-old, Mr. Chips-style English boarding school – where he spent 15 years teaching design and furniture making.
In 2014, Swanson retired and moved to Ann Arbor where he now lives with his brother, Joel who has had a microbiology lab at the University of Michigan for 20 years. His parents also now live in Ann Arbor.
Swanson’s original designs are inspired from a wide range of styles, including Arts & Crafts, Shaker and Japan, and makers, particularly Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima and Sam Maloof.
He has built furniture from detailed architect’s drawings, from sketches on beer mats, and from everything in between. “Designing generally begins with a conversation about a problem or a need which includes an investigation of the space the piece will occupy, and a look at some style preferences,” says Swanson who doesn’t stock inventory – people select things from his portfolio which he can remake and/or tweak to specific needs and desires.
“As with most designers, I normally begin by trying to nail down the precise function of the piece. I look at the space it will occupy (who are the other characters are in the room), determine dimensional parameters, and discuss styles that the client likes. Then I dig deeper into the person commissioning the piece. This might lead me onto further research, and I will knock out a couple of design sketches which will be absolutely dreadful.”
But when he comes back to it, something has worked around in his subconscious and ideas of value begin to emerge.
“I develop a basic form and spend a lot of time playing with proportions and relationships among the components,” he said. “Eventually, I develop it into a formal proposal.”
He often takes the client to see John Haling who has a sawmill up near Whitmore Lake. “John has a genius for taking twisted, ugly logs and transforming them into the most beautiful live-edged slabs of wood,” he said. “Together, we will leaf through his inventory of boards and pick out a piece that will feature prominently in the project. I will then take these boards back to my workshop and meditate on how it might work its way into the furniture design.
“Then I start building.”
To see Swanson’s portfolio and for more information, log onto https://www.waltswanson.com/