There are no shortage of landmark coming-of-age moments in a man’s life. There’s your first kiss, learning to drive, graduating from high school. Inevitably, there also comes a time in a man’s life where he doesn’t want every piece of furniture in his house to be from Ikea. Sure, there’s a certain novelty in owning a chair whose name includes six or seven consonants and just one vowel. But there is only so much can be done with furniture that needs to be assembeled with that damn Allen wrench.
The next step tends to be toward stores like Crate & Barrel or Design Within Reach, which you quickly realize isn’t the least bit within reach. Not to take anything way from those brands, but while the quality may be better than your entry-level furniture, it’s still tough to express your own individual taste when you’re dealing with the same furniture that everyone in the world has access to. Even more than one’s clothes, the furniture a man chooses to place in his home is reflective of his personality, if only because he’s likely going to own that couch a lot longer than the pair of sneakers he copped last Saturday.
That’s what makes independent furniture designers like Sean Woolsey so awesome. Woolsey grew up skating and making his own ramps and then worked in fashion before launching his eponymous line of tables, desks, and other furniture that is now sold through outlets like WorkOf. He is obsessed with making things by hand and the care and idiosyncratic details that come with that process lends itself to pieces that you feel a stronger attachment to. The fact that you can also, to be frank, beat the shit out of them, and they still look awesome is a nice bonus. There’s also a strong sense of fun that runs through Woolsey’s creations, such as a dining table that doubles as a ping pong table, or vice versa depending on your priorities.
We spoke with Woolsey to find out what led him to furniture design, his inspirations, and how he learned the craft that goes into his creations.
What first led you to get into furniture design?
In short, curiosity, and the desire to make things with my hands that people use every day in a tangible way. I had designed clothing for the seven years before furniture, but felt further and further removed from what I was actually making as time went on. Things were made overseas, and I was glued to a computer all day. Growing up with a father who always made things with his hands was a huge inspiration for me. We were always building and making things growing up.
How did you learn the craftsmanship required to create your pieces?
After I left apparel, I had no idea what I wanted to do next. I knew that I wanted to work with my hands, and was drawn to the process of making things. I would always get lost in the process and in the “figuring out” stages. I first enrolled in a furniture design course at a community college, and realized that I liked it. Over the course of the next couple years I started experimenting and taking apart old furniture, and learning a lot by myself paired with a couple other furniture intensive classes that I took, as well as a short apprenticeship. I really dove in head first. The gist of the craft was learned during this time, and the refinement is still happening everyday.
What made you want to work with natural materials like wood?
I have always loved wood, the smell, the variety, and knowing that it comes from nature and is all one of a kind is what makes my heart tick. Each and every piece of wood is different, and a joy to work with. I really like working closer with the mills where the wood actually comes from as well. We are working on several ping pong tables right now from a great small mill in the midwest and having the lumber cut specifically for us. Little things like that make our end products better, the story richer, and the journey of making the product that much more fun.
Do you see what you do as more art or craft?
I would say a hybrid of both. I’m always inspired by art, and want to create art that stands out and is remarkable, yet timeless and well made. But the furniture is not so far out there that it would be considered art. We still want our pieces to be used for years to come, and age with the customer.
Who are the people that inspire you when you’re working and why?
Oh man, sooo many. A very broad list would be Wharton Esherick, Dieter Rams, Robert Rauscheberg, Lloyd Kahn, Sunray Kelly, Ryan Haack, and Jean Prouve.
What would you say is the common thread that runs through all your pieces?
Meticulous detail, remarkable design, and a friendly approachable human element to the business.
Is there a particular piece that you are most proud of?
I like to think that I have not made it yet.
Everything you do is made in southern California. Why was that important to you?
Yes, everything is made within a 25-mile radius. I like supporting small businesses, working with them usually turns into friendships, and that is something that most people do not have in the things that they make. It also makes it easier and faster to prototype and rapidly develop ideas, then hit the “Go” button.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since starting your company?
Travel often. Have fun. Keep risking. Stay curious. Crosstrain the brain.
What other hobbies do you have? Do they play a role in your creative process?
Surfing, tennis and yoga are my main hobbies/obsessions. They help keep me grounded. I usually try and do either one of those ever single day.
Where did the idea for the ping pong table/dining room table come from? Were you surprised at how it was received?
Yeah, our pong table went nuts. We had it in the works for the better part of a year, pieces of it strewn all over the studio, but never finished. I had grown up playing ping pong and over the last four or five years, began to play a lot more, and had always wanted to make one. We did all kinds of bounce tests and really wanted the play of the table to be comparable to a professional table. The only thing that takes a little time to adjust to is the steel net. But we actually designed the table so that any normal net can also be attached, we just thought it looked too tacky. Everyone loves ping pong. It’s a fun game that we all played as kids. I wanted the net to attach/detach very quickly so that it could also double as a conference or dining table, and be multi-functional.
What other projects do you have coming up?
We have a ton. We are working on several chairs right now, a new high end desk with all kinds of features, and a couple of larger corporate projects that will be fun.