Slow Furniture: Heidi Earnshaw Takes Her Time for Timeless Quality

Heidi Earnshaw in her downtown Toronto studio

Heidi Earnshaw in her downtown Toronto studio (Michelle Siu)

As a reaction to mass manufacturing, the burgeoning slow furniture movement is a painstakingly careful, anachronistically plodding way to produce chairs, desks and credenzas. Everything is made using time-honoured carpentry techniques, out of elemental materials, without computer-guided machines and routers.

Acclaimed, Toronto-based Heidi Earnshaw is an advocate of the trend. Her designs have the subtlety of a Robert Frost poem and have been recognized by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Awards.

Next month, she’ll be participating in IIDEX, Canada’s national design and architecture expo in Toronto.

Here, Earnshaw talks about her roots as a chainsaw artist, the miracles of vinegar and the importance of taking things slow.

A lot of people are unfamiliar with the term slow furniture. What does it mean to you?

Slow furniture is basically an offshoot of the slow food movement, which started in Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to the first McDonald’s opening in Rome. For me, it’s about creating furniture in a thoughtful and environmentally sustainable way while supporting local economies and using local resources.

Walk us through your “slow” process?

I work mostly on custom commissions, building tailor-made pieces to suit my clients’ particular interests and needs. I build one piece of furniture at a time. I work with my hands. My grandfather was a carpenter. I still work with some of his tools. Screwdrivers mostly, and a mitre box, which is a jig to cut wood. I think it’s important that I maintain the skills that have been passed down to us. Otherwise, those skills will get lost to the homogeneity of global production. Speed creates homogeneity.

Part of the slow furniture movement is about preserving traditional skills that are being lost to mass manufacturing. What techniques are you trying to preserve?

Just doing things by hand in general. About 10 or 15 years ago, I saw a computer-aided router for the first time. It was spitting out these carved clocks with maple leafs on them, one every three minutes. At that point in my career I was doing a lot of hand-carving. And I was just flabbergasted. Wow, I thought, how am I ever going to keep doing this by hand? Aesthetic is born out of process. And if everything is produced the same way, the aesthetic becomes very boring.

What types of wood do you prefer to work with?

I’m not attached to one particular wood. Definitely the most popular wood right now is walnut. Probably 70 per cent of what I make these days is walnut. It’s just kind of trendy. Woods go in and out, just like everything else. People like the dark, richness of it.

Are particleboard and medium density fibreboard verboten materials?

I use them very, very sparingly. For drawer bottoms, for example, I might use MDF with a veneer on it. It’s well engineered for large spans and is good because it’s mainly made of waste material. The problem, though, is that they are often held together with toxic glues – something which is changing as more companies are starting to produce sustainable options.

Stains and lacquers aren’t always eco-friendly. How do you finish your pieces?

I try to use non-toxic, low-VOC [volatile organic compound] finishes. I almost never use stains. I leave the wood natural as much as possible. The one finish, though, I’m using a lot right now is plain white vinegar. It reacts with the tannin content in the wood and can turn a piece of blond white oak jet black.

Custom furniture that’s handmade with sustainably grown woods doesn’t usually come cheaply. What would you say to someone who just cares about getting the lowest price?

I definitely don’t think that everyone can afford to have everything custom made. I certainly can’t. Let’s face it, I’ve got one assistant and we’re making one piece of furniture at a time. It is very expensive. But if you look at the life cycle of what we produce, that’s where the value is. I love the idea of creating something that will be passed down from generation to generation. I want these pieces to last.

How do you create something that will end up having a long shelf life?

I try to create things that are simple, quiet and functional. I think furniture should be effortless and easy to clean and take into account that the two-year-old is going to be ramming his spoon on it. And all that use should make the object more beautiful with age. That’s one of the things about wood: it gets more beautiful over time. It doesn’t disintegrate. I have two chairs in my kitchen that were built in the 1930s. The top wrung of each has a patina thanks to years of people pulling them in and out and leav-ing the oils from their hands. It’s really nice. And it’s not like you want to scrub them clean. It’s part of the beauty of the piece.

How did you learn your craft?

I started by studying fine art at the University of Toronto, where I learned about sculpture, printmaking and painting. I got interested in wood in my last year of school. I just fell in love with it. I did a lot of chain saw carving.

What is chainsaw carving?

Carving big hunks of wood with a chainsaw and an angle grinder.

That seems like the opposite of slow furniture. It seems pretty aggressive.

Well, one of the misconceptions about slow furniture is that it’s all about peace and romance. The slow movement is really all about not rushing. But wood shops can be very inhospitable spaces. Always dusty and loud. My studio can be very grating.

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, August 8, 2013.

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