Issue 9.1: February/March 2006

The Naturals

story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Dana Edmunds

 

Perhaps you’re thinking: I need a chest of drawers with real style, maybe something made of silky oak with a little Art Deco flair, bowed at the middle and reminiscent of an eggplant on legs. Or an end table veneered with flowing waves of koa wood, custom-made to liven up that corner of the living room where plants always die. Or a serious upgrade of my old plastic salad bowl, maybe of rich milo wood with a natural bark edge. And who wouldn’t want a jewelry box of koa so dramatically curled that one hesitates to sully it with actual jewelry? Forget eBay. You need a woodcrafter.

You’re in luck. Small and isolated as it is, Hawai‘i’s a little Mecca for wood and the people who love it. Scattered throughout the Islands is a vibrant community of artists and craftspeople, many with international reputations as masters, others who are up-and-comers. Since the advent of This Old House and shows on Home & Garden TV, woodcraft is enjoying a nationwide revival. But in this as in so many other ways, Hawai‘i is special. What makes woodcraft here distinctive is not only the concentration of so much talent but also the unique blend of Eastern and Western aesthetics, the rich and unusual palette of tropical wood and the commitment to protecting and restoring the forests that are its source.

Other than stone and coral, wood was the only durable material available to ancient Hawaiians. They were skilled at using it, crafting some of the finest canoes ever made by human hands and bowls and calabashes that became cherished heirlooms. Furniture-making arrived with the missionaries in the early nineteenth century; craftsmen from Europe soon followed. Drawn by the beauty of native woods, particularly koa, they developed a style with an Old World sensibility that was also distinctly Hawaiian. For a time, furniture made in Hawai‘i attracted international attention, and today in the halls of ‘Iolani Palace you can still see koa pieces commissioned from German artisans by the Hawaiian royal family. After mechanization and mass production entered the scene, the demand for custom-made pieces declined. “But,” says Alan Wilkinson, “people got tired of crappy stuff that fell apart.” Over the more than thirty years that he’s been making fine furniture, he says he’s seen a rebirth in the craft throughout the English-speaking world. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of that rebirth here in the Islands.

When Wilkinson arrived in Hawai‘i in 1963 at the age of nineteen, there wasn’t much of a fine woodcraft scene. And he had no intention of helping to start one: He’d come to surf. But between sessions on the North Shore, he worked at the Pier 41 shipyard, building wooden boats, and studied sculpture at the University of Hawai‘i. Realizing quickly that sculptors lag just behind poets and philosophers on the pay scale, he started doing the interiors of bars and restaurants for Outrigger Hotels. “They wanted a nautical feel,” he recalls. “There were a lot of things I learned at the shipyard that I could disguise as ‘nautical.’” His first pieces, a desk and chair, were commissioned by Roy Kelley, the founder of Outrigger. For Wilkinson, the 1971 California Design Show, where early furniture makers were showing their work, was a revelation. “There were a lot of people like myself doing all kinds of weird stuff,” he says. “There were a lot of psychedelic drugs then, a lot of sculptural pieces…there was nothing like it. It was inspiring, so I came back and attempted to do something similar.” But it wasn’t easy. There were only a couple of other furniture makers and no market.


 
Alan Wilkinson

Now sixty-two, Wilkinson is an elder statesman of Hawai‘i woodcraft, though he modestly shrugs it off: “Doesn’t mean much to be called a master. I’ve traveled enough to know there are a lot of good woodworkers out there.” Understated and wry, he shows me around his studio tucked among auto body shops in an industrial park back of Pearl City, the home of Wilkinson Koa Furniture. But don’t let the name mislead; though he works with koa, the studio’s jammed with board feet from less famous—and less controversial—species: mango, ‘ohi‘a, naio, pheasantwood, milo, silky oak. “I always try to use other woods,” he says. “I give my customers choices, but they almost always choose koa. And, quite truthfully, I can do a better job in koa.” He shows me a piece he’s been working on for the past few months: a chest of drawers about three feet tall, one of a matching pair. Like much of his work, it balances thick, bold lines against the delicate figuring of the wood, giving the impression of both strength and fragility. Even to my inexpert eye, it’s a stunner: the drawer faces scalloped and veneered with deeply curled koa, edged by fine filaments of ebony detail. The joinery is all traditional and handmade, the hidden craft that allows a piece to age and adapt to varying conditions. The drawers glide smooth as water and shut with a satisfying snap. It’s hard to resist the urge to touch it, run my hands on its surfaces. I ask him how much a piece like this costs. He throws me a jovial “if you have to ask…” look and says: “With furniture, you get what you pay for. But if you pay a lot for it, you take care of it, and it lasts.”

Now that there’s a healthy market for fine furniture, Wilkinson gets by on commissions. But, he says, the prices he charges barely cover overhead and labor. “It’s not profitable,” he says half-smiling. “It’s not sustaining. It is rewarding: To see a pile of lumber become a piece of furniture six months later is pretty neat. But six months for a piece of furniture? It’s crazy.” Maybe that’s why these days he’d almost rather be tending his parrots or coaxing new life out of his garden along the creek behind his studio, where the native kou trees he planted thirteen years ago are thriving. “The nice thing about a garden,” he says, “is that everything happens so fast. Flowers grow fast, weeds grow fast.”

Only a woodworker, I remark, would call a garden “fast.”

That warm, spicy aroma of cut wood and sawdust wafting through the bleak concrete corridors of 720 Iwilei Rd. leads to Marian Yasuda, a slight but powerful woman planing a dining room table. Wood curls away in long strips as she leans into it, working the plane with the fluidity and easy concentration born of long practice. Yasuda’s lived in Hawai‘i since she was eight, and she studied graphic design at UH. Looking for a new experience, she went to Buffalo as an exchange student. You read right. Buffalo… New York. “Everybody said, ‘You’re from where? And you came here?’ But I wanted geographical, climate, cultural change. I wanted to be exposed to as many things as I could.” While there, she took classes in furniture design, and the rest is history. “I was hooked. Wood hooked me—the qualities of it, the feeling you get when you finish a project and you see the beauty of the wood, the first time you wipe oil on it and it just shines. It’s a huge reward.” She returned to Hawai‘i and worked part-time in a cabinet shop while she finished her degree. In 1987, she started Yasuda Designs and has since established a name for herself making veneered furniture (like the eggplant on legs) that blends the simple, clean lines of Asian style with a strong dose of Art Deco. Over the years, she’s won numerous awards and in 2003 was featured on HGTV’s Modern Masters.


 
Marian Yasuda

Browsing her portfolio, you find a variety of styles and attitudes, some leaning toward the traditional, like a burnished koa rocker, others edgy and playful, like a set of chairs designed to imitate the faceplates of one client’s favorite guitars. Most of her pieces have at least one thing in common: Nothing’s straight. It’s all bends, bows, curves, bulges, tapers and waves. That woodcrafters can take an inflexible, essentially straight material and make it jump through hoops has always mystified me, but Yasuda ups the ante in technical difficulty: Almost all of her work is veneered.

The concept is simple: Glue a thinly cut strip of prized wood to a solid piece of filler. Yasuda then uses a machine that applies high pressure evenly as the glue dries. “It’s allowed me to do things I never thought possible,” she says. Despite the obvious quality of her pieces, she’s had something of an uphill battle convincing people who associate veneering with cheap workmanship. “In the ’70s, the Scandinavians were veneering particle board using veneer so thin you could read a newspaper through it. It made furniture accessible to people without a lot of money, but now people think of veneering as inferior. Actually, it’s superior in many ways. Working with solids, I’d never have enough matching material, so there might be distracting variation. Also, the wood won’t expand, contract, warp, crack… nothing. It’ll last as long as the glue, which will probably never fail.” Still, some clients remain unconvinced, attached more to the glamour and status they associate with solid pieces than to any inherent artistic or practical value. “They’re stubborn,” she laments. “For them, it has to be solid. It kills me to do it, but I will.” Why is it so painful to work with solids? For one thing, all the rich figure, grain and color is wasted if it’s trapped inside a solid block. For another, veneering conserves wood, a central concern for everyone in Hawai‘i who depends on it.

Hawaiian woodcraft is probably unique in the world for being sustained largely by the demand for a single wood. “If it weren’t for koa,” Yasuda says, “half the people doing woodworking wouldn’t be making a living. Because of its popularity, you can pretty much do anything. As long as it’s koa, you can sell it.” Like Wilkinson, Yasuda tries to use other woods: silky oak, eucalyptus, camphor. Relative to koa, these woods are abundant and inexpensive. “I try to tell people, these woods are just as nice as koa, but often they’re ‘koa snobs’ who don’t want anything else.” There’s no argument that old, heavily curled koa is a thing of intricate beauty, but it can be visually demanding. “You have to be careful about using wildly figured koa; it just knocks you over,” she says. Wilkinson is less circumspect: “It's garish.”

The demand for koa, inspired more perhaps by its symbolic and cultural significance than any surpassing virtue, has created both problems and potential. On the one hand, the healthy and growing local woodcraft industry is buoyed by koa. On the other, the native forests that give birth to koa are facing serious threats—not only from the demand for wood, but also from development, cattle and invasive species. Hawai‘i’s woodcraft industry, worth $29 million annually by a recent estimate, is in a position to help create a sustainable management strategy by finding the right balance between protection and productivity. “If you have no demand for a wood, it’s ignored—it doesn’t exist,” says Tai Lake as we meander through “Tai-land,” his home, studio and sawmill in Holualoa, high above Kona. “If we put a moratorium on koa tomorrow, there’d be no incentive for planting it. How do you get people into the forest to plant more? How do you raise money for fencing to keep out cattle? By getting the value up to a point where it attracts attention.”


 

 
Tai Lake

As much as any in the Islands, Lake’s furniture attracts that attention. A native of Illinois, he studied design with Buckminster Fuller at Southern Illinois University, which, he says “took the lid off my head.” After apprenticing with architects and designers, he came to Hawai‘i in 1980 to escape what he felt was a growing cultural homogenization and overdevelopment of Mainland life. With a combination of dogged determination, hard work and superlative skill, he’s established himself among Hawai‘i’s finest wood artists. He is undoubtedly one of its most successful. Working with his three sons at Tai Lake Fine Woodworking, he fuses an early Craftsman-era sensibility with Asian aesthetics. He shows me an elegant little table he’s working on, something he calls an “East-meets-West thing.” It’s simple and expertly crafted, down to the hand-carved dovetail joint in its drawer. Nearby is a corner table veneered with living rivers of rust-and-ochre koa, designed to “take a static corner in a house and throw it into motion.” While he talks about the pieces, he caresses their surfaces with an almost-erotic tenderness. “This was all just boards not too long ago,” he says with satisfaction. “But now there’s light, form, eye candy, visual entry points. It feels alive again.” He laughs. “The trees dig it, I think.”

Lake devotes as much, if not more energy to sustaining the forests that make his craft possible as he does to the craft itself. Most of his koa comes from the Honokohau forestry project near Kona, which he manages. It’s an experiment that could become a model for sustaining healthy and productive forests: Lake uses the profits from salvaged lumber to fence out cattle, which would otherwise kill the saplings. When the trees grow tall enough, the cattle are allowed in to graze away the choking undergrowth. His long-term vision (it takes an average of forty to sixty years for koa to become viable for harvest) balances conflicting land-use needs while promoting the reforestation of native species. Fifteen years ago, he points out, there were almost no acres managed for koa. Now there are 400,000. “That’s huge progress,” he says, “and it’s demand-driven. The value creates the interest which creates the long-term management.”

Still, he’s conscious of the fact that there’s more than one wood in the shed. “We’ve got kamani, mango, monkeypod, ‘ohi‘a…it goes on and on. Woodworkers have to direct their clients toward other species being responsibly harvested and to let people know we have this spectacular stuff.” That’s where HFIA, the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association, comes in. Founded in 1989, HFIA is a nonprofit collaborative of people in the wood industry committed to promoting healthy forests. Each year, they sponsor Hawai‘i’s Woodshow at which artists of every stripe showcase the beauty of alternative local hardwoods. Wilkinson is among the founding members; Yasuda and Lake belong, too. Over the years, the Woodshow has had great success in creating a venue for established and emerging craftspeople.


 

Lest you get the wrong impression, few of Hawai‘i’s woodworkers are established fine-furniture makers; you needn’t look far to discover newcomers like bowl-turner Aaron Hammer. I visit him in his studio in Hau‘ula on O‘ahu’s windward coast and watch as he affixes a twenty-pound chunk of Norfolk pine to his lathe and sets it spinning at a discomfiting velocity. Heavy pieces of wood, methinks, ought not to be moving fast. He sets a gouge to it, and a violent spray of chips and sawdust explodes into the air. Working the gouge from the center outward, he cajoles a graceful bowl from the ungainly log. At thirty-two, Hammer is making a name for himself in the bowl-turning world, which is perhaps no richer or more diverse anywhere than here. “Wooden bowls were important to ancient Hawaiians,” he explains over the pervading hum of fans and pumps continuously running in his studio. “Some of the earliest people in these Islands were bowl collectors, and that history remains.” And that history today sustains the evolving craft. Pioneers like Hammer’s teacher, master turner Jerry Kermode, have in recent years taken bowl turning from a purely utilitarian craft to an art, with bowls commanding prices in the thousands and finding homes in museums and private collections beyond Hawai‘i. Hammer himself is preparing for his first major show in Philadelphia this September. “They’re billing it as ‘some of the 100 best-known wood artists in the world,’” he laughs. “Yeah, I went from an unknown to one of the best-known overnight!”

Then there’s Rollo Scheurenbrand, who looks exactly like you’d want your modern luthier to look: round, wire-rimmed specs; graying hair tied neatly back into a ponytail avec matching mustache. His studio near Kailua Beach is, in contrast to the studios of the other crafters I’ve visited, immaculate, reflecting precision and refinement, two qualities of his exacting craft of guitar-making. His relationship to wood has evolved since his days working as a roadie for REO Speedwagon and doing carpentry. He became interested in building guitars after coming to Hawai‘i in 1988, so he bought a book and spent the next two years learning. “It was so moving,” he says. “Here was a pile of wood that was now making music. I was flat-out hooked.” Today, with only ten guitars in his quiver, Scheurenbrand considers himself “young at the game,” but his guitars bear all the signs of superior craftsmanship. Apart from their sound, they’re also works of art—Scheurenbrand had a magnificent koa instrument featured in this year’s Woodshow. Though his guitars can cost $4,000, like most wood artists, he’s not in it for the paycheck. “To take something that was dead and make something that can bring joy, to build something that affects not only the musician but everyone who hears it, that’s a special thing.”

“You go into any valley on the Big Island,” says Marian Yasuda, “and I guarantee you’ll find a woodworker.” With a new generation rising to take the place of today’s masters, the future seems bright for wood in Hawai‘i. The market for koa surely has something to do with it, but credit must be given to the community of talented artists producing some of the highest quality art and craft found anywhere in the nation and cooperating to protect Hawai‘i’s forests for future generations. HH