Neil Erasmus is a third generation furniture designer, maker and teacher. He designs and makes for commission and makes one, maybe two speculative pieces a year for selected exhibitions. He also takes orders for his batch runs such as chairs and tables. Neil’s style, while uniquely his own, is heavily influenced by the integrity of workmanship espoused by the Arts and Crafts and Shaker movements.
He has however deviated from the philosophy of ‘solid only’ work, and includes the use of specially sawn, figured veneers in almost all his work. In addition, he has become somewhat an itinerant furniture making instructor, traveling across the country and to the USA where he teaches at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Neil’s first article for AWR was about making a document box in AWR#12, September 1996. See a list of his stories written since here
Q: Okay we know you like it, but how did you get into woodworking?
A: After two years as a wine making trainee in the Stellenbosch area of South Africa, the prospect of joining my father in his fine furniture business seemed very attractive at the time – for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t the woodwork that drew me, but rather the idea of an easy life in the family business.
How naive I was then! My father turned out to be the hardest taskmaster I have known, and thanks to the powerful ‘romance’ of the craft, I wasn’t tempted to find work elsewhere, which was both plentiful and finacially rewarding.
I found in working wood on the small, bespoke scale we were doing it, all that I was looking for. This was neither a job nor a profession or an ambition – it was just where I felt warm and comfortable for the ‘now’. The meaning of words like ‘vision’ and ‘ambition’ only began to have any significance at a later stage. I was lucky to have stumbled upon it when I did.
Q: Who are your woodworking heroes/gods/gurus?
A: In heroes, gods and gurus I read: those who have courage, those whom one respects and those whom one aspires to. My woodworking hero is not one but a few. There is a small group of gifted people with many years experience who wear many hats. They wear the hat of the designer, the maker, the business person, the marketing and sales executive, the mentor, the judge, and the writer, and they have to look comfortable wearing all of them.
I also aspire to these heroes for their courage to stick with something they love in spite of the small material rewards, and they do it with humility and selflessness.
My gods of design I would devoutly convert anyone to are Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Gerrit Rietveld whose creations, early last century, were so timeless they still take one’s breath away today. My god of working wood is James Krenov who manages to see ‘through’ the wood to discover many more dimensions to this material. It comes as no surprise that he has a ‘cult’ following where wood becomes spirit.
Q: What do you mainly make?
A: I make speculative exhibition pieces, batch production work to fill orders and commissioned pieces in roughly equal proportions. In addition to this I teach and write.
Q: Your thoughts on traditional vs ‘new’ and digital?
A: I read this question two ways, both in terms of design/aesthetics and construction. I am so pleased that when I started my career, I was more interested in the ‘journey’ than the destination, as my full focus was on getting the making part of the equation right. It was this sound foundation that informed me about all the ‘can dos’ and ‘can’t dos’ of designing in wood.
As a woodworker, I don’t subscribe to the thinking that you design first and then work through the construction possibilities. Only those who allow themselves the entire pallette of materials and technologies can afford to do this. Wood, alone, can be very unforgiving. Making traditional styles of furniture in the early days taught me more about wood and construction than I now need to design newer, more contemporary ones. I now only make the latter.
What are my thoughts on CNC equipment? I like to think that what differentiates my work is its individual nature—pieces with heart and soul. My clientele don’t like the mechanical, cloned look of CNC mass produced furniture.
Q: What are you pet woodworking hates?
A: I don’t like the mishandling of tools and equipment. I pull my hair out that so many people measure the value of a piece by its shear weight and volume, rather than its aesthetic properties.
Q: What is your desert island hand tool/ machine/ timber/ woodie book?
A: If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d like my bandsaw, a card scraper and African tamboti. I would not wish to have any woodwork book for two reasons: A book would constantly torture me with images of all the other tools and machines I don’t have. I would, instead, write my own book—but, oh, I don’t have a pencil and paper…
Q: The best thing you’ve ever made?
A: How does one choose a favourite child? Two or three of my pieces have different qualities. Sylvia is the most beautiful, while the Mantis sideboard is the most desirable (proven by many more sales than Sylvia, despite a similar price). If I had to choose one, it would be Kama Seatra, a chair I had so much fun designing and making.
Q: Your best excuse for not getting something quite right?
A: It’s all Tim’s fault!
Q: Your most often-made mistake?
A: I have no excuses for mistakes, but I do make them, and when one is identified it is rectified in such a way so as not to compromise the piece in any way.
Misquoting on commissioned work. I still struggle to accurately assess the time it takes to make a new piece. A fine balance has to be struck between remuneration and ripoff.
Q: Your biggest woodworking disaster!!?
A: My biggest disaster thankfully had a very good outcome. I was commissioned to make a large wall unit in jarrah for a well known architect’s home. After spending a morning installing it, under the watchful eye of its new owner who stood there with a fine briar pipe in his mouth, I was finally addressed by him as he removed his pipe from his mouth for the first time, smoke engulfing him, ‘It’s not nyatoh’. He was referring to an inexpensive Indonesian wood that takes a stain well, ‘I’ll see what Jo says’, as he walked off to consult with his wife. After an agonising 15 minutes or so he returned, ‘She’s happy!’ For some reason he wanted his unit stained to look like jarrah, rather than the ‘real thing’ Of course he was delighted.
Q: The thing I would most like to change about wood is…
A: I can live with all wood’s properties excepting its annoying habit of oxidation. In time, nature will turn the most beautiful woods to look like plain, less sought after cousins. I am yet to find a suitable, UV resistant finish I’m happy to put on my work. Keeping one’s pieces out of too much light is the best advise one can give to a keen collector of woodwork.
Q: The thing I would most like to change about woodworkers is…
A: I’d like to change their attitude towards pricing, and this in turn will help to educate the public to value handmade furniture by charging more for it. Compared with other creative disciplines, woodworkers continue to undervalue their skills and the woods they use.
Q: My final word on woodwork is…
A: For those out there who are searching for the ultimate religion, I can strongly recommend Woodhism; sometimes spiritual, sometimes cathartic, sometime therapeutic, but always a joy!