Story by Roy Schack
Many years ago I bought a book by Tom Darby titled Making Fine Furniture. It was at the time I was deciding to make my sea change and move away from my life as a merchant banker, to pursue a life in wood. The book was basically a multi-biography of some of the more important makers in Australia in the early 90s, and because I was new to the field, its contents made a huge impression on me.
One of the subject designer/makers in the book was Leon Sadubin, a Sydney based practitioner, whose Refectory Table was, even to a novice such as me, instantly recognisable as a significant piece of work. I remember being troubled at the time with the table. It seemed like it should be chunky, but wasn’t; it was anarchic, yet completely harmonious and resolved at the same time. What it was mostly, was brave.
With the benefit of a little experience now, I realise that Leon had stepped very close to that edge of over-working a piece, but he had done it with such confidence that when you look at his table you feel that it should only ever be that way – a piece of furniture that displays both sculptural and functional qualities. The large inlaid butterfly keys make a statement as well as being functional, but the most striking element is the separation of the flitches and the extraordinary tooling on the top. I recently read a thread on the U-Beaut internet forum about slab furniture and one contributor argued quite strongly that Leon Sadubin’s work was in fact not heavy, but organic like Nakashima’s work. A favourable comparison and one that I think is a fair call.
I’ve recently had the privilege to delve into Leon’s background a little deeper to see where he has come from and the influences that have shaped him into the master craftsman he is today. Back in 1993, when I first saw that story on Leon, I was amazed at how he had such an impact on woodworking in Australia – he was after all a very small business operator. He was the founder of the NSW Woodworkers Association, he’d been involved in several very successful exhibitions with the association, he’d finalised a huge commission for the new Parliament House in Canberra, and he along with his wife Ginny had set up The Wood Works Book & Tool Co in Sydney. All of this at the same time as doing private commission work. So, for a newcomer such as myself, Leon’s experience was inspiring, almost intimidating.
As often happens, people disappear off one’s radar over the years, which is exactly what happened with Leon. After leaving Sturt School for Wood, I became completely involved with my own work, and I paid very little attention to what was happening around me. However, a few years ago during a conference at Bungendore Wood Works, Leon reappeared on my screen, so I was interested in finding out where he had been and what he had done.
A lot of professional makers seem to follow a similar path. The commercially savvy chase publicity, or rather, make publicity chase them. It’s not necessarily an ego driven thing, but unfortunately, the tall poppy syndrome dictates that it is. In the 70s and 90s Leon wrote articles about his own work as well as the state of woodwork in the crafts movement, and was included in a number of articles on contemporary woodworkers.
In the last ten years or so however, Leon has kept his profile a little lower, partially as a result of a move out of mainstream Sydney to Woodhill, near Berry in NSW, but also because he has been kept busy with several significant commissions. The move was long awaited and has allowed Leon and Ginny to explore new directions. The last two decades had virtually flown by, and Leon realised he had barely had time to concentrate on what it was he really wanted from his craft.
Two of his recent commissions include furniture for the Temple Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra (2004–2005), and a four year project for patron Joan Abela and her Jeandare House. The furniture produced for the Jeandare House reflects aesthetic ideas and craft skills that Leon has developed over the last 25 years. The lengthy commission comprised a 12-seat dining table with chairs, a sideboard, sofa table, bedroom furniture and writing table with chair, among other works.
Leon Sadubin’s work has always displayed a strong presence, albeit in a quiet way. The work produced for this commission is no exception. From a distance it looks simple, understated and elegant. Approach the work and the confident, subtle qualities begin to reveal themselves. He has not tried to baffle his client with an explosion of colour or superfluous ‘whiz bangs’, rather he has allowed the beauty of the Tasmanian blackwood to speak for itself. Gentle curves in horizontal surfaces are highlighted by stringing in a very similar timber, sally wattle. The effect arouses curiousity—it’s different, but why?
The chairs designed for this brief reflect their maker’s long journey. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a short retrospective of his chairs on a recent visit to Leon’s home. To me his influences seem to be a combination of Scandinavian and the raw Australian style of the original Jimmy Possum. What has changed over the years in Leon’s chairs is the visual weight, but the comfort remains the same. These chairs are elegant and faithfully rely on simplicity of form.
In designing a piece of furniture, a maker will often come up against the question of where will the design stop. Does the back of a cabinet need to be finished off nicely? Likewise, does the base of a dining table need to reflect any detail, given that it will be obscured by chairs? Often the answer comes down to whether or not the maker could be bothered. I always get a kick out of checking out this sort of behind the scenes detail, and when I see the work that goes into Leon’s table bases, I feel that I’m looking at the work of a maker who takes extreme pride in what he does.
One of the skills Leon has had since a very early age is his ability to draw, no doubt a legacy of his parents—his mother was a fashion designer and his father an architect. Leon typically produces beautiful sketches whilst designing and finds this part of the process quite liberating, allowing him the freedom to virtually build anything on paper.
Leon has always believed in the value of collaboration, especially with artisans who work complementary media, so when the opportunity arose to work with glass artist Marc Grunseit on the Temple Emanuel Synagogue, Leon fell comfortably into the role. The synagogue itself frames incredibly intricate glass work and the challenge was to carry that theme through to the furniture designs. The two artisans worked closely to produce striking pieces ranging from altars to chairs, pulpits and benches, Grunseit’s deep blue glass contrasting dramatically with the warmth of the taun and New Guinea walnut.
The main altar designed by Leon complements the existing joinery, but one detail I find interesting is the chequered inlay. Leon used this similar detail in the bedroom furniture for the Jeandare House project to great success. There he used silver ash inlay in silver ash. The effect reminds me of the weathered fiddleback ironbark planks in the boardwalk I stroll along on the Brisbane River—despite being weathered there is that subtle shimmer of the fiddleback, making the timber come to life.
One of the hints as to where Leon is headed with his work lies in the writing desk produced for Joan Abela shown above. This is the one piece in the commission that is really different from the others and stands out as a reflection of Leon’s ability to not only make best use of his materials, as with his refectory table, but to do it in an interesting way. Leon has for a long time been a fan of the writing table as a furniture form; he has over the years produced quite a number, an influence of his Churchill Fellowship studies in Denmark, where the desk is often made as an apprentice’s ‘finishing piece’. In fact, one of Leon’s desks was purchased by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney for its collection whilst another was presented to HRH Prince Charles and the late Lady Diana Spencer.
The Abela Desk, referred to by the owner as her ‘angel’s wing’ is made up of naturally curved timber sliced from the crook of a blackwood tree branch. ‘I have a desire to move away from the constraints of tight tolerance and high polish and explore more sculptural elements in my work’, says Leon. The desk is a wonderfully flowing piece that combines both the skills Leon has picked up over the years and his growing empathy with what nature dishes up. I’m still trying to work out how to joint those boards before glue up.
Continuing on with his desire to ‘loosen up’, Leon has been producing a series of pieces for outdoor use entitled Woodhill Windform. Essentially bench seats, the pieces are rough. Literally. They don’t have the high polish that as woodworkers we all seem to strive for, in fact they are finished off the bandsaw and screws are proudly displayed on the back slats. But they are wonderfully approachable, have a whimsical, cartoon-esque look to them and they display dramatic movement. In these chairs Leon Sadubin has captured the essence of nature on the windswept slopes of Woodhill, proof positive that not only can we be furniture designers and makers, but artists as well.
Reprinted from Australian Wood Review, issue 53, 2006. For more information about Leon Sadubin see www.leonsadubin.com.au
Roy Schack is a Brisbane furniture designer/maker who also teaches woodwork. See www.royschack.com
In 2010 Leon Sadubin curated The Kauri Tree Project, an exhibition of works created from trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney that had fallen victim to damage from flying foxes. Jointly curated by Leon and Ginny Sadubin, Treecycle is another exhibition that utilises fallen trees and prunings from the RBGS and opens on August 12 for public viewing.