Greg Klassen: Point of origin

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Above: Greg Klassen with two of his River Tables in his Pacific Northwest, USA studio. Photo: Ben Bender.

Interview: Linda Nathan

The ‘river table’ has become one of the biggest woodworking trend of our times. Many woodworkers regard it as such a ‘generic’ furniture form they don’t appreciate its origins stem from the designs of US maker Greg Klassen.

Seeing the flood of lookalikes that appeared after he first ‘went public’ with his design some 12 years ago, Greg sought to protect his intellectual property by trademarking his ‘River Tables’. The backlash of criticism he subsequently received was unexpected, and raised larger questions about the rights of artists to claim acknowledgement for and ownership of their designs. I spoke to Greg about the river table phenomenon and asked him how the concept came about, and the impact it’s had on his life.

Who is Greg Klassen, and how did he become a furniture designer maker? Were you always going to be a woodworker?
I am a husband and father of three kids – my wife Barb and I have two daughters, 13 and 11, and a son, 10. We live in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, where we home school our children from our 108-year-old farmhouse on a small acreage. I opened my fine woodworking studio in 2008 after studying at the College of the Redwoods (now called the Krenov School) in California and Capellagården School in Sweden. Before becoming a woodworker, I studied theology in college with plans to go into pastoral ministry but during my studies I discovered the joy of working with my hands and chose instead to follow my passion for craft.


Above: River Coffee Table top in spalted maple and handcut glass by Greg Klassen. Photo: Matthew Bergsma

You are famous for your River tables (and now also wall art and cabinets) that feature glass inserts that highlight natural edges? Is this your idea, and if so, what inspired this design and how did you develop it?
Yes the River design is mine. I was inspired by the rivers, lakes and glaciers that exist where I live in the Pacific Northwest. And I was also inspired by my introduction to live edge wood slabs around the time I opened my studio. What really fascinated me about live edges was the negative space between two pieces brought together. I immediately felt that this space evoked the feeling of a river, and in some cases a lake, a canyon or waterfall, so I learned to marry the live edges with handcut blue glass. From this experimentation, the River concept was born. I quickly fell in love with the design and chose to create a body of work from it that included many types of furniture but primarily tables and wall-hangings. I always let the wood speak for itself and try to not force my ideas into the design.


Meander, a wall art piece by Greg Klassen with a sculptural rendition of the river theme. Photo: Ben Bender

As you pointed out to me, the ‘river table’ trend has become the biggest woodworking trend of our generation. Why do you think it has ignited the imagination of so many others who have imitated it and possibly even added their own twists?
Live edge furniture was very popular before I started working with it, but I thinks my simple decision to turn the live edges inward sparked a whole new appreciation for live edge wood. With the live edges on the inside, I use straight edges on the outside as a visual frame around the middle. For those who may have been turned off by the sometimes rustic feel of live edges, this usage brought a modern refinement to the material. And for those with concerns about sitting near the sharp edges of a live edge tabletop, they became more comfortable with the textured surfaces that were now turned inward. I never could have imagined my work becoming this popular.


Round Confluence River Table in Claro walnut and handcut glass. Photo: Matthew Bergsma

What made you trademark the River Table design/concept? How did people find out about the trademark?
I am a one-man woodworking studio and the sole breadwinner for my family. I have worked extremely hard to build my business from nothing. I started it with $15,000 in student loan debt, a few hand tools and a cheap imported bandsaw. For the first six years of being self-employed, my family lived below the poverty line and I worked out of a small unheated garage. Through perseverance, risk- taking and a continual sharpening of my skills, I’ve built a studio that ships its work all around the world. At one point, I had a two-year waiting list and many of my customers have now turned into collectors.


Greg Klassen’s Flower Table features a large cross-section cedar slab. Photo: Matthew Bergsma

I am still a one-man shop and my desire remains to quietly work with my hands, creating my own designs and to make a living for my family through my craft. I try to live a simple life and work under the assumption of honesty and integrity. When I put my work on the internet (via my website and social media pages), I do so to share it with people who appreciate what I do.

I have encountered many woodworkers who do not share the same idea of integrity and have taken my designs for themselves. I will add that I do not have a problem with a hobbyist wanting to make a ‘river table’ to enjoy in their home. Where it crosses the line is when a person takes another person’s design, gives no credit to the original artist and then profits from the design. This is dishonest and wrong.

The nature of my work is that each piece is one-of-a-kind and a design that is always changing cannot be copyrighted, so since I created and own the term ‘River Table’ I trademarked the name. This was the one small thing I could do to protect my original work. Because so many of my social media followers and others were imitating my work they formed a sort of mob when they heard that I had tried to protect my original design. Many of them coordinated a series of posts that were misleading and encouraged hate towards me.

It was a really sad, shocking experience to be a part of and left me jaded towards social media and this sect of the woodworking ‘community’. This was very hard for me and, to be very frank and honest with you, my heart is still very hurt from this experience. But I keep going. Since then I’ve continued to expand my River Collection, now into over 250 one-of-a-kind pieces. Enthusiasm for my work continues to grow and with each new piece I create, I have ideas for four more. I can’t wait to make the 30-second walk to my woodshop each morning and keep creating.


Detail view of River Table in maple. Photo: Matthew Bergsma

So what do you do, when your concept goes viral? How can artists protect their IP? And is this possible in an online world with news and social media platforms hat thrive on ‘sharing’ work, often without credit to makers or designers?
Once you put your work on the internet, you can’t control what happens next. You can put your energy into fighting people who wrong you or you can put your energy into creating and sharing beautiful work. Be accountable for your own actions and show the respect to other artists that you hope they’ll show to you.

One more thing: artists need to be prepared for their success should it ever come. Even if you haven’t tasted success yet, keep working towards it and be ready for it. If you have created something new and noteworthy, people will want to see it, share it and maybe even own it. Here’s how you can be prepared:

1) Have the foundation built underneath you. Build a beautiful website and have beautiful images of your work. Invest in really good photography.

2) Become a student of marketing and learn how to get your work shared or published. Read marketing books, listen to marketing podcasts, take actions, experiment, try things and see what works. Your work is not going to be seen unless you make it seen.

3) Share your work as a collection, not just as a stand- alone piece. A collection of pieces in your unique design language speaks much more loudly than a single voice. This doesn’t mean you hide your work from people until you think it’s ready (a big part of knowing if your design is any good, is to get lots of feedback). It just means that when you formally launch your collection, to have your work together so it can really ‘wow’ people and make a stronger impression.

4) Make it easy for people to purchase your work. It used to be that artists had to sell through a third party – a gallery, a shop, a designer, or an event – nowadays we all have direct access to each other. Build an e-commerce shop into your website and make it easy for people to buy from you once they find you.

5) Build a mailing list. To depend on your social media presence for success, is to build your house on sand. Your access to your fans is controlled by the platforms you are using and eventually they are going to make you pay for access. Instead, collect email addresses for direct access and build your house on solid ground.

It has to be said that when a concept/ design approaches the level of ‘generic’, or so widely aped, it is hard for makers, especially younger ones to realise that they may be appropriating other people’s designs and concepts. What’s the responsibility of other makers here? How can makers guard against plagiarising other people’s designs?

Creating an original design is hard work. Developing your own artistic voice and making lots of original designs is even harder. Makers need to open a blank page on a sketchbook and start drawing. They need to stop pinning or bookmarking other people’s designs, put their phone down, sketch their own ideas and bring them to life. Many of your designs will be bad but one might be good. If you’re unsure about a design, build a simple mock- up from cheap materials, invite some friends over for feedback and talk about ways to improve it.

People know when they are appropriating another artist’s designs – there’s no mystery to this – if it didn’t come from your own brain, it’s not yours. Pay your dues, put in the time to experiment and create. Don’t take the easy road. It might bring you some quick money or likes or attention, but in the long run you are selling yourself short and robbing yourself of the satisfaction of creating your own success.


Lake Table, western red cedar, inspired by lakes and topography. Photo: Matthew Bergsma

Your River concept has of late become infused with resin: what do you think of this trend?
I am a purist and love wood. Watching people pouring epoxy over and around wood from these big plastic buckets, while wearing
chemical masks because of the toxic fumes they’re creating, is sad. They’re taking beautiful pieces of live edge wood and trapping them in plastic. There are some people who have been using resin before this new trend that I consider artists, but much of what I see feels lazy. And do you know what happens when wood is trapped and not allowed to ‘breathe’ and acclimate to changes in humidity? It breaks free, and most of these resin tables are not going to age well.

How has the river phenomenon impacted on you? Are you a victim of your own success, or has it been a good thing professionally and personally? Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
I am not a victim but instead see myself as a huge success. I am blessed to make a living for my family doing what I love and am grateful for each day I get to create. Where will I be in 5–10 years? I am very excited about what the future holds. Hopefully I’ll be right where I am now, with kids running down to my shop to say hi, sawdust all over my clothes and a smile on my face.


River Mural by Greg Klassen. Photo: Matthew Bergsma

Greg, what’s your message to woodworkers who have a dream of turning pro? Is it worth it? What’s important to keep in mind?
I would share the same advice that was given to me by one of my favourite woodworking instructors: you may not become rich but you will have a rich life. Those of us who make a living creating beautiful objects are living the dream of many. Keep your needs small so you can do what you love. Reach out to those who have come before if you need advice. Stay true to your vision, take risks and don’t give up.

Learn more about Greg Klassen at and Instagram @gregklassenfurniture.


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