Leslie Webb: Science and Art
Above: Leslie Webb in her Texas studio with her signature Linda Lou Rocker in rift white ash with rattan caning.
Interview by Linda Nathan
Photos: Leslie Webb
You have said that you didn’t choose furniture making as a career, that it chose you. Were you already a maker? How did you discover woodworking and decide that was your path?
I had taken some art classes, but didn’t think of myself as an artist or a maker (that term wasn’t in our lexicon back then!). At arts school in Maine we were required to take classes in many different areas, regardless of major. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I thought it was going to be something in science because I really enjoyed those classes in high school. And then I started taking art classes. I loved making something with my own two hands, yet I couldn’t see myself as a fine artist. I felt I needed to choose between science and art, but neither felt exactly right.
I decided to take some time off from college and got a job as a nanny. It was Robert, the father of the family, that introduced me to woodworking. I began working in his studio a few hours a week. One of the clearest memories I have is cutting my very first piece of wood. It wasn’t anything exciting – parts for a crate. I felt this nervous excitement as the sawblade sank into the two by four. Despite my best efforts, a concept that had been hammered into me during my parochial school education – that each of us has a calling – had eluded me. But in those few seconds, it instantaneously shifted into reality. And my life came into focus in a way I never expected. It is hard to explain, but in that moment, I knew I had found my path.
When I think about it now, woodworking does make a lot of sense: there is the math/science side of understanding the material and technical execution as well as the creative design side of things.
Line Credenza, white ash
Have you undertaken formal studies in woodworking and design?
In college I took Intro 2D and 3D design classes, which were requirements for many of the art classes. I find them invaluable today. I tried for a few years to teach myself woodworking, but I just didn’t have a lot of access to great resources. This was before YouTube, and I wasn’t aware of woodworking magazines. I didn’t know any furniture makers or even hobbyists. I knew the quality of furniture that I wanted to make but didn’t know how to get there on my own.
From my time in Maine, I was familiar with the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. When I started looking into formal training, it just so happened that they were starting their nine-month comprehensive program. I applied and luckily was accepted. David Upfill-Brown was the lead instructor, and I am so grateful to have had him as a teacher. Other than the first two projects, you design your pieces so that is also built into the curriculum.
Miter Coffee Table, rift white oak
What was it like at the CFC in Maine? How intense was the course? Did you ever feel out of your depth? Were other women taking the course while you were there?
CFC is a very special place. The instructors are so generous with their knowledge and time. It’s an amazing opportunity for students to have access to some of the best furniture makers in the world. The nine month course is very intense, though. I literally knew almost nothing when I enrolled (this is not me being humble), and by the end of the nine months, I had an incredible foundation in fine furniture making.
Classes are Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. Instructors are present the entire time. I often spent evenings, nights and weekends working in the shop as well. I felt out of my depth the entire time. I had classmates that had been hobbyists for over 20 years. I can’t imagine what they thought of me!
The first thing we learned to do was flatten the backs and sharpen chisels and plane blades. I remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’. I think it was my stubborn refusal to admit defeat that got me through those times of self-doubt. There was only one other woman in my class of 12. She was much more advanced than I and kept to herself. There were almost no female instructors as well, so it was very isolating and lonely in that sense.
Stefan Coffee Table, curly maple and rift cherry
After Maine were you able to support yourself through making?
It took a few years to build my business to the point that it supported me. I had the rather unfortunate timing of starting my business about a year before the economic collapse of 2008. I nearly lost everything then. I even lived in my shop for about six months to try to save on overhead expenses (more proof of that stubborn refusal to admit defeat). I was fortunate to find a hobbyist with a well equipped shop, who out of generosity and kindness allowed me shop access for free. I had orders but not enough to sustain me, so I had a second job too. After two to three years, I was able to quit my second job and build furniture full time.
Minimalist lines define the Haven Blanket Chest in white oak with black walnut stand.
You have a great portfolio of designs which all bear the Leslie Webb signature style. What’s your general design process? How long, for example, did it take to design your rocker?
Every single piece I make goes through the same general design process. I begin with hand sketching to explore and generate different ideas. Once I have a direction I want to pursue, I make quarter scale drawings on graph paper. This is where I begin to dial in proportions. Next I make a quarter scale model, usually out of thin plywood, balsa wood, or matboard. If I am unsure about anything, I will make several versions for comparison. The models are what I often present to clients, along with scaled isometric drawings.
Once I am confident with a version (if it’s a spec piece) or I have the client’s ok, I will make a full- scale mockup and full-scale technical drawings (by hand), tweaking anything as needed. I usually make mockups from cardboard or sheets of rigid foam insulation, held together with hot glue or double-sided tape. This makes it easy to take it apart if I want to change anything.
When designing a chair, I make a mockup using poplar and screws so it can be tested for comfort. This entire design process usually takes one to two weeks, depending on the complexity of the piece. My rocker took almost double that because figuring out the arc of the rocker was quite difficult. Every time I tried a different arc, it affected the height of the seat, which had ergonomic repercussions. There was a lot of testing and experimenting that went into it. This all probably sounds very involved and time consuming, but here is the great thing about a rigorous design process: it will save you from making some awful creations. Once you see a full-scale mockup, you know if you got something very wrong or if that chair design is not made for the human body.
Shosh Bud Vases in various species
Many makers find inspiration in the organic forms of nature however your work seems more linear and pared back. What inspires you? How would you define your aesthetic?
I do find nature very inspiring. There is a lot of geometry in it! I tend to interpret organic shapes in a graphic sense and abstract them in a way that may not be obvious. And, yes, I do love geometry. I’m also fascinated with the idea of taking one single form, repeating it until it takes on a life of its own, and building a piece whose sum is greater than the parts. That is a theme that runs through many of my pieces. My Carter Entry Dresser and Shosh Bud Vases illustrate this.
I also love thinking about the basic forms of furniture and questioning what springs to mind. For example, when most people think of a generic table, they imagine a tabletop with a leg at each corner. I started asking myself, ‘How else can you support a top without having a leg at each corner?’. My Stefan Coffee Table and Miter Leg Tables are two different answers to that question. Of course, there are infinite answers.
If I had to define my aesthetic, it would be something like the following: take the ideals of the Arts & Crafts Movement and put it in a blender with Art Deco, Danish Mid-Century, and the Japanese aesthetic, all filtered through my own perspective.
Leslie Webb's studio
Do you have any tips for other makers who want to refine their design skills?
Take a 2D and 3D design course. Become familiar with the design elements and principles such as texture, space, contour, balance, unity, proportion. Look at more than just furniture – I cannot emphasise this enough! When you see something you like, try to figure out what you like about it. Analyse its use of the design elements and principles. If you do this enough, you’ll most likely find you’re drawn to the same things repeatedly. This is a starting point for developing your own perspective.
And on a personal level, have you ever had issues of self belief, in particular in terms of being a woman in a field that is still mostly populated by men. Do you believe that things are changing for women in terms of acceptance?
I do think things are changing, but it is slow going. I’ve never equated being a woman in a field dominated by men with women not being good enough woodworkers. So I don’t doubt myself in that sense. It’s simply a reflection of deeply ingrained attitudes in our culture at large. It is absurd to think that a person’s anatomy influences how well they can take a board of wood, cut it into smaller pieces, and reassemble them into a piece of furniture. I think most people would agree with that.
But at some point, society decided that women weren’t interested or capable of furniture making. No one questioned it, and it became an operating belief that affects who is asked to write articles, who’s included in books, who teaches classes, etc. And those, in turn, send a message, intentional or not, to women that they do not belong or are unwelcome in furniture making, which turns off a lot of women from learning these skills. And then it becomes a feedback loop. But we can change these things. It just takes a little awareness.
Repeated forms have a sculptural outcome in the Carter Entry Dresser.
Are there any milestones you can point to in your development as a maker? For example, are there any people in particular who have influenced your work?
Certainly studying at CFC under David Upfill-Brown. At the end of the course we had exit interviews, and he told me that he thought I had what it takes to make it. Hearing that from someone of his calibre was huge for my confidence. Being a summer intern with Michael Fortune, seeing how a furniture studio operates in real life was instrumental. He taught me not only technical and design skills, but how to interact with clients as well.
What is your favourite part of the design and making process?
I love the design phase, dreaming up new ideas, figuring out which direction to pursue. Then refining it while trying not to lose its essence. And finally, deciding how to put the piece together in a way that will hopefully outlast me. I never tire of it.
What aspects of making challenge you?
There is so much to learn, so many specialty skills, it never seems to end. I feel as though I am still and will always be a student, which can often feel like I do not know what I am doing. And then there are the mistakes, which no matter how often you have done something, happen. It’s a humbling pursuit.
The Simple Stool is one of Leslie Webb’s regular production lines. Shown here in white oak with cotton rope weave.
What’s the hardest thing about being a professional maker?
Without a doubt, running the business side of things. We didn’t learn much about that in school, and it’s as important as the technical side. No one tells you that being self employed is like having 50 different jobs rolled into one. And then figuring out how much time to devote to each task daily can be pretty tricky, especially when all I really want is to be in the shop.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time? Are there any directions you plan to take your work in?
I’m not a huge long-term planner; every time I have, the universe has laughed at me. I am more interested in teaching than I was when I started out. I would also like to use what little platform I have to advocate for female woodworkers. Recently I’ve become very interested in seat weaving so we’ll see where that goes. Right now, I am just trying to learn those basic skills. There are so many different techniques and materials and patterns to explore!
Leslie Webb lives in Texas, USA. Learn more at www.lesliewebbdesign.com