History, politics, landscapes, famous and infamous people, graffiti and tattoos are just some of the things that inspire the furniture that Adrian Potter designs and makes. In fact he is not just inspired by what’s going on in the world past and present, he actually depicts it in the way he ornaments its surfaces. ‘All of my work has meaning and stories’, he said.
Decorated with inlay, carving, piercings, sculptural elements, marquetry and textured surfaces Adrian makes furniture that plays variously the role of a human body, a landscape, an architectural framework.
But why use furniture forms as a canvas for presenting imagery that is often very graphic? ‘I can’t explain that,’ he said, ‘I honestly don’t get it myself, like any of those decorations could be in paint, and why wood? It’s just what I do: I make furniture. There’s enough of a challenge in there structurally and technically as well to keep me interested, as opposed to an artwork.’
Early work such as Elm Chair, Elm Stool and B-Type Chair (see AWR#24, 1999) featured exposed innovative joinery that reflected his exploration and mastery of woodworking techniques, also explained by his background as a mechanical engineer.
Six years later Adrian’s Water series (AWR#48, 2005) was a collection of work that expressed ‘stories that are fundamental in the Australian consciousness’. A Certain Maritime Affair is a chest of drawers with a model of Cook’s Endeavour on top that also references modern day ‘boat people’. Parched is a tall drinks cabinet with an appropriately sun-crazed earth front. The Real Gordon Dam is another chest of drawers with two-tone veneered fronts that portray both ‘a beautiful engineering structure’ and the loss of Lake Pedder.
Punk (2009) is a ‘painting’ in wood based on a computer generated pattern inspired by the architecture of Federation Square in Melbourne that is melded with a depiction of the monster Godzilla. ‘She’s really pretty angry and that’s how I was feeling at the time—dark’, explains Adrian. The eleven eucalypt species used were once part of the now decommissioned Dadswell collection of native timbers initiated in the 1920s. Using ‘obsolete’ timbers was also Adrian’s way of highlighting the very limited use of wood in Federation Square where ‘new’ materials dominate.
Adrian’s selection of materials is always well considered. A Certain Maritime Affair ‘had to be colonial timbers: red cedar and Huon pine’, and his High Water Table had to be river redgum because it depicts the River Murray. Ebony was used as the ‘backdrop’ for the Tattooed Cabinet because of its visual and associated richness.
The ideas behind Adrian’s Tattoo series started literally at home when he got to know his former neighbours. ‘They were heavily tattooed and also had friends who were tattooists. Before I met them I saw tattoos as being relatively ugly—I didn’t realise they could be incredibly beautiful.’ Once again it’s the story behind this form of personal decoration that interests him. ‘(Tattoos are) all about points in time, it could be a relationship or the end of a relationship, or a death…it’s often about something that happened in a person’s life.’
Furniture is most commonly associated with the idea of domestic harmony and comfort. Juxtaposing these forms with graphic elements and imagery that may have fringe, counter-culture or even morbid overtones leads to a less prejudicial appreciation of those images. Street Cred features marquetry and relief carved plant-ons inspired by graffiti and Polynesian tattoos. Techniques for decorating furniture commonly associated with palaces and churches are used to depict imagery inspired by work that might be sprayed onto the side of a factory or wall, or body art that some may find confronting. But here the effect is harmonious, distinctive and highly ornamental.
The relief-carved skull bedecked with flowers on the drawer front of Frida—Día de los Muertos pays homage to the work of Frida Kahlo, and the celebratory Day of the Dead that takes place annually in Mexico and is symbolised by decorative skulls that are also a popular tattoo design. The complex mitred framework that encases the drawer and the stopped front legs is an statement in its own right that reflects Adrian’s interest in Aztec architecture.
The carcase of Tattooed Chest takes the role of a male torso decorated in the traditional ‘river’ tattoo Japanese manner, where a central path of un-inked skin is left. Carp (koi) and flowers symbolise masculinity in Japanese tattoo designs. Positioned on the drawer pulls the inlay invites touch in the way that tattooed skin can. Adrian sees a close connection, ‘I used wood for the pieces (in his tattoo series) because, like skin, it is a natural tactile material’.
Adrian received an Australia Council grant to allow him to explore themes arising from his study into tattoos and translate those ideas into surface decorations for furniture. ‘Decoration in domestic arts furniture has been downplayed’, says Adrian. ‘A lot of people have been working on just straight design for the last 10 to 20 years. Decoration has a place; it’s been undervalued and it’s time to bring that back. The tattoo project was a juxtaposition between the darkness of the tattoo and the bright harmony of furniture and was seen to be edgy enough to be challenging for audiences.’
Woodwork and design weren’t Adrian’s first profession. After finishing a university degree he worked as mechanical engineer in a windscreen wiper factory for three years. It was a medium sized concern with some 200 people on the floor. ‘My job was to design and test windscreen wipers. We had a test facility—something like 20 windscreens all set up and going 24 hours a day. Then I worked as a production engineer, getting parts made on the factory floor. I liked that much more. I really enjoyed the problem solving.’
But it was actually music that led Adrian to woodworking. ‘Because I loved making things I made some guitars when I was at uni and then I picked up James Krenov’s Cabinetmakers Notebook and that was it: I was sold with that whole philosophy and ethos. I was bored as an engineer. Here was this opening to a new world, and I was already interested in wood.’
Soon after, he enrolled in Krenov’s course at the College of the Redwoods, California, but then decided not to go. Adrian studied instead for an Associate Diploma in Visual Arts majoring in Wood with George Ingham the founding Head of the Wood Workshop, Canberra School of Art. ‘I loved it there, that was joy. George is a hero of mine, still. He wasn’t for everybody. You couldn’t get to know him as a person if you were a student but that didn’t really stress me out. What I wanted was to learn the craft, that was something I was desperate for and I was also after a sense of meaning, the sort that James Krenov presented, but George was doing that too in his own way.’
Starting a career as a designer/maker is one thing, but many people find it hard to maintain a sustainable practice. ‘So many people graduate from art schools and TAFEs with great ideas, dreams and aspirations, but for one reason or another it all falls by the wayside.’ Some makers are lucky enough to have a ‘patron’ or long term clients, some makers are brilliant at marketing but, says Adrian, ‘It’s luck, it’s not necessarily talent or the gift of the gab. It’s hard, you’ve got to get the right mix. Hard work is the key to it. You’ve just got to keep doing it’.
Does he sell enough? ‘Yes. My practice is pretty broad-based, I’ll say yes to almost anything.’ That doesn’t mean he lets the odd laminate kitchen go through; what Adrian means is that he can take on very challenging work such as the complicated curved wall panellings he recently made for a church in Woy Woy in collaboration with a stained glass artist. And the luck factor comes into it too because, ‘Work has always just appeared, I’ve got so much on right now that I don’t need to worry about it’.
Instead of stressing about the fact he doesn’t have any orders ahead of him he is relieved as ‘it takes the pressure off’ and he can return to another collaboration that was sparked by his participation in Craftsouth’s Traditional Craft Skill Creative Partnerships exhibition which will tour in 2013. For this Adrian has been working with Shima Gholani, a former curator of the Golestan Palace Museum in Tehran and an expert at Persian wood inlay techniques.
On keeping a studio practice going Adrian also says, ‘I’m not greedy, I have an hourly rate and I try to work on that as a service provider. My clients come to me because they can’t find what they want anywhere else. They also come back to me because they like working with me.’ So are they in essence buying him as ‘the artist’ as well? ‘Yes, but if they were going to someone else they’d be buying that person as well so it’s not like I’m unique. That’s the nature of this sort of industry. You’re buying a story. See, it comes back to the story. If somebody comes to my door or somebody else’s door what they want is an object that is authentic and has something that they can talk about to whoever. It’s like “this piece came from here, and the timbers came from there, and we worked with this person, and he or she put his heart or soul into it”. It’s their investment not just into quality, time and materials. There’s a personal story that the owner has, this sort of provenance. It’s important to me and to my clients. If they come to me, it’s a whole package.’
Story by Linda Nathan, Wood Review Editor
Learn more about Adrian Potter at www.adrianpotter.net.au
See also Randy Larcombe's feature video about Adrian Potter: