Where craft ends, and art begins: Nick Sawyer, USA
It's hard to go past US maker Nick Sawyer entry for Maker of the Year, presented by Carbitool without wanting to ask a few questions! We spoke to Nick about his Acute River Island Tables, and about the road he has trod towards being a maker of fine and extraordinarily complex furniture. Here's the next in our series of Maker of the Year profiles!
Nick, where did you get your incredible skills from? Can you tell us little about your background please?
I’ve been all over the board as far as trajectory. I had wanted to be a doctor, lost my way a bit, and ended up with a six-year 4-year degree in evolutionary biology. Studied a little business following that, waited tables, and at some point, found myself looking for a hobby. I started with old fence pickets, a pin nailer, airbrush, and a chop saw in 2018. The first builds were painted signs, a DJ booth, a dock, and some patio furniture that didn’t last long because I hadn’t learned about wood glue yet. Hadn’t really done any woodworking besides helping my dad frame a few little things growing up.
A vacuum bag made its way into the shop about two years ago in 2021, and I’ve been tumbling down that rabbit hole since. Other than bouncing ideas off a good buddy, Tim Ulmen, that went to Red Rocks, most of what I’ve learned has been by doing. That applies to woodworking and design.
The Acute Tables look like they were a very complicated build. Can you give us a short run-down of the processes involved in making?
Technically, it’s a lanceoloid case constructed in halves and wrapped in a bookmatched curly Australian walnut. There’s a lot of veneer work on this design and there’s a total of five radial matches. The walnut top, fiddle back sycamore interiors are off-centre sunburst patterns, and the walnut sunrise tambour doors. The fifth insets flush into the top of the coopered ash pillar and is accented by a small stainless inlay. In order to mitigate tangential movement and achieve the veneered tambours, the panel was balanced and the walnut substrate was quartered with grain oriented parallel to the face. The base is free-bent ash that’s set in a dado on the underside of the case assembly.
Where did the main challenges lie?
There were two aspects of execution that kept me up at night. First was the compounding curved cut-out in the bent case and how to finish that edge. Most options would have resulted in a directionally poor grain match, embedding the edge in the substrate got complicated, and breaking the edge with a stainless inlay, layer, or edge resulted in a twist along the compounding curve that was beyond my tooling and technical ability. I’m pleased with the waterfall edges overall, but it wasn’t an easy trigger to pull. Decision fatigue was definitely a factor on this one!
The second aspect that was a little tricky to keep track of was the scribing and insetting of the tip of the top into the top of the pillar. There wasn’t much in the way of reference and dry fitting a wedge in an open circle meant extra attention was needed to make sure the circle was still circular.
Well, that confirms the impression of complexity!! Can you please elaborate on the inspiration for your Acute River Island Tables? How did the design evolve?
This client’s house is aptly the Acute Haus because of an acute angle detail that reads from one custom piece to another. This was my only prompt aside from a picture of the space. On one side of a clean contemporary kitchen island is one of those walls that’s actually a giant glass door to the patio and the other leads into the home and living room. The egress bridging the patio and living area in front of that island sits a small sofa and armchair. This coffee- or lounge table completes that little sitting nook.
My initial spark was flow. A lounge table in a space by the kitchen, right next to the patio door. This is likely the most traffic a little table can see, so it’s got to be part of the flow. Version 01 was a symmetric water drop mirrored on either side of a carved erosion-esque pedestal. It was a little too sterile until the client introduced a bean-shaped couch in storage they intended to recover – an heirloom upholstered in pink and in poor repair. The recovering was to be a funky cool designer pattern in blue with walnut trim.
We got the couch dimensions, I modelled it, and the concave part of the kidney couch was used as a guide to bend the teardrop shape. A bent waterdrop is referred to as a lanceoloid, in case you were curious. I loved the organics that were brought into the piece and some iterations later, solved the point-of-the-droplet-facing-a-doorway problem with a pillar. A dot. A period to punctuate the comma. Pause and stop; or maybe a semicolon, but who the hell knows what those do?
Then it was just about 100 hours of iteration rebuilding the model over and over until I didn’t hate things like balance and proportion.
Looking at some of your other work suggests that you are not afraid to push yourself. Why do you seem to like challenging yourself so much?
Relentless effort to figure out a way to continue building one-offs and avoid production drives me forward. I love finding the next hardest thing I haven’t done. Woodworking is a lot like drinking a frozen milk shake too fast. The more pain, the better it feels when it’s finished. It hurts, but it’s rewarding and both aspects are almost always proportional to one another. I am also interested in finding where craft ends, and art begins. There’s so much in our lives that’s devoid of meaning and I guess trying to find meaning in my life has shown me the power of putting some meaning, story, and feeling in the work.
Above: Nick Sawyer, Sharky, inspired by waves and the shape of a shark fin
Without instruction and at age 32, I feel like I’m playing catch up on the woodworking side of things. I’d hate to look back on today when I’m old and regret not having challenged my comfort zone a little harder; that I could have looked back with pride, but instead, I settled for good enough. If the whole reproduction thing doesn’t work out, my work is what I’ll leave behind. Hopefully that body of work that’s inspired me, helps to contribute to the collective neuroplasticity of future generations seeking a spark in their work.
Nick Sawyer’s Valence console table ‘challenges our intuitive sense of stability with its bent laminated rift white oak shelf and canted cherry legs’.
What’s next on the Nick Sawyer drawing board…
Rectangular unfinished charcuterie boards… just kidding, but nothing too crazy for a minute. A little decompression is always welcome after lengthy builds and I’ve been getting an itch to share what I’ve learned along the way so I have been working on my first four video courses. The first covers my approach to story and its application to organic design; the next three are project courses with varying degrees of curvilinear details at a range of interest levels/entry points.
Aside from the course projects, some simpler projects are on deck to try and get videos out a little more regularly on YouTube (@sawyerdesign) with a few crazy prospects to explore after that later this year and into the next. I’m excited to lean into a more scalable vertical of educational content that will hopefully allow for some runway to continue masochistically chugging the bent-lamination milkshakes.