Front Page of the Detroit News

May 10, 2013 at 1:00 am
Maureen Feighan

Made in Michigan: Hand-crafted furniture

Designers create unique pieces from wood, steel and recycled materials

From The Detroit News:

The smell of lacquer wafts through the air inside Alan Kaniarz’ large, dusty workshop at the Russell Industrial Center as workers assemble cabinets and National Public Radio plays in the background.

On a large work table near the back of the shop rests a chaise lounge made of Baltic birch plywood, but one glance at it and it’s clear it isn’t a conventional chaise. With its round curves and elegant shape, it gives the illusion of bent wood, making it as much an art piece as it is furniture.

“Once it’s designed, how it’ll be put together, the dimensions, all of the lines have to converge,” says Kaniarz, who started his Mobel Link furniture line two years ago. “The shape of the chairs is comprised of differing arcs and where those arcs connect and that line has to be digitally perfect.”

Kaniarz is one of several local furniture designers creating their own pieces and lines with a distinct point of view. And while many of the area’s largest furniture retailers assemble their products overseas, local designers are doing it right here in Michigan.

Kaniarz creates pieces that bend and twist and have a distinct mid-century and modern aesthetic. He says he does a lot in the Arts and Crafts style, the design movement that flourished from the late 19th century through 1918.

“When one compares the spare lines of this style to the excess ornamentation of the Victorian era, you can see that the style was thoroughly modern,” Kaniarz says.

Kaniarz, who grew up in Detroit, first started working with wood more than three decades ago after getting his builder’s license. He also used to make custom stained-glass pieces. But it wasn’t until making some wood pieces for a friend, Ben Hall, co-owner of the Russell Street Deli near Eastern Market, that he ventured into making his own furniture.

Working with CDX plywood, they cut the wood in angles, creating shapes that almost looked like parallelograms from the side.

“I was fascinated by the interplay of the end grain and the side grain, and from there, I made my first chair,” Kaniarz says.

Today, Mobel Link — some of which is available at TRA Art Gallery in the Michigan Design Center and at Mobili Now in Birmingham — is a mix of intricately cut and assembled chairs and some tables. Pieces range from $1,200 to $6,700.

His Frond chair, with a 60-inch tall back and made from 78 pieces, was inspired by Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the most celebrated architects and designers during the arts and crafts movement of the 20th century. Famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright also did a lot of high-back chairs, says Kaniarz.

“Frank Lloyd Wright said that because we come from cavemen people felt secure with their back against the wall, so this was a way of reproducing that feeling of safety and security,” says Kaniarz, who also is an adjunct professor at the College for Creative Studies and has taught at Wayne State.

Each piece starts with a sketch. Kaniarz uses a computer-automated design (CAD) program to convert his sketches into a one-sheet diagram that breaks down each chair into individual pieces that can be carved from one piece of 4-by-8 plywood. A computer numeric control router takes that diagram and carves the pieces 90 percent out of the wood; the pieces have to be cut the rest of the way with a hand router.

Then the real work begins, says Kaniarz.

“All of the edges need to be sanded,” he says. “We round the edges a little bit using another router. There’s just a ton of handwork in these things. They’re all handmade.”

The Dif Lounge, Kaniarz’s chaise, is made of 132 pieces of Baltic birch; it’s assembled with dowels, nails and glue, as are all of Kaniarz’s pieces. Each piece also has several coats of a post-catalyzed lacquer with resins and hardeners that make it moisture resistant.

Kaniarz says he designed an earlier version of the Dif Lounge and while it looked good, “it ended up being a torture device in that it was too low and the back curved downward.”

“On redesign, we changed the height which was a major plus, but the arcs and angles that were created to give proper back and leg support really dictated the end result. After I figured that out, it was a matter of connecting the dots in a pleasing manner that was at once structural and sculptural.”

Structural and sculptural could also be used to describe Chris Palmer’s work. The St. Clair Shores designer, who is just starting his business, has a modern style but uses a wide a range of materials, everything from steel wire mesh to materials he’s created. For him, he doesn’t even like to pigeonhole himself as a furniture designer. He considers what he creates more “expression in design.”

“I don’t like to have a style,” he says. “I think it’s a challenge for a designer to be flexible. Usually if there’s any style, it’s in my process. And my process depends on a material or manufacturing process.

A graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art where he received a master’s degree in 3D design last spring, Palmer says he’s been creating things and making things since he was a child. And that’s continued into adulthood.

His spring mesh chair is made of wire mesh and has an integral spring, meaning the spring is built into the chair. Palmer made a die and formed the spring’s curve in a press. For the seat, he used a swage block and hammer and rolled it by hand. It’s attached to an ash base.

“A lot of work and more than one process (was used) to make that form in steel mesh,” he says.

Many of his pieces are surprisingly comfortable. His stainless steel lounge is made of stainless woven mesh that was bent with an anvil. It’s attached to a walnut base and molds to the body. Pieces range in price from $200 to $4,000.

“I don’t want to do just one thing,” says Palmer, who says he’s a big fan of Knoll, known for its modern designs. “The one thing is trying new things.”

Palmer has even created his own materials.

“I’ve got a whole chemical library of nontoxic materials and I’m just trying to make expressions with the material,” says Palmer, who was a tool and die maker and worked in metal fabrication before going to graduate school.

An avid traveler, Palmer says he was inspired by all the trash he say in some places and thought there had to be a use for it. Back home, he mixed old paper, cardboard, and fibers such as old clothes, grinded them up, and mixed them with a biodegradable binder. It creates a strong compound that be used to make a structure, he says.

“Is it the most beautiful material in the world?” he says. “No, it’s not. But is it interesting? Yes.”

“With a kitchen blender and four buckets, you can make something really structural out of garbage,” he says.

And while his business is in its infancy, Palmer has a vision.

“I’m always trying to go places design hasn’t gone before,” Palmer says.


From The Detroit News:

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