On average, as consumers we’re exposed to approximately 5000 brand messages a day from companies trying to sell us something. We are constantly being sold things, and we constantly buy into it. Through that process, it feels like we have lost the way objects around us can connect us to our past and our culture. There’s a way of thinking that new is always better, and so we’re encouraged to discard the old.
The work of furniture designer Heidi Earnshaw came to our attention because her focus is on creating objects with meaning longevity. Her simple and elegant pieces are meant to age with you, a vehicle for collecting memories. It’s a sensibility that emphasizes durability and timelessness, not the latest trends.
It’s bit of a conundrum for consumers, especially those that love quality but can’t afford it. Most of the work from Heidi Earnshaw Design is one of a kind pieces that celebrate value in craftsmanship, and that often comes at a price. Her new collection 1 of a 100 is launching next year, a limited batch production that will make her work more accessible.
Meet the Maker
How did you begin your career in woodworking?
H: I started with a fine art degree in the University of Toronto, sculpture, painting. I was always interested in art. I went and did my art degree, but in my last year or two I did a lot of woodworking in sculpture. Big cedar lamination, chainsaw carving, and I really fell in love with wood as a material. It is so versatile and it is sustainable if its coming from managed forests, completely renewable. Wood gets better with age and at the end of if its life cycle, it just goes back into the ground.
What are your design inspirations?
H: I look at historical work, and that informs what i’m doing today in a modern sensibility. I really look at woodworking traditions. I feel connected to that as a maker, as a woodworker. Scandinavian, Japanese, early American, the Windsor tradition, Shaker tradition, all those things inform what i’m doing now, but with a current outlook overlayed on top of that.
The Handmade Revolution
Nowadays there seems to be more of a shift more towards the handcrafted experience.
H: What’s interesting is people with limited incomes are becoming more interested in it. I say that because a lot of what we do is costly, to make one piece in Canada is very expensive. I’m finding within my own client base that we do have the wealthy customers, but we also have people that really save up for the one piece that they are going to buy that’s custom, handcrafted. Often dining room tables are very popular, because they see that it’s something that they are going to have for a lifetime, and that they’re willing to sacrifice other things in order to be able to afford that.
Are people purchasing differently than before?
H: People are shopping with their values – it’s not just a luxury item anymore. It’s about value, it’s about where people choose to spend their resources, and spend their time.
The Creative Process
What is the design process like for your new batch collection, compared to your usual one of a kind pieces?
H: A limited production bridges the gap between one-offs and mass production. With one-offs it can be hard to invest too much time in the design. With the batch production, we can put more time in it because we know we can recoup that design fee over the course of a 100 pieces. Every creative endeavour has its economics.
Why are you choosing to go with Limited Edition pieces?
H: This whole idea of limited edition, I’m not doing it because I want it to be exclusive, thats not the driver. But there’s something in that which appeals to people. With vintage it’s the same thing, you go into a vintage shop you find a cool dress and you know other people won’t be wearing on the street. It’s exclusive again. The appeal for me was that making 100 of something is a different design proposition and challenge.
What other new elements do you hope to incorporate?
H: I’m also interested in working with other craftspeople, small businesses that are in or around Toronto that are working in metal and stone. These kinds of skilled shops are disappearing, because the next generation isn’t taking up these trades, there’s such a limited business for it. I would like to try and keep some of that skill and expertise here in Toronto.
Your design has aesthetic about it that feels modern, but not trendy.
H: I don’t want it to feel of today—I want someone to be still sitting at that table 25 years from now—50 years from now. I want it to be background, we have lots of opportunities in our lives for style.
These bigger pieces, it makes more sense to me that they are a little bit quieter, a backdrop for other things that speak to the moment a little bit more.
What kind of wood do you work with?
H: When I first started my career, people were sourcing woods from all over the world, the exotic woods.
The exotic woods had crazy grain and patterns, quite beautiful, but not sustainable at all, coming from forests in the world that are diminished and disappearing. For the workers in those areas too it’s very dangerous. We work principally in walnut and white oak. Occasionally maple, cherry, or other domestics. We use only domestic hardwoods from Canada and the United States.
What kind of steps do you take towards sustainability?
H: The idea of longevity, that’s sort of the cornerstone of my environmental outlook. What we do in terms of sustainability is create pieces that are not disposable. I want them to physically last so they are well made, they are strong, and durable. Wood is such an amazing material it just looks better and better as it gets older. It doesn’t just get a couple of scratches and you think, oh I need to get rid of it.
Like cheap, IKEA furniture.
H: IKEA is on the extreme end of mass production. What they do for the price point is pretty good, its interesting design. They are a responsible company to a certain extent – except for the idea that many of the things are disposable.
When it comes to consumption, it often feels like we have too many choices.
H: We’re in a culture now where we feel entitled to all this choice all the time. For me I feel we are overwhelmed by it. We make a choice but we start to worry we made the wrong choice because we have all these other options. I’m more of the camp of having 5 things to choose from.
Cost can be an issue for those that do want to go the handmade route.
H: Even though having something handmade is expensive – you just need to do with less. That’s all you’re giving up. We have this culture where everything needs to be renewed all the time. If its not new, its not good or exciting. We’re always jonesing for the next thing. I do wish that things with real quality was more accessible and it wasn’t an either or situation of plastics from IKEA or handmade items.
Do you ever wonder about the pieces you’ve made, after they’ve gone out into the world?
H: As a designer/maker I’m interested in the way objects can carry meaning. It can carry memories, like the wine glasses from your grandmother that you remember her by, those kinds of things.
I got a couple of chairs in my kitchen that were made by a rural maker in quebec in the 1940s, rustic simple pieces that were passed down through family. Those chairs, the top rung is completely discoloured from people grabbing onto them and pulling them out from the table. So there’s that history, actually embedded into the material, and when I see those chairs, there’s an emotional kind of association with a certain time and place. I hope that the things that I’m making, some of them will have that same kind of impression, that it will become something that is part of a family.
Tell us a bit more about your take on Slow Furniture.
H: That’s where people think i’m a traditionalist. It’s really not about that, Slow Food isn’t about that either. It’s about doing things, taking the right amount of time that something should take. To not rush, to be in the moment of an experience. On the best days in the studio, that’s what happens, where you’re just focused and engaged on the thing that’s right in front of you.
Now you can get things made that is CNC controlled, it is the same process just a different way of directing it. That makes the whole process more efficient. The difficulty in this business is the price point is high and it needs to be because that’s the nature of it. But if we can bring it down to make that work more accessible, then I’m all for it.
What does the future hold for craftsmanship?
H: I’m very committed to craft, to keeping real skill alive. I think its really great that there’s all these DIY movements happening and people are just placing value in making for their own personal selves, there’s such pleasure in that for everyone to enjoy.
Then there’s another level of it where people who have years of experience with a material, like watching an olympic runner run the hundred meter dash— not everyone can do it. I find there’s real value in keeping that skill and craftsmanship. Through teaching and informal mentoring I want to create opportunities for people to be able to engage in craft in a deep way, as a career. That’s getting harder to do. I hope that 1 of a 100 can keep some people moving and engaging in craft.
Will you be participating in any upcoming shows?
H: We’ll do the Interior Design Show this year, and probably some satellite events for Toronto Design week.
To view more work from Heidi Earnshaw Design, visit www.heidiearnshawdesign.com