The Furniture Maker
John Bohman talks to his 4-year old son through an iPhone perched on the edge of a half-finished wicker seat. His callused hands move fast, cracked fingernails pinching and pulling imported Brazilian vine to the tune of grainy toddler babel. The intricacies of the elaborate weave do not betray the fact that this is Bohman's first time caning a chair, or that his first major furniture show is less than an hour away.
“I bet you anyone with the Internet can build a spiral staircase,” says Bohman, brushing off his trial-by-fire successes as the culmination of many learned skills. The difference is, Bohman has built a spiral staircase, along with numerous cabinets, tables, bars and kitchens over his last seven years as a privately employed professional fine woodworker.
Hunching over the chair at eye-level, Bohman remains fixated on quality even with the clock still running. Rushing the caning would go against his ethos as a designer to deliver high quality handmade local furniture, products Bohman feels consumers have lost appreciation for in an age of mass production and planned obsolescence.
He says goodbye to his son and decides the unfinished caning will have to do. The chair is loaded up alongside its twin into the back of a beat up Honda, and Bohman drives away from the cluttered Northside wood shop housing Dove Tail Furniture Company.
For Missoula's monthly First Friday Gallery Night, 4 Ravens Gallery is hosting a dining room exhibit called Surface: Furniture, featuring the work of four local contemporary craft artists. Bohman's work is center stage: a walnut dining table with matching chairs and benches cut from the aged wood of two trees brought from his home town back when “A hundred dollar bill got you from St. Louis to Mammoth. And a hotel!”
The first time Bohman made the trip up to Montana was to work in Yellowstone National Park's kitchens after barely graduating high school. A bureaucratic change in the Missouri school system allowed Bohman's class to walk with 23 credits instead of 32. “If that hadn't happened I probably wouldn't have graduated,” says Bohman. With his obedience to academic structure handicapped by the ADHD scientists were just finding a name for, Bohman lucked out. “At the end of a long road of being a bad student, I got a freebie.”
Bohman would return to school after meeting the girl he would eventually marry while working as a Discovery Ski Area lift operator. They moved to Missoula in 2001 and Bohman started a brief career as a University of Montana art student. “I got by in school by my ability to draw,” he says, “that's the only thing that got me through.”
Bohman didn't get any more freebies. A mural of New Orleans he was commissioned to paint still stands behind Grizzly Grill in the Adams Center, but outlasted his time at the university. For reasons Bohman still can't explain, he lost his edge. “It was the end of the semester and we had to have three paintings. I had nothing. I just made mud on the canvas.” Bohman dropped out.
Over the next seven years Bohman worked odd jobs and cooked. in a series of Missoula restaurants. But carpentry was still at the back of his mind.“I wanted to do woodworking since I was a little kid, but I approached it thinking school was the thing to do.” In 2003 Bohman changed strategies, enrolling in the Rosewood Studio fine woodworking school outside Ottawa.
The intensive program trained Bohman in the style of James Krenov, the Stockholm educated Siberian-American woodworker responsible for reintroducing craftsmanship to a mid-century furniture culture mired in sterile modernism.
Furniture buffs at 4 Ravens Gallery recognize the Krenovian influences in some of Bohman's furniture, the cut of each chair leg following the wood's grain like the curves of a ship. Others point out the inlaid butterfly keys holding the natural cracks of the dining room table as inspired by George Nakashima, woodworking's late elder-statesmen who brought Japanese carpentry flair from the internment camps to the art gallery.
The thoughtful design isn't just for show. “It isn't pretentious art school fantasy,” says Bohman, “it serves a purpose.” Nakashima butterflies reinforce organic weak points in the free edge slab. Form follows function as the chair's two legs arc up past the seat, forming a backrest that mimics the natural contours of the human spine. A gap between the seat's rear edge and the backrest allows room to recline, further promoting healthy posture.
Anatomical attention to detail is something Bohman learned studying under Berkeley architectural professor Galen Cranz, whose provocative book on the sociological implications of chair design intellectualized a universal often taken for granted. Bohman attended her body conscious chair design workshop at Colorado's Anderson Ranch Arts Center through a Sam Maloof woodworker scholarship.
Bohman's furniture is functional, but not functionalist, precisely designed for a purpose but retaining the intimacy and character of natural materials. “It's like a cake with a whole bunch of frosting on it,” he says, motioning to a chair. “It's still a cake.” By pricing his products as luxury goods, Bohman is as practical as his furniture. Even his end tables start at over a thousand dollars, the money providing for a young family of three.
And for Bohman's products, people will pay. The scene in the gallery's showcase room changes throughout the night. The cacophony of wine thirsty minors is replaced with intimate conversations between art collectors and designers trying to make the sell.
The show represents the beginning of a new era for Bohman. Since starting Dove Tail Furniture Co, he's seen the ups and downs of working custom commissions. “I worked through five different circles of friends,” says Bohman, each of his jobs leading to the next through constant networking. But the economic downturn hit Bohman as hard as any small business owner, and a family means job security is the new priority.
His solution is to phase out custom work in favor of spec production, locally made studio furniture designed to be produced in larger quantities and sold in galleries just like 4 Ravens. “I've worked more than I haven't for the last seven years,” says Bohman. “I'm done with it.”
His next big step is a big South Carolina furniture show in October. It's his first exhibition outside of Montana, and a chance to expand to regain the creative independence lost doing commissions. “To raise a family you need to be practical,” Bohman says. “For me, woodworking has turned out to be the right combination of bendable rules and creative outlet. I was never good at rules anyways.”