The Pleasure of Breaking the Rules
Necessity is the mother of invention. No doubt about that. Ask Michael Beaster. After eight years of running his own business of underground power line installation in the Midwest, the economy started pinching and a new source of income had to be found; and this he did.
When business started slowing down too much, Beaster enrolled at Madison Area Technical College in their woodworking and cabinet making class. Even though his lecturer kept pushing him into cabinetry, Beaster could not resist the strong pull he felt towards furniture making instead. As he was much older than the other students in his class, he was somehow allowed to pursue his own interests. From this early introduction to working with wood, he developed a line of art furniture that is today not only renowned in Door County, but also throughout the rest of America.
“This affinity I have with wood,” Beaster said, “came after a long search of looking for, and finding, what it is I want to do. Seventeen years ago I came to Door County. I had just finished vocational school in Madison and was fortunate to find a position with a local woodworker. I started at the bottom, but this was good as I learned a lot more than was taught at school. Different woodworkers have different tricks of the trade and learning this was invaluable.”
As the years went by, Beaster became more and more familiar with the properties of the different types of wood. While he was honing his skill as a craftsman, he started collecting tools and machinery, preparing for his own workshop.
“I had to earn my own reputation,” he recalls. “I never dreamt I would be an artist in furniture making one day. But I was always wondering why you could not do this, or could not do that with wood. Slowly I started doing things that were different by using unconventional styles and techniques. My furniture pieces were bending, leaning and curving and this caught the attention of the public.”
Indeed, looking at Beaster’s art, his furniture has an illusionary feel to it. An ordinary upright cabinet is stretched up and over to one side. Another cabinet sits square and solid on the floor, yet tapers to a delicate tiny drawer at the top. Another one looks as if it is blown backwards in a strong wind, yet holds onto the floor with all its might with four thin legs. There are the surprises of hidden compartments and push-me-pull-me drawers. Many pieces are asymmetrical. Most have slanted drawer fronts. The most impressive of all though, is the cabinet that curves out and curls over with a perfect spray pattern of wood grain following the circle of the design. It is as if the rigidity of wood has suddenly developed a plasticine property. The designs spell out cartoonish fun, but do not be fooled — every single piece is well thought out, well engineered, works perfectly and, most of all, is totally balanced. This is the depth of Beaster’s art: taking something totally conventional, breaking the rules, and seeing how far he can push the laws of gravity and still produce something fully functional.
“Yes, this is not standard type furniture,” Beaster said. “My designs have a sculptural look to them. This is about breaking woodworking rules and getting away with it, but before you can break the rules, you need to learn and understand the basics of woodworking and the properties of wood. Only then will you know how far you can break the rules. This comes with time and experience.”
The first piece of unconventional furniture Beaster made was a small art deco unit with drawers. Part of its appeal was the glass marbles inlaid into the wood in such a way you could see right through it. This was so well received, Beaster was totally enthralled. Since then, marbles have become a big part of his designs. Another added decorative touch is fluorescent, incandescent or even neon lights. Adding lighting to the designs came with their own set of problems, that of drying out the wood. Not one for being held back, Beaster has developed a way of protecting the wood from this source of heat with either masonite, silicon and/or ventilation holes. Sometimes these effects even become part of the design.
That Beaster has a strong affinity for wood is no maybe. At times, ten different types of wood are used in one design. This forms a play of color and texture and enriches the overall essence of the design. Each piece of wood in his workshop has been handselected, chosen for a good color, cut and especially interesting grain patterns. This is known as the figure of the wood.
To select maple, for instance, one should not look just for the excellent color and grain pattern on the top of the piece, but also inspect the edge to judge the illusion of hills and valleys the grain of this particular wood forms. Australian lace wood has an intricate pattern of light and dark with a beautiful iridescent sheen to it. Ash is used a lot as it is a strong wood with a more noticeable grain. It is also easier to work with than the harder maple.
The art of breaking woodworking rules is a skill Beaster has mastered, but even he admits to struggling at times.
“My bent pieces of furniture are the most difficult designs. It can be very frustrating to figure out how to do something and sometimes I actually walk away from it for a week, or even longer. The solution comes to me eventually. There is always a different way of doing something. Wood can be very forgiving — that is, if you remember the golden rule to measure twice and cut once. My dream project is to build neon kinetic furniture and move on to wood sculptures. That is where I see myself in the future.”
Today Beaster’s work is sold exclusively through Fine Line Designs Gallery in Ephraim. Sometimes the artist himself will be in attendance on the floor where he will watch and observe people’s reaction to his furniture. Invariably, the response is favorable. An intention behind the designs is to evoke a subliminal reaction of ease and comfort from people and this can be seen in the subconscious way they reach out to touch and stroke the wood. Beaster draws great delight from interacting with the people responding to his art.
“People want to buy from the artist,” he said. “They want to know the artist and I, again, like meeting the people buying my furniture. As with many artists, I enjoy creating something I am inspired by and when someone connects with it, and buys it, well, that is what it is all about.” In this wonderful ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world of Beaster art furniture, you can be anyone you want to be. There are no expectations of conformity. We can enjoy furniture as art and what a bonus when we discover it actually functions, too.
In preparing wood for furniture, the lumberyards will remove 70% of the natural moisture. This way, once a newly completed piece of furniture is stained and sealed, it will contain the perfect percentage of moisture to not extend or contract when exposed to temperature changes.