This story first appeared in Design Online in February 2015.
ADAM MARKOWITZ is in Maine, USA and it’s the week of the monster snow storm which hit the northeast coast when we chat via email.
He has spent the last two hours digging his car out from under a blanket of snow and has been in Maine for several months. He is there to take a number of fine furniture classes at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. It’s a well-earned creative sabbatical and the next stage of his career development since his Fred table won the Concept Award at VIVID 2014.
“I was quite surprised to win actually,” he says of his first attempt at submitting work to the design competition. “The standard at VIVID in the last few years has been high so I was looking at it more as an attempt to show my work in that forum.” He notes that VIVID is one of the few platforms where young designers have the opportunity to present their work to a wide audience of designers, specifiers and retailers who attend the event on an annual basis.
Markowitz says the amount of inquiries and orders he has received for Fred since last July when the winners were announced demonstrates how critical good exposure is to the success of his product and his brand. Fred is now sold through Modern Times in Fitzroy, Melbourne and is “handmade to order by a very talented local craftsman, Stephen Ziguras of Eco wood design.” This arrangement is the start of a business model which Markowitz hopes to develop further in the future.
“I can see though, that there is still a way to go in establishing both a suite of products and my personal brand as a designer,” he says. “The part of furniture design that I most enjoy is the conceptual and prototyping process. Once I have made the first few prototypes, I am eager to train other craftsmen who I respect to continue producing these items for sale, leaving me free to develop new designs.”
“I am attempting to structure a business model where I am supported by work selling already in the marketplace leaving me free to continue playing in the workshop. Whilst this aim is certainly a while off, I am slowly working towards establishing a recognised personal brand which will be associated with my products, so that people will recognise my products as having integrity in construction and honesty in design and materials.”
Markowitz trained as an architect and has had a love of woodcraft for many years. “I’ve always loved being creative and working with my hands,” he explains of his personal side projects. He has exhibited work in other forums and has taken classes at the Victorian Woodworking Association (VWA) workshop at the Meat Market Arts Centre in North Melbourne where he will soon become a tenant and develop his skills further. The VWA is the leading woodcraft guild in Victoria and was founded in 1979.
While architecture and woodcraft are both creative and practical professions, the tools of the trade, time frames and the scale of projects are markedly different. There is a different sense of responsibility too. Designing and documenting buildings is a long and “bureaucratic process” with many parties invested in the outcome. For a young architect who spends their time in an office environment and constantly connected to the computer, the “disjunction in architecture between design and the end product” can be a little frustrating and dissatisfying. On the other hand, the process of creating a piece of furniture from initial sketch designs to computer documentation and modelling, to realising successive prototypes and then the finished product is a much more condensed timeframe and a more intimate experience. It is this autonomy and more immediate process of creation which appeals to Markowitz.
“Furniture is at a scale where I can have an idea and within a matter of weeks of hard work, I can be looking at a prototype that I can then test, sit on, refine, and rework,” he explains. “I enjoy both the conceptual and craftsmanship phases of the process, finding them satisfying different needs I have in my life.”
After working for a few years in Melbourne architectural firms, Markowitz, who now works part-time so he can pursue furniture design, took a break to undertake postgraduate study in furniture design at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.
“The school there had a very open mind as a fine arts school and had a strong basis in fine craft due to an excellent workshop supervisor, Phillip Blacklow. MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) had just opened and Hobart was, and is, going through something of a renaissance,” he says. “I had a great life living above Salamanca, surfing in the mornings and working all night in their well-equipped shop.”
The university awarded him a travelling scholarship to complete his studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark where he studied under Professor Nicolai de Gier who is “a specialist in chair design,” Markowitz says. It was here that he developed the Möbius chair and Hyperbolic chair.
Markowitz describes the Möbius chair as following in the vein of Alvar Aalto’s experiments with cantilever ply chairs. A single, narrow strip of plywood forms the backrest, armrest and support. This chair was made using a combination of laser cut digital technology and traditional cold-press lamination techniques. The Hyperbolic chair references the mathematical form of the hyperbolic parabola to create the appearance of a curve. The chair is lightweight, strong and comfortable to sit on.
“The Danish school very much attuned my eye to the Scandinavian sense of humanist modern – simple, honest, clear lines but still approachable, tactile and human,” Markowitz explains. “Fred was realised when I returned from Copenhagen and began renting a workshop in South Melbourne. It was really a combination of the handcrafted approach of Tasmania with the humanist modern of Copenhagen.” Fred is a reference to the children of Crown Prince Frederik and Tasmanian born Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, and the table is produced from locally sourced and managed eucalypt.
Many of Markowitz’ favourite designers, including Danish designers Børge Mogensen and Hans Wegner, started life as cabinet makers before becoming furniture designers. He admires their chair designs in particular as they clearly demonstrate a craftsman’s approach to form, materiality and structure.
“They understand just how thin you can make material before it will break,” Markowitz explains. “Their hands understand where to curve and where to keep straight. They also understand the practicalities of handwork versus machine built to make affordable, beautiful designs.”
At the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, Markowitz has been focusing on traditional methods of fine craft and has also studied different methods of bending, curving and shaping wood under the tutelage of several guest teachers from around the world. His aim is to develop his craftsmanship to a level where his furniture demonstrates a refinement that he sees in those world renowned designers.
The woodworking school grew out of the American Studio Furniture movement from 1940-1990 and which focused on furniture making as high art. Artisans typically produced one-off items taking thousands of hours to build at the highest level of craftsmanship and with exacting levels of perfection and precision. The school is associated with some of the folkloric names of that movement such as master craftsmen James Krenov and Sam Maloof.
“Whilst I tend to lean to the more democratised or affordable small-run production furniture rather than one-off masterpieces, I am trying to bring my craftsmanship to a far higher level at this school.”
“I love wood as a medium. I’m not opposed to using other materials at all and have worked with steel and plastics, but I definitely prefer wood as it is very pliable and forgiving in many ways. Some species have such a stunning natural beauty that they can completely stand alone as a material,” Markowitz says. “Wood gives you a sense of an organic medium that was once a beautiful, living tree. As the furniture maker George Nakashima says, ‘When working with wood there is a responsibility to return life to the tree with good work.’”
He also feels that wood is an ideal match for contemporary design which can be “sleek and minimal while remaining warm, approachable and tactile. Timber, if appropriately sourced, is also one of the most sustainable materials available to designers.”
“I am excited to get back to my workshop in Melbourne in February and get started on a number of projects.”