Brian Newell, Woodworker
I began wood carving in my parents’ Michigan basement at age eight. Performing the task with X-acto knives and great enthusiasm, I still bear the scars of my first encounter with a chunk of balsa wood. Since that time, my arsenal of tools has expanded along with my range of fantastic wood, and my love of the work has remained constant. I still explore the entire universe of woodworking, sometimes camping out on its outer borders and other times remaining close to the center, making simple, beautiful and functional furniture from local woods.
With the exception of a few misguided but fascinating years at the University of Michigan, I have always wanted to earn my living by making things from wood. In 1989 I officially abandoned the university and headed west to Fort Bragg, California, where my childhood hero James Krenov led a furniture course at the College of the Redwoods. It was a great year of intense focus, but most of all it confirmed the legitimacy of the craft itself; here were 24 aspiring woodworkers in the same room, dedicated to learning the craft as a profession, and not a single one of them felt the need to apologize for it. Making furniture was noble enough, even if it lacked the prestige and security of other professions.
After graduating the Krenov school I found my way to Chicago where, needing a job, I had the great fortune to work as a pattern maker for the scale model industry. Here we were told exactly what to make from highly-detailed drawings, while our artistic freedom took place within tolerances of +/-.005 inches. Even then I knew that my furniture would benefit not only from the strict discipline but from our constant work with compound curves.
By 1994 I had my own shop, installing myself in an old industrial building on Chicago’s near west side. Here I made commissioned furniture along with an occasional speculation piece for Pritam and Eames Gallery in New York. I may have worked in Chicago, but I conducted my entire social life in Italy, and it was in Siena in 1996 that I met my future wife Mari, who happened to be Japanese.
A small trip to Japan in 1997 was quickly followed by a major uprooting: I moved my entire shop to my wife’s land in that year and began a very fruitful decade of making speculation work. The blessing of time and focus enabled me to explore the designs and techniques that dominate my portfolio.
We had always intended to move from Japan, and though my wife preferred Italy, I thought perhaps Fort Bragg would serve our lives better. In 2007 we began setting up shop here, and while everything is still a work in progress, we are beginning to settle in and appreciate life on the North Coast. We maintain a house and fully-equipped workshop in Japan, and hope to spend at least part of the year living and working there, as well as offering tours of some of the less accessible craft culture of the country.
My wife Mari’s website is an excellent source of information about Japanese textiles and weaving: www.ryukyutextile.com