Meet the Furniture Artist Q&A: 2013 Award Winner Barry Newstat

Newstat, who holds a degree in industrial technology from Illinois State University, has nurtured an interest in woodcraft since shop class at age 12. After a brief stint as a teacher, he has been making furniture since 1987. Today, his studio is located in Chicago. Click here to read more from an article about Newstat’s 2013 Craft Show win of the Wharton Esherick Museum Prize for Excellence in Wood. Follow the artist on Facebook and browse his website to see updates on his work.

What first interested you in working in your medium?
I started working with wood in 7th grade in an industrial arts class. We were given a block of Honduras mahogany to turn on the lathe--luckily Honduras mahogany works easily. Had we been given a difficult type of wood to work, things could have turned out much differently. I was hooked immediately, so much so that my dad bought me a lathe and together, we started buying wood from around world. We'd take an occasional Saturday morning trip to Craftsman Wood Service on the south side? of Chicago where they had barrels filled with blocks of exotic hardwoods, sold by the pound. I was fascinated with how many of the types of wood had deep, rich colors and intense smells--far more intense than any domestic hardwoods. That feeling has never gone away. So really, my woodworking career started in about 1970.

What is special about the medium you work with? How does it inform the work you create? 
I'm fascinated with the intricate grain patterns and shapes of each board. I've always had trouble describing my process--how a lot of the time a specific piece of wood can dictate the direction a piece of furniture takes. The wood doesn't necessarily "speak" to me, but it often points me in the right direction. One of my clients once said, "I love how you take what you're given in a piece of wood and guide it to an interesting place." She described it way better than I could.

What do you love about your workspace? 
My studio is about 700 square feet, a small space. It's probably impractical in a lot of ways. It's behind my house and I built an addition onto it and the front doors, trying to recreate an agricultural work building.

I love to work outside--I have a bench I can roll outside and I'll do that until it's around 50 degrees. The plants and trees have matured and are almost wild, which I like. In the fall it's fantastic. Inside, the area around my bench is separated from the rest of the studio with a lower ceiling, so my music playlist sounds spectacular and I'm sort of cocooned in a little space.  I have interesting boards lined up along the wall that I like to look at while working at my bench, developing ideas of pieces I'll make from them.

I've had a fantasy for a long time of converting a building in the country into a studio space. I'd slide open the big door in the morning with long views of meadows and forest in the distance. I'd play music as loud as I'd want to and make plenty of noise, with room to spread out and work
outside. Someday.

What was your inspiration for a recent piece?
My work has gradually evolved from functional/technical to functional/sculptural. I made a series of asymmetric tables that were completely inspired by the specific pieces of wood I used for the tops. I wanted them to be flamboyant, make a statement and grab attention. Then, I made a follow-up piece but completely symmetrical, still letting the wood determine the design.  Two different points of view, but what is becoming more and more clear to me is that the exact and specific pieces of wood typically are the inspiration behind my pieces.

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