Upon first look, one might think you’re seeing manufactured wood pieces, screws, and gears all put together to form furniture. But look again. Take it all in. With James Pearce’s woodwork, he actually designs, creates, forms, shapes, and cuts every single piece of wood making up his unique and interactive furniture. That means that if you see an oversized “woodscrew”, James has created it. From scratch. That’s part of what makes his work stand out, as evidenced by “The Wharton Esherick Museum Prize for Excellence in Wood” which Pearce took home at last year’s Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show.
For James, the path to becoming a fine craftsman in wood took a circuitous route. A fourth generation woodworker, he was admittedly reluctant to make a career of it. James grew up in the shop helping his dad, and his dad in turn taught him the fundamentals of woodworking. It was fun, but the previous generations were doing architectural, millwork, and cabinetry work, which didn’t really appeal to James. As a young man, he joined the army, where he became a diesel mechanic. It was the mechanical aspect of things that he liked, but not working with diesel. When he finally had the “aha moment”, James discovered there was a way to merge his fascination for mechanical work with his passion for woodworking. It wasn’t always easy, but with great determination, 15 years later James has built his business, his clientele, and his amazing furniture that he will be bringing to the PMA Craft Show this November.
When he began the path towards fine craft furniture, James had all the woodworking basics. Through many shop hours of experimenting, designing, creating, and of course the fine art of trial and error, he took it to the next level. “I am a thinker when it comes to designing my pieces”, says James. “I visualize all the details down to color and finish in my mind before starting a piece and there are always design changes during the actual crafting to ensure the desired aesthetic.”
The wood screws are made on tools that James created specifically for the process. “My work is inspired by vintage industrial mechanical machines”, says Pearce. “My goal is to translate something into a nontraditional medium and have it be fully functional. Most times I don’t know if the piece will work until it is completely finished. My work is very interactive. The viewer needs to touch, feel, and be part of it to understand what is happening.”
James speaks highly of his time at The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. “The overall quality of the exhibiting artists are among the best I’ve seen”, he says. “Philly is one of my favorite towns and everyone involved in making the show a success for the artists are fantastic. It is always an honor to receive an award and to receive an award that is so specific to my craft in the name of such an iconic studio furniture maker is an even bigger honor.”
There is a whimsical aspect to some of Pearce’s work. Take “Wanda” for instance. Inspired by industrial compressors, James describes this as a “one-off”. He began naming some of his pieces after spending so much time with them and realizing they developed their own personalities. James’s work can be found in corporate collections, businesses, residences, and one piece was even purchased by playwright Stephen Sondheim. Recognizing his unique and talents, James was also commissioned to create an interactive “gear wall” installation at The Magic House Children’s Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.
We asked James what advice he would give someone just starting out. “Push your craft farther”, he says. “I always try to make my next piece better by exploring new ways, finishes, and mechanisms. I don’t ever want my work to become stale.” The apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the Pearce family, as two of James’s sisters are wood shop teachers. Considering James is a 4th generation woodworker and the oldest of six kids, it’s no wonder his parents are proud of him for staying in the field. They’ve even bought his furniture for their own home. Now that’s the kind of full circle we like to hear.
Stop by James’s booth at the 2019 Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show and check out his unique and interactive furniture!