The first in a series of articles on Austin’s custom furniture designers, craftsmen, and makers.
Take two men. One trained as a mechanical engineer. The other trained as an electrical engineer. Fast forward and meet two modern craftsmen.
Ask Olivier Boudou for the takeaway from his years in training as a mechanical engineer in France and he’ll tell you two things. “I ask myself, one, ‘will it break or not’ and two, ‘will it last or not’”. These are the starting points when Olivier is designing furniture, to which he adds a measure of creativity born from a desire to produce something that is both beautiful and useful.
The strong technical skills Olivier possesses, and his rational thinking skills, are connected to his ideas about strength, and to weight. It is no accident, therefore, that he admires the Eiffel Tower. “Most French people,” he explains, “will not admit to admiring the Eiffel Tower, because it has become a cliché, but Eiffel was an engineer and the Tower is both simple and sophisticated. I can see the mathematics in the curves and reasons why it has to be that way. I see beauty and poetry in mathematics.”
Whether designing a chair, or a table, for Olivier the sense of utility is important. When he first moved to the Austin area, to Windsor Park, 8 years ago, he was involved in renovating houses for sale, undertaking both the general contracting and much of the work himself. He was his own client, constrained only by the budget of the remodel. His later furniture designs were inspired by the lessons learned in having to create items for the homes he renovated, furniture that fit and functioned.
“I don’t see myself as creating a piece that does not have utility,” he says. “It is important for my work to be grounded, to be used, and if someone finds beauty in that piece it is a great bonus.” He describes the kind of chair that one likes but would like it much more if it tilted in some way, and he has taken existing chair frames and modified them for comfort.
Concrete and metal tables are part of Olivier’s modern collection. He has applied the design aesthetic of a slender profile to the concrete table top.
“I realize that I do not like decoration,” he says. “My grandfather always carried a knife in his pocket, usually an Opinel, a famous French knife, with a clean design. There’s something very personal and emotional to me about this memory. I am inspired by the utilitarian object, a simple knife that is beautiful and functional. I am drawn to the connections between mathematics, design and nature and nature does not decorate much.”
A keen chess player, Olivier admires Vladimir Nabokov who was a great chess player. “Years ago I was fascinated by a book of his,” recalls Olivier, “’Poems and problems’, in which he associated poems with chess problems.”
Creating furniture is about solving problems of weight and balance, but for Olivier the furniture must also be ‘habitable’, to be used and experienced regularly, much like his Grandfather’s knife. “Creating furniture,” Olivier explains, “is like reinventing oneself, as with each piece of metal you bend, you learn a little more about yourself.”
Starting point is $250.00 for chairs and $1,500 for a table with a 2-3 week delivery. www.kouderc.com
Michael Yates was born in Austin and grew up in far northwest Travis County, and considers himself a “rural person.” He studied electrical engineering in college and took up woodworking as a hobby, inspired by family friends who collected Hans Wegner furniture. He remembers examining the furniture, turning it over to inspect it more closely. A visit to Japan, a summer in Kyoto, and a deep interest in Scandinavian furniture lit what he describes as “the craftsman fire” and in 2003 he started his own workshop, but describes himself as “very much a beginner” at that point.
Today he has a team of 2 to 3 people working full-time in an Austin workshop on projects, mostly for architects and designers. “We have a ‘modern’ workshop,” he says, “in the sense that we use digitally controlled machines, but still handcraft everything in a more pedestrian manner, using joinery and we shape by hand.” Michael considers himself a “modern” craftsman, but Modern with a lower case, ‘m’.
“Once a designer has worked with us,” Michael says, “we tend to continue to collaborate on many additional projects, from single items to a large project with many different pieces.”
“We also design for individuals,” Michael says. Although the website shows many of his projects, Michael finds these are starting points for custom projects. “The website starts the narrative,” he says, “our business has been almost all custom for the first nine years. People needed a bench to be a little longer than the production pieces, or case pieces that needed to fit in a certain space, so we’d make them. Our production chairs, though, can work in a lot of different spaces.”
Michael’s favorite woods are woods that are “hard and not fussy”. He is using a lot of white oak right now, which he says is also reflective of the market. “The kind of wood I like,” he says, “is a reliable wood, the kind of wood a child would draw to describe wood.”
Several years ago, for personal reasons, Michael moved to Brooklyn, New York. The move has helped him see “Austin for what I forgot it is,” he says. “When someone becomes deeply involved a place it is hard to see it clearly anymore.”
Michael says the move has been inspiring, to further the reputation of his company, in a different space. He sees himself as exploring opportunities in Brooklyn to expand beyond his roots, to bring work back to Austin, to resolve the Austin/Brooklyn logistics, continue funneling work through the Austin workshop, and to show people that Austin furniture is more than furniture branded with a lone star. To that end, he will undertake a Studio Fellowship this summer for eleven weeks, at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine.
Prices start at $700 for a stool, $1,100 for a chair, $1,400 for a bench and $2,300 for a rocker. Delivery is 8-10 weeks for custom orders. http://www.michaelyatesdesign.com