The Collection that shaped me as a modern furniture designer

Bret Cavanaugh

The final phase of the Trophy Vanity’s evolution. And, the drawer face that was the bane of my existence.

It’s been two years now since I put the finishing touches on The Trophy Series and unveiled it at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. After investing the better part of a year in crafting those pieces and at least several more months in working through the designs in my head, it’s a strange feeling to type that sentence. It could just as easily be 10 years ago as it could two weeks.

I’ve dedicated part of this blog to studying The Trophy Series from some different angles, and that’s been for my benefit as much as it’s come from a desire to draw attention to it. My focus has probably never been as tight as it was while I was building that furniture. My days ebbed and flowed almost entirely with the dining table, that vanity, the cabinet, and the sideboard. To the extent that when I returned to my workshop after the show, I moved around for a while in a bit of a daze. Physically, I was exhausted. Mentally, I’d lost my impetus. The last year had become a blur.

What rushes to the surface now when I think back on that period is, foremost, an overwhelming pride in what I accomplished. I’ve said before that The Trophy Series won’t be my legacy as a modern furniture designer. There’s too much that I want to do. And while I’d have a hard time describing what kind of designer I am today, I know that I’ve evolved from the guy who stood among his first major collection at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Still, I’d never done anything of that magnitude before, and I definitely didn’t make it easy on myself.

When I let myself think beyond the fair, back to the long days in my workshop, when completing the series was far from a given, there are a slew of more complicated emotions that resonate with me, too. If I’m being honest with myself, they’re the moments that changed me, not the accomplishment.

Reimagining the vanity
Just before I bore down in the workshop, I flew to Miami for a few days. The change of scenery, I knew, would do me good, but I was also there to hunt for inspiration. Mentally, I was working through all of the pieces, but the vanity was weighing on me the heaviest because its design was the most unresolved.

I had in mind a conventional set-up, but in progressive, art-deco style. The outline was there, but I was having a hard time envisioning the details. I walked Ocean Drive and I dipped into RALPH PUCCI, the Miami showroom for the wildly talented modern furniture designer, which sparked some ideas, but nothing that moved the design forward.

For the flight home, I picked up a high-end interior design magazine, thick as a biology textbook and printed on quality stock. Before we even took off, I was sketching in the wide margins. The more I drew, the more I realized I was fixated on the chair. I was so consumed with getting the chair to work that I was dragging the whole vanity down with it.

No. This is a wall piece, I thought. Almost immediately, the design came into focus. As soon as I drew the arch of the mirror, I knew I was onto something. Within a couple more sketches, I separated the drawer and dropped the chair altogether. Turned out to be the most productive flight I’ve ever taken.

When craigslist intervenes
If you forced me to name my single-favorite component from The Trophy Series, I’d think long and hard about it, probably make a little display of indecision, but I’d ultimately go with the first thing that came to mind: the drawer pulls on the sideboard.

Initially, I went to a foundry to have them cast in bronze, but they said it’d be several hundred dollars for each one. The collection’s meant to exude modern decadence, and at almost every turn, I tended to approach each cost with a pay-it-now-figure-out-how-to-cover-it-later attitude. But, I couldn’t swallow that kind of price for pulls. So I went back to my workshop and figured out how to forge them myself—for a fraction of the cost. 

The savings were great, no doubt, (and desperately needed), but it means more to me that the pulls ended up exactly as I envisioned them. If they hadn’t, I’m not sure I’d ever notice anything else about that sideboard.

The pulls, however, were easy compared to what I put myself through with the drawer faces. Unlike the vanity, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Trouble was, I had no idea how to do it. I spent months trying out different techniques and getting nowhere.

At the same time, I was redoing my bedroom—nothing nearly as extensive as what I was doing in the workshop. Kind of like the Miami trip, I just needed to hit refresh on my life. A sideboard was the last missing piece. I picked up my phone one night and hopped on craigslist, looking for something midcentury-modern and, ideally, free. There it was, posted less than five minutes earlier.

I picked it up the next morning and, right away, noticed something I glossed over the night before: The drawer faces were beveled and sunken, exactly like I wanted for my sideboard. Just like that, the answer was right in front of me.

The modern furniture designer who believes he’s too good for craigslist is a designer who sees only what he wants to, which can be very limited in the most trying moments. If the Trophy series taught me nothing else, it reinforced my commitment to an open mind.

Sure as I am of my designs, there are, inevitably, moments of uncertainty during the creative process. But if you can manage not to be consumed with the outcome, the guidance you need is almost always reverberating somewhere in the universe.

Preservationist home remodeling by a modern designer

Bret Cavanaugh

Lately, I’ve been thinking it’s time to take a more active role in preserving the identities around me
Maybe it’s the all the kitchens and bathrooms I renovated this winter, but lately, I’ve found myself slowing down in front of FOR SALE signs and fantasizing about getting back to home remodeling. Not every house, of course; just the ones that whisper to me. Sometimes, it’s more of a whimper.

The same way I can spot a distinctive piece of salvage buried in the back of a bulging barn, I can see past years of neglect or ill-advised renovations and appreciate the mastery of a home’s original intent. The small towns that populate this stretch of the Delaware River are filled with early-20th century Victorians and Federals and midcentury bungalows, some pristinely maintained, others fading into obscurity, but they’re all standing because of an architect’s deft eye and a craftsman’s meticulous touch.

One of them near my workshop hit the market recently and got me thinking seriously about whether I was interested in returning to home remodeling purely as a passion play or if restoring it as an arm followed the natural evolution of Bret Cavanaugh Modern Design. The more I visited this home, in person and online, the more I realized the two have always been intertwined.

The art of restraint
It’s a single-family, four-bedroom home, which makes it sound larger than it is. It was built in the 1930s, so the bedrooms are fairly modest in size by today’s measure. It’s an era I love, both for the style—the home fits the Federal mold—and the craftsmanship. The fruits of modernization were just beginning to flood the mainstream, but there was still very much an old-world pride in how everything was built, especially the homes of the day.

This place is no exception. It has two large porch roofs, and neither one shows any sign of having leaked recently. The ceilings inside, similarly, are in beautiful shape. The walls are all plaster, and they’re solid. Outside, the brickwork looks as strong as the day it was installed. The hardwood flooring appears to be original, as does the woodwork around the home. The layout is pretty straightforward, but each room and hallway features some sort of flourish that indicates that every square foot was carefully considered when the home was built.

Really, it doesn’t need much work. I’d refinish the floors, blow in some new insulation, restore the copper gutters, and update the kitchen. Anything more than that would ruin the integrity of the home. The tendency these days is to modernize. In the best scenarios, some of the original character is preserved, usually where it’s convenient, like an exposed-brick wall in the kitchen or a newly-revealed hardwood floor in the living room. More often, though, it’s stripped away entirely because it’s not all that compatible anymore with our lifestyles.

But home remodeling, to me, has always been akin to cooking like an elite chef in that the best results illustrate the most restraint. I fell in love with this home because I can see it so clearly for what it once was. To the untrained eye, it probably doesn’t look like much. And the inclination, then, would be to paint the brick white and knock down some walls to grow the kitchen and the living room. But I see the remnants of the original copper gutters on the back of the house and I want to repair them, not tear them down. The same for the molding inside. In a home steeped with this much inherent design, you’re never diminishing it when you can reconnect with the original vision.
 
Put up or shut up
As I said, this house is far from the only one that’s caught my eye, but it may well be the one that finally pulls me out of the workshop (but never entirely) and back into home remodeling. With each new interesting listing, this inner urgency ramps up a little more, not because I necessarily need to rethink BCMD—I’m plenty content building custom furniture and redesigning the occasional kitchen, bathroom, and any other space that calls out to me—but because the preservationist in me sees an opportunity to turn the tide. (And, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m a modern designer endorsing preservation. The elevated designs, though, aren’t really grounded by a date stamp.)

This picturesque region’s probably never been more desirable. That’s not a guarantee that it’s going to remain as is, though. In fact, the recent returns promise that it won’t. In an urban setting, the concern is gentrification. Here, I guess I could best describe it as sterilization. I love driving through Titusville, Hopewell, Lambertville, Stockton, Frenchtown, and Milford and knowing right where I am by the look of the homes. It’s not like that’s going to disappear overnight, though I’d sleep a little better, I think, if I was doing more than hoping it won’t disappear overnight.

The energy that Elvates Custom Furniture to Art

Bret Cavanaugh

By allowing myself to listen rather than dictate, a piece of custom furniture is transformed into art.

When I was eight, my parents signed me up for the local youth football league. I’d never played organized sports to that point in my life. I was vaguely familiar with what a football was, and I’d seen the game in passing on TV, but that was about the extent of my skillset going into the first practice.

Young as eight seems now, it’s when kids begin to separate themselves by their ability, especially in sports. Most of the rest of my team already had a couple of seasons beneath them, not to mention the countless games they played on their own during recess, after school, and during summer vacation. But, from the first drill, it was clear to me that I could outrun them all. And once we got into the season, I outran almost everyone else, too.

I wasn’t the tallest kid. I didn’t look all that imposing in my shoulder pads and helmet. And the game didn’t consume me, like it the rest of my team. Still, I applied myself. And by the end of that season, I was one of the best players in the league.

Looking back, I think that was my first brush with the energy.

All that meets the eye
In hunting down wood, I’ve come across a lot of interesting personalities. Meeting them and becoming entwined in their lives for a couple of weeks is always a welcome departure from crafting custom furniture, which can be an isolating experience. They pull me outside of my head and remind me of a world that never stops impressing me with its nuance.

More often than not, they have something they want to show me beyond the tree that brought me to them. They’ll lead me up to the attic or out to the garage where an heirloom or a precious flea-market find sits covered by a dusty sheet. They’re things they always imagined doing something more with, but they never got around to it.

When I take it off their hands, I’m bringing that dream with me, too. Their vision will become part of mine. Which is, in essence, how my creative process works for every piece of custom furniture I’ve ever built. What I do, it’s a contribution in the continuum. Sometimes I’m incorporating other ideas. Others, it’s more a matter of maintaining the integrity of the materials. Either way, I’m pulling from and feeding the very essence of life.

Everything in this world has an energy coursing through it. Natural or manmade, it was brought into being by a life-force. Once you pick up on that energy, suddenly, you notice it everywhere. And, just as quickly, it becomes clear that so much of what we take for granted in our lives is remarkable. A tree, for example, lives on even after it’s cut down. When I read a slab, I’m asking for it to inform my next decision. Sometimes, the pattern of the grain will pull me in, or the live edge. If I can honor that tree, draw out its best features, it elevates the design in a way that I wouldn’t be capable of doing on my own.

It’s kind of like when you bite into a late-summer tomato and you think, How is that possible? It’s just tomato, olive oil and a little bit of sea salt? But that’s all it takes as long as you’re taking the time to read each component and allowing it to guide you.

A life animated
An exquisite dining table is more than just a piece of custom furniture. It inspires a distinct emotional reaction. Likewise, a well-designed home is more than rooflines, and brickwork, and floor-to-ceiling windows. The architect labored over those blueprints thinking of the home as the centerpiece of a rich experience, not as an inanimate object.

As I’ve touched upon in recent posts, flashes of that existence are what I see when I enter a home. A kitchen warmed by the scent of something that’s been cooking slowly for a long time, laughter echoing through the dining and living rooms. In the bay window in the master bedroom, a woman sits, book in lap, watching the dog bark at the mailman on the other side of the front-yard fence. That’s the home’s energy. That’s what the architect brought into being and I’m concerned with restoring.

My ego would have me say, “I built this.” But I didn’t, not really. I paid close attention and I tapped into something that was already there. And by doing so, by allowing myself to listen rather than dictate, a piece of custom furniture was transformed into art.

That energy is within each of us, too. And it carries the same potential. I’d like to say I was keenly aware of it when I was a kid out on the football field. But, at that point in my life, I just assumed it was something that was a part of all of us. I didn’t think of attuning to it any more than I thought of ignoring it. It was only as I got older that I realized how easy it was to be driven to distraction and forget that it was even there.

But it is. Have no doubt. It is.

 

Quality time with myself and my modern furniture

Bret Cavanaugh

I want to take my time, see where all this goes, and begin to figure out who I am again.

Coming off a few big projects in a row, I find myself with an increasingly rare commodity: time on my hands. I’ve been looking forward to it for a while as kind of like a delayed hibernation. Alone in my workshop, I can fall into my natural rhythms—and get creative with some new modern furniture.

I’ve been designing some projects in my head for months that I plan—no, need—to finally dive into. They’ve been sitting on the vine long enough. Plus, I’m out of room. Yes, even with several shipping containers at my disposal. I’m surrounded by inspiration. And it’s bulky.

There’s an old but never used (which qualifies as new to me) Bell Telephone booth that I’m going to convert into a cabinet with adjustable shelving and wire it with a phone-charging port. That’s near the top of my list because it should come together fairly quickly. Actually, if I can preserve my personal space over the next few weeks, I may be able to create a handful of pieces by the spring.

The timing got me thinking initially that maybe I’d roll them out in a show, but I decided against it. I really don’t want to make anything under the pressure of expectation—my own or anyone else’s—right now. As long as I can, I want to take my time, see where all this goes, and begin to figure out who I am again, what Bret Cavanaugh Modern Design looks like.

Crafting modern furniture has always been a kind of meditation for me. I lose myself in the process, struggling and overcoming and always learning something about myself in the end. Everything I’ve made, clearly as I saw it in the beginning, slipped out of my grasp at some point along the way. I needed to do something that I didn’t think I could do, sometimes more than once, to get a handle on it again and make it a reality. So when I look at one of my pieces, I see more than furniture. I see anxiety, frustration, perseverance, and hard-earned skill, all of it tied together in a tight knot.

With the Trophy Series, I took all of that to a new level—for better and for worse. That collection is my crowning achievement (so far), but it also almost swallowed me whole. At every phase in the creative process, a furniture designer asks himself, Is this good enough or should I do more? Every time the question came up with the Trophy Series, I answered, Do more.

For the better part of two years, I devoted myself to the creation of that collection, always upping the ante, never settling. It became a test to see what I was really capable of. If that was my only agenda, I’d still be beaming, proud as a new dad. But it wasn’t. I needed the Trophy Series to put my stamp on the world, to announce BCMD as a contender to all the modern furniture galleries and national media editors.

When the reaction didn’t match my investment (as if it ever could), I started to question the point of all that effort, even though I had this shining collection, not to mention all the personal growth, to show for it. I continued making furniture while I sorted it out, but it was almost exclusively commissions. These pieces, what I’ll be working on during my hibernation, represent my first real attempt to go rooting around my imagination for any significant length of time since I unveiled the Trophy Series. Which is why I’d prefer to do it without expectation.

The Trophy Series defined what I was capable of, but it’s by no means my legacy. I didn’t stop growing as a person or an artist. If anything, I’ve matured more over the last year-and-a-half than I had over the previous several years. Adversity will do that to you.

Starting with some recycled furniture–my brand of recycled furniture—is my way of easing back into the creative process. The inspiration’s already established and, after so many months stewing over the designs, I have a pretty clear idea of what these particular pieces of modern furniture will look like. It’s everything in between that I expect to inform much of what I’ll do for the foreseeable future.

 

yes, i make recycled furniture and i'm (quietly) proud of it

Bret Cavanaugh

Looking around my workshop, I see the base of an old metal-stamping machine, its two U-shaped plates waiting (begging) to be turned into a desk. And there’s a high-top table, a standard variety that once held a place in most classrooms. This one’s at least 70 years old and it’s especially sturdy, so I’m going to make it into a dining table and give it a second life

I learned to be resourceful when I was kid. We didn’t have much aside from know-how. My dad built stuff, and then he left a whole bunch of tools behind. Even before I was allowed to use them, I knew how things should come together. Then and now, I see every step in vivid detail. It was never the ideas that hung me up; it was the focusing on them.

These days, the recycled furniture is a reprieve from my original work. It’s cheaper and faster to make—that desk would take about a third of the time an original one would—and it can be a lot more fun. Much of designing original furniture is problem solving. And as much as I pride myself on my ability, when you’re starting almost every day for several months at a time with a dilemma, it can wear you down. Building recycled furniture is a stark contrast to all of that. For me, it can come so naturally, it’s like I’m letting the object dictate the direction.
 
That said, I still struggle with being known as a guy who makes recycled furniture, as I think most original furniture designers would. Which is why you won’t come across many who do both. Popular as recycling and refurbishing have become, neither’s viewed as a genuine craft. (You can thank reality TV, in large part, for that.) Is it elitist? Sure. But it’s also a natural reaction by a thoroughly-trained field to a largely DIY movement encroaching on its reputation and customer base.
 
I like to think, though, that I distinguish myself. My recycled furniture is not necessarily what you’re exposed to. The object I start with is barely recognizable in the end. My aim is not to elaborate or accentuate that original design. It’s to build a wholly new, polished design from a few extraordinary elements.
 
On the days when I’m lost in the middle of a piece of original furniture, too far from the beginning to retreat and too far from the finish to find a second wind, the promise of those recycled tables, and desks, and cabinets is my salvation. They’re what remind me that I’m more than any one piece of furniture, which can be surprisingly easy to forget when I’m creating original work.

 
%d bloggers like this: