Silas’s Bench

January 26, 2010

Slas's Bench

I built the bench in this picture last year. Designing and making a new piece is always an emotion-filled process for me, but this bench was a completely different experience. Silas Bennett was a journalism student at Keene State College; he was heading into his final year when he was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Last spring, around the time when Silas would have graduated, the school hosted a ceremony in the Media Arts Center, dedicating this bench in his memory… I was among the people who were asked to say a few words:

The Design Process for Silas’s Bench

The design process for this Memorial Bench for Silas Bennett began with a meeting at my studio with Silas’s mother, Lorraine, his sister, Jesse, and his close friend, Zack. Their request was very simple and straightforward: they wanted me to design and build a bench to be placed in the Media Arts Center at Keene State College as a memorial to Silas. By the time they left we had settled on an overall length of approximately six feet, and the choice of Ash as the material it would be built from, and not much more… beyond that it was up to me. To help me in the process, they left me with an album of photographs and copies of the eulogies that were given at Silas’s memorial service.

I set to work on the design for the bench right away, trying to let the conversations we had had, and the materials they left with me “infuse” the design. This was quite a different process from my usual approach. With most furniture commissions, the process centers on the physical context of the proposed piece, and what I, as the designer, want so say through this piece. In other words, it’s kind of about me. Well, this commission wasn’t about me, it was about Silas.

Designing a piece of furniture to say something about Silas was a unique challenge for me. To start with, I didn’t want to insert any literal images into the piece. I simply wanted to allow the ideas and themes of Silas’s personality and life – those things that I had seen, heard, and read – to work into and through my thoughts. An email I received from Lorraine had referenced some of these words and themes: “regal… humble… magical… solid, yet with lightness… Silas had a big presence, yet an energy that was extremely approachable”. I especially appreciated her insistence in portraying Silas as a real and complex person, and not a cardboard cut-out.

With that background on my design process, I will try to give you a few of my thoughts on specific aspects of the design:

I started with the ends of the bench and quickly decided that they should be rather heavy and solid to anchor the piece, both visually and physically. I ended them at arm height, rather than extend them up to enclose the back, and angled them outward toward the front to make the bench more “approachable” to users. And although they are solid and elemental forms, their upward and outward flare is intended to give the piece a more uplifting feel.

The height, depth, and angles of the seat and back were based on the request that this bench was intended to be used, not just looked at. This should be a comfortable bench.

The most unique element of the design of this piece is the connection between the seat and the back. Both the seat and the back are made up of a series of boards or planks, which taper in width toward their connection point, and actually pass between each other. I pictured them as interlocked fingers. To me they are representative of interconnectedness… of Silas’s life being connected to so many other lives. The supports beneath the seat and behind the back are relieved, or “scalloped”, so that each plank of the seat or back is attached to its own individual point of support, and yet all are joined together, which is a metaphorical reference to the supportive community that Silas was part of.

The final part of the design (and the one part that I had to “sell” people on) is the top profile of the back of the bench. There is a semi-random pattern of differing heights to the fifteen slats which make up the back. This rhythmic stepping across the back came to me in a kind of “waking dream”. Something in my sub-conscious mind came up with this and planted it in my minds eye. I couldn’t shake it, so I decided to run with it. It looks like music to me… rhythm… vibrancy. And also, oddly, like a city skyline.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be involved in this memorial. Even though I didn’t know Silas very well, I feel a sense of connection to him because of this project and process.

After the dedication, Silas’ mother wrote a letter to the local papers, I will leave you with her words:

Lorraine's letter

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Cocktail Tables

January 4, 2010

Bamboo and Wenge Cocktail Table Set

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I made this pair of tables this past spring for a couple right here in Keene, New Hampshire. Cool people. He runs a non-profit arts organization, and she does media relations. The majority of my clients live at some distance from my studio, mostly in larger metropolitan areas, but it’s nice to know that there are folks who appreciate progressive design just about anywhere.

The design of these tables is fun, modern, and very practical. They were designed as a pair, but can be used separately also. And if guests show up unexpectedly, you can sweep all the magazines and remote-controls (and dirty dishes?) into the cubby holes in the sides of the tables and push the two together… Voilà, clean room. Better living through design!

I am always looking for new projects, so if you like what you see, please contact me. I’d love to talk to you about your ideas. And if you know of anyone else who might be interested in stuff like this, please send him or her over to take a look. Thanks.

Gary Spykman

Have a Seat (part 2)

December 8, 2009

(read part one first, or this might not make sense.)

Foyer Bench on Workbench

I emailed the perspective drawings (commonly called “renderings”) of the bench to the couple who had given me the commission. They had not given any preferences for the materials, but in order to produce the renderings of the piece, I needed something. So I arbitrarily chose to show the bench in walnut. For everything but the back, that is. The back was one of the two areas that they had been specific about in their request: they wanted a live edge on the top of the back.

This gave me a great opportunity to bring some contrast into the design. A different wood, maybe even a different color, for the back. Right from the start I envisioned the top edge to be not just wavy, but jagged and craggy, like a mountainous skyline. To get an edge with that look you have to find a board which is full of “character”. I decided to draw it as a section of big-leaf maple burl.

I didn’t have to wait long for a response. The wife emailed back two days later:

Gary,
The bench looks terrific! I love the top design and the bottom is classic “Spykman style!” Walnut may be a bit dark for us, though. What about a red birch or cherry? Getting excited!

So… an approved design… “Getting excited!”… these are good things! Just have to change the wood. I liked the Idea of cherry, plus I had a good cherry pattern in the drawing program. Getting the woodgrain to flow properly on the curving surfaces of the model was a bit tricky, but it didn’t take me too long to make the change. I sent back the revised drawings that same day… she deemed the final design “terrific”.

Foyer Bench Rendering - Cherry

Now here is an amazing fact: through all of this process, all the emails, the photos, the designing, the back and forth on materials… no one had mentioned money. They had not mentioned a budget, I had not given an estimate (I went back through the emails to confirm this). This is not my usual approach. I had actually broken one of my own policies in this regard. I generally give a “guesstimate” price early on in the process, and ask for ten percent of that as a design fee before doing any real work on things (this will sometimes scare away the “window shoppers”). I don’t know why, but I followed a different course here.

I sent another email with a formal proposal and price quote. I got back an affirmative response right away, and a deposit check in my real mailbox three days later.

(to be continued)

Have a Seat (part 1)

December 1, 2009

Everybody has a story to tell, and most people will gladly tell you theirs if you show some interest.  Things have stories and histories too, in the art or antiques world this is referred to as an object’s “provenance”. This is the story of a piece of furniture, a bench.

At the beginning of July I got an email from a couple for whom I had designed and built a coffee table last year. They were so pleased with the coffee table that they decided they wanted me to make them a bench to go in front of the stone wall in their foyer, something that would be “both functional, and a piece of art”…after all, it would be the first thing people would see when they entered the house. Beyond that, there were only two specific requests: The size should be “a normal seating height, and five feet wide”, and it should have a “raw edge” on the top.

Let me stop right here and say that this is a Dream Commission! Just enough specifics to give me a jump start on the design process, and beyond that… freedom. This couple had chosen me in the first place because they like my style, so they clearly felt safe working this way.

When I am working with a married couple on a project like this, it is the wife that is usually chosen as the “point-person” for communication and decisions. That was the case here, and I emailed her back a big “thank you.” I also had a few questions… some clarification on how the bench would be used, things like that. And I asked for some photos of the spot that the bench would occupy. I needed to see the texture, color and “busyness” of the other materials in the room. The photos would also help me to see the amount and type of light in the room.

Within a few days I had her answers, and the pictures (email sure has simplified and sped up the communication that goes into a project like this). I immediately got to work on a design. This is the part of my job that gives me the greatest joy, bringing into existence a new thing that did not exist before. Of course, it won’t “exist” in the physical sense until I actually start making sawdust, but to me, the design is the reality. Its material existence as an “object” is probably more important to my customers, but to me, the piece exists when the design is complete.

I worked on the design between, and around, several other projects for the next couple of weeks. The concept for the bench popped into my mind very quickly, but it took quite a bit of work to model it on my computer. The picture I had in mind was all sweeping curves and oblique angles. I needed to make sure that the piece could actually be built, and would look good from all angles, so I drew a complete 3D model on the computer. By the time the computer model was done it was almost as if I had actually built the bench already. It felt real to me.

This computer model also allowed me to make renderings of the bench. I can “walk around” the model and “take pictures” from any height or angle. I made three renderings showing the bench from different views, and about four weeks after I received that initial request, I sent out this email:

I’ve got a bench design for you. Take a look at these renderings… three views of the piece from different angles. I’m showing it in walnut with big-leaf maple burl for the back. Obviously the shape of the back will be dependent on the actual piece of wood I find. And of course, if you prefer different woods I can do that also.

(to be continued)