In a small workshop on a ranch in Tumalo in Central Oregon, Robert Seliger carefully crafts one to two hundred custom pieces of furniture each year. Working without nails or screws on the bulk of his projects, the craftsman dreams up tables, chairs, armoires and buffets that honor a wide range of aesthetics and frequently combine graceful curves and traditional joinery techniques.
“I create pieces specifically to fit the client’s body shape,” Seliger explains, “like a custom handmade Italian shoe. There is a strong European influence in my work, but it really defies categorization.”
Seliger often works in tandem with interior designers and then custom-builds pieces to complement the furniture’s surroundings. One such piece, his “whalebone trestle table,” a sturdy, handsome piece with a gently sloping center support, can be made in lengths from six to sixteen feet.
During his early career in architectural design and building, Seliger met with two artists who changed the direction of his work forever. The first was American furniture icon Sam Moloof, who taught Seliger in a furniture-making workshop. “Maloof really instilled a strong work ethic,” Seliger says, and though he also removed any preconceived idea that furniture-making was glamorous, Seliger was thoroughly inspired to combine the furniture-building techniques he was learning with his longstanding sense of scale and proportion.
Then in 1972, Seliger helped Christo, the world-renowned creator of large-scale environmental art installations, to hang a 1,300 foot-long orange curtain across the Rifle Gap valley in Colorado. “Christo was very accessible early in his career,” Seliger explains, “and that experience helped me develop a way of viewing nature as a work of art—especially how combinations of different colors work together and complement each other.”
Out the windows of Seliger’s workspace are magnificent views of the Cascades. The surrounding environment fuels his imagination and that of his wife, Cathy, an artist who does a great deal of the finishing work for the furniture. The two moved to Central Oregon in 1990 and now call it the perfect place to build furniture. “It has a relatively dry, moderate climate,” Seliger says, “and an abundance of inspiring, energetic creative people.”
Since he moved to Oregon in 1977, Terry Bostwick has been refining his skills as a woodworker and taking risks with extraordinary pieces that push the boundaries of chair and table designs. Part artist and part craftsman, Bostwick enjoys the process of collaborating with his clients to create one-of-a-kind detailed pieces, and also enjoys the straightforward satisfying work required to create a graceful Shaker table.
As a young adult in San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bostwick was part of a group that learned to spin their own wool, weave, sew and craft simple furniture. During this time, one of his college teachers told him about a furniture exhibit featuring the work of an artist by the name of Wendell Castle at a small gallery in Palo Alto. “It was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” Bostwick recalls. “The work was very organic. It was functional, but not really, because if you sat in it, you weren’t comfortable. It was all about what it looked like—all about making a really big noise visually. Some of the pieces were room-sized chairs.”
For someone who grew up in Southern California with mostly simple, cheaply constructed post-war furniture, Bostwick discovered a new world of design possibilities at this gallery. “To see something that was so radically different was very exciting,” he says.
In 1995, when Bostwick was beginning to craft furniture full-time, he enrolled in the interior design program at Marylhurst University. There, he delved into the subject of furniture history and made a number of connections between his own artistic impulses and the designs of the past.
Armed with greater historical context and maturing technical skills, Bostwick began creating pieces that were inspired by the Art Nouveau period, which he describes as “a plant-based organic style.” Next, he ventured into Art Deco work, and then slightly less symmetrical work that allowed him to blend historical shapes with more fluid plant, animal and human forms.
These days, from his studio in West Linn, Bostwick takes on a wide range of projects, from a recently commissioned redesign of a customer’s Art Deco cabinet that features a blend of sweeping curves and sharp angles, to a remarkable self-designed Art Deco dining table with a handcrafted veneer and a ball of spun steel set at its base, accompanied by eight elegant dining chairs. At every phase of his work, and for each project, Bostwick says, “I love creating really beautiful objects.”
Though Eric Strong grew up with an appreciation for his grandmother’s German Biedermeier furniture, he spent a number of years leading bicycle tours in various countries around the world before going on to build custom-made furniture of his own.
Now based in Ashland, Strong is the maker of crisp, contemporary pieces that are often composed of domestic, sustainable hardwoods and reclaimed materials. Each piece feels as though it were designed with as few lines as possible. The result is a series of timeless, solid, refined shapes.
Each day, Strong walks a few blocks from his house to his shop which he co-rents with two other woodworkers. “We share the machines, but have our own bench space and hand tools,” says Strong. “I enjoy working in the same space as other woodworkers, as there is a good deal of collaboration.”
When he first landed back in the United States in Berkeley, Strong found a mentor in David Fay, an accomplished custom furniture maker based in Oakland. That experience encouraged him to spend a year in Fort Bragg, California, at the renowned Fine Furniture program at College of the Redwoods, an experience that he calls the pinnacle of his training.
“I was singularly focused on woodworking there and was surrounded by twenty-two other like-minded classmates,” says Strong. “It’s really about the process and the subtleties in one’s work. There are no formulas or hard and fast rules: it becomes a matter of trusting your senses.”
While Strong builds many types of furniture, including desks, tables, beds and cabinets, a group of benches he recently constructed are a compelling combination of his elegant, simple aesthetic paired in unexpected ways with reclaimed metals and woods. One of these benches is made from a series of I-beam plates from a metal scrap yard and an old Redwood wine cask; another features dovetailed concrete and Douglas fir from an old pickle barrel.
For Strong, benches offer a rare world for experimentation. “They allow for a lot of freedom in design,” he says. “There really are not many constraints on them. The looseness of the proportions allows me to use a variety of materials. I also like that benches are such utilitarian objects: they offer an opportunity for pause or reflection, too. I think we could all use more of that in our lives.”
When it comes to choosing a piece of handmade furniture, trust your preferences and explore the artists whose work you find truly remarkable. Buying furniture can be an investment, and the right piece should be one that you look forward to living around for many years to come. If you’re on a small budget, you need not go bankrupt buying handmade furniture: buy a piece that can function in more than one room or setting in your home, and you’ll have made a long-term investment in your domestic future, and possibly that of your children’s, too.
It may be helpful to think of buying handmade furniture today in a way that’s similar to buying a home. Focus not on uncertain financial gains but on what a home can provide: comfort, an incubator of memories and a set of walls you can put nails into with a clear conscience. Similarly, buy handcrafted furniture for its function and its potential to become part of your family story for generations to come.