A Twist of Nature
August 14, 2011 | 9:05 pm CDT

John Glendinning takes an organic approach to designing his custom furniture pieces — attempting to make forms that seem to grow out of one another as though a part of nature.

Glendinning has incorporated his speculative designs into a line of custom furniture.

Woodworker John Glendinning’s pieces feature seashell-shaped swirls, bodies encased in what looks like tree bark and long, slender and ridged legs that taper to a point like twigs or stalactites. These unique creations may originate in his small studio in Montreal, Québec, Canada, but the genesis comes from the young man’s observant relationship with nature.

“I do a lot outdoors,” he explains. “I bought land west of Montreal and that’s where I go. A lot of the carvings and wispy lines are sort of reflecting snowdrifts. I spent a number of years teaching snowboarding in British 

Columbia after my woodworking education, so I think that sort of has an influence on some of the work. Icicles, snow and ice-related images have certainly done a lot.

“I don’t think I’ve gone into designing anything with a particular vision in mind,” he continues. “I don’t think I’m going to design something based on snowdrifts, but snowdrifts, here you have two different elements of nature – the force of wind and ice particles mixing together randomly, but they create a shape that is so perfect, so geometric – there’s something going on in the microscopic, crystallized level. They create a form that’s completely organic. I sort of think about that in the back of my mind and it influences some of the stuff I do. I’m interested in creating organic forms, but there has to be a level of precision behind all of it.”

In a shared 1,000-square-foot shop, Glendinning works with mostly conventional woodworking equipment. “I’ve got an old SCM combination machine, General table saw, bandsaw, drill press, steam bending and vacuum forming equipment, and I’m starting to make use of some CNC shaping,” he says.

Glendinning is a graduate of Grand River Collegiate Institute, Conestoga College’s Woodworking Technician program, and Sheridan College School of Crafts and Design, where he majored in Furniture.

“My schooling encouraged me to think about things more than otherwise,” he says. “But, I think visually and aesthetically I’ve always had sort of a discomfort when looking at furniture that has, ‘Well, this piece ends here; let’s chop it off and butt it into this one,’ or a nice clean miter joint and, ‘Well, hey, it’s clean now, but in five months it’s opened up because I live in a humid area,’ or, not always the case, but the potential of wood moving around.

“I did a lot of thinking,” he continues, “about how I can put something together in such a way that even with wood movement, there is no evidence of failure in construction. Not that it compromises the construction anyway, but the seam might open up in an area where the joint is too long, or one board expands less than the other. I think I’ve just tried to work with wood so objects look like they’re growing out of one another, as opposed to just being cut and pasted together.”

“Shift Vessels” are functional and may be used as a centerpiece or enjoyed as art.

Glendinning makes most of his living through gallery sales and some commissions, with the odd contract work supplementing his income. His most popular item in the galleries has been “shift vessels,” which are made out of wood he harvests himself from fallen trees with an Alaskan chainsaw lumber mill. All the pieces of wood come from fallen trees, from farms or family friends and are steam bent. The sculptural vessel forms are functional and can be used as a centerpiece or enjoyed as a work of art. The original intention was that they were just an exploration of form. But they ended up being a convenient scale and size that could be sold through galleries.

As expected, environmental concerns are important to Glendinning as well. “I try to use domestic wood as much as possible. I certainly try to be as responsible as I can. Obviously, environmental issues are a huge concern. It is just a matter of sourcing what you need, when you need it and availability. But I go out of my way to try to use domestics as much as possible.”

A recent twist has taken Glendinning’s work into a whole new area, as a friend who owns a factory recruited the artist to develop a line of furniture for the company. The furniture line was introduced at the Spring 2007 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) and the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (K/BIS) in May. It made quite a splash, generating considerable interest and media coverage.

“I’ve taken some ideas from my artistic work,” Glendinning says, “and we’ve worked together to figure out how to do it for a production line on some of my friend’s carving and turning machines. So it’s enabling for me. The furniture features a lot of the details of my speculative work, but I’m trying to put them into pieces that are a little more recognizable and comfortable, if you will, for the average person.”

From artistic sculptures to fine furniture, the artist and woodworker espouses a unique philosophy: “What I’ve been dealing with in my work is the relationship between adjacent components,” he says, “and I’ve tried to think about that as I design a piece and come up with interesting ways where the connections appear to be growing.“

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