Sculptural Furniture Inspired by Nature

Plants, animals and other objects inspire Brent Skidmore in the design of his imaginative art furniture.

By Hannah Miller

     
Brent Skidmore Furniture and Sculpture

Charlotte, NC

Year Founded: Full-time since 1998

Employees: 1 apprentice

Shop Size: 528 square feet

FYI: Skidmore sells a lot of his pieces through an Internet site and expects that market to keep growing.

 
   
     

As a high school student some 20 years ago, Brent Skidmore examined a planarian, a water-dwelling worm, through the lens of his microscope. A pointed oval shape marked the head of the tiny worm.

“I remember it very vividly,” says Skidmore, now 37 and an award-winning sculptor and furnituremaker in Charlotte, NC. “You can split them down the middle and they will grow two.”

The memory stuck with him so strongly that when he later made a pair of small painted-poplar tables with turned tops and upper legs, he shaped the lower legs like planaria. A steel rod reinforces their slender, curly maple bodies, which end in pointed ovals.

Somewhere along the way, his thinking about the legs changed, he says. “And then they became spoons.”

Skidmore, who has been making and selling his furniture for 11 years, the last five full-time, won an award in the furniture category at the prestigious Washington (DC) Crafts Show in 2001. American Craft magazine devoted an entire page in its December-January 2001 issue to a Skidmore side table.

His highly imaginative pieces often give off echoes of nature and everyday life beyond the planarian: a favorite shirt, a human embryo, a waddling duck. Filtered through his brain and hands, they come out entirely different from the originals.

Broken-jointed legs of one table say, “awkward animal stance” to Skidmore. But lacking a yellow bill, it is not blatantly a duck, he says. “Subconsciously, a duck.”

     
 
A circle and semi-circle of pommele sapele veneer form a contrast to a patchwork-painted mahogany front in “Patched Buffet.” The veneer is glued to an alternating concave and convex base.  
     

“Ostrich Skin Side Table,” shown in American Craft, has no ostrich skin, but segmented, paddle-like legs that remind Skidmore of both an ostrich and an ibex. The whole blocky piece reminds him of a rhinoceros, he says. He credits the roots of his animal imagery to photos taken by his wife on an African photography safari.

Skidmore’s lively imagination sometimes bumps up against the demands of making a living and making a sculptural form usable as furniture. “Sometimes, to make a chest of drawers that actually works, you need to make it square,” he says. “I’m kind of resistant to square.”

Also, making a living sometimes requires that he make copies of a piece. It is something he does not like to do, but will because, he says, “It is my job.

“However, I have found a way to limit having to make the same thing all the time,” he adds. He tells customers that he will be making a limited number of each piece, usually five or six. He has found that people are more likely to buy one of a limited edition than one of a kind, he says. And, when he gets to the sixth piece, he knows he will never have to make that piece again and can go on to something new.

He uses decorative details and paint to add the curving shapes he is fond of. He uses Golden acrylic paints and a DeVilbiss spray gun, but often hand-paints as many as four coats to achieve the rich texture he wants.

“I like the texture I get with the brushstrokes,” he says. He used to try to paint everything smooth, he adds, but now he believes, “There is no need to make it smooth unless the form calls for it.”

Turning Art into Furniture

Skidmore studied sculpture as an undergraduate at Murray State University and a graduate student at Indiana State University, then taught sculpture one year at Ohio University. He taught 3-D design, sculpture and furnituremaking for eight years at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte before going into furnituremaking full-time in 1998.

     
 
“Ostrich Skin Side Table” lacks ostrich skin but its other features are safari-inspired. The segmented, paddle-like legs remind Skidmore of an ostrich and an ibex, and the entire squat, blocky shape reminds him of a rhinoceros. American Craft magazine devoted an entire Portfolio page to “Ostrich Skin” in its December/ January 2001 issue.  
     

He says he is interested in making sculpture accessible to people, and furniture is one way to do it. “It seems like they will find more of an excuse to look at something they can use,” he says.

He works almost entirely in wood, sometimes making “hardware” of wood and painting it. On his pieces, he says, “if it looks like metal, it’s wood.

“I like bamboo as a material, but I also like to make it my bamboo,” Skidmore adds. For example, a desk titled “Faux Bamboo, Don’t You Know?” is basswood carved to resemble the real thing, bumps and all. In this case, he says he uses basswood because it allows him to graduate the girth of the desk leg. “You can’t get bamboo to look like that. It’s straight,” he says.

Skidmore has used a half-circle of pommele sapele veneer in several designs. He routs out a series of semi-circular ridges and valleys in his base material, then glues the veneer over it.

He says that a skeptical friend, fellow furnituremaker Kurt Nielsen of Belmont, NC, had told him, “It will never work.” Nielsen (who was featured in the March issue of CWB) thought the veneer would not negotiate the curves. Skidmore was using Nielsen’s veneer vacuum bag at the time, and also his scraps of sapele.

“It is your veneer and vacuum bag and my time,” Skidmore says he replied. “What have I got to lose?”

The half-circles were a success, and Skidmore uses them to form a contrast to the painted, patchwork design of one of his larger pieces, the 68-inch-long “Patched Buffet.” Painted patches are separated by a relief of wavy lines made by a router, then painted. Skidmore uses a Bosch laminate trimmer to obtain the half circles. “I sort of ‘dance’ the router, move it, to get the effect,” he says.

     
 
The bottom half of the curly maple legs in these “Plateaus Noir” were inspired by tiny water-dwelling worms Skidmore observed under a biology-class microscope years ago. They are also reminiscent of spoons. The table top is poplar, painted black and rubbed through.  
     

Other equipment in his shop includes: a Powermatic lathe, Delta Unisaw tilting arbor saw, joiner and planer from General, Delta Rockwell 14-inch bandsaw, DeWalt compound miter saw, Rockwell drill press, and DeWalt and Milwaukee grinders.

Skidmore says he and apprentice Zack Sessions are crowded in the 528-square-foot shop behind his house, and a move to a bigger shop is in his plans. He has turned his home’s basement into a finishing room, and he is currently storing 500 board feet of mahogany in the house’s crawl space. Much of the shop equipment is on wheels so that it can be moved to maximize space.

Skidmore’s work includes clocks, mirrors, tables, desks and chests in a $800 to $7,200 price range, with clocks at the bottom end and buffets at the top. He sells through Gallery WDO (Well Designed Objects) in Charlotte, Blue Spiral 1 gallery in Asheville, NC, and through an Internet gallery, www.guild.com, and related publications.

The Internet page has become increasingly important, Skidmore says. “It is going to be a huge part of my business this year.” In fact, Skidmore frets that he is so busy filling orders, he doesn’t have enough time for creative thinking. He says he wants “time to think about what most inspires me to make stuff,” in the hope that he will keep making pieces that reflect his own individuality.

“My voice is just now starting to speak out,” he says, adding that it is immensely satisfying.

At the same time, Skidmore wants his furniture to please buyers, to be so inviting that customers from Florida to California “want to rub their hand across it as they walk by.”

“The check is pretty satisfying, too,” he says.

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