Curves, Colors and Mixed Media

A San Diego shop owner finds a ‘winning combination’ when he intermingles laminates and veneers with random curves in a unique artistic way.

By Lisa Whitcomb

The furniture in this ultra-contemporary family room utilizes copper laminates from Formica’s Decometal collection. Black slate laminate was also used in the furniture pieces as well as stainless steel laminate and some anigre veneers, dyed yellow, red and green with aniline dyes. Stainless steel and copper accessories round out the pieces’ overall design.  

He was a facilities director in a large manufacturing firm who got caught in a corporate downsizing wave eight years ago. Faced at the time with an uncertain future, Michael Ireland rethought his life’s goals and decided to change career gears and pursue his interests in woodworking more seriously.

“When I was casting about for ideas, I thought, ‘Do I want to go back to a corporate life, finding that there is an age barrier that is very real; do I really want to deal with this?,’” he recalls. Ireland’s wife, Cindy, convinced him not to go back. She said, “Think about what you really want to do and give it a try.” So, following his wife’s advice, he opened a woodworking shop. Ireland already had experience with woodworking on the hobbyist level for more than three decades, and had backgrounds in art and engineering as well. He says the three artistic forms were very complementary to each other and just the right mix to begin a woodworking career.

Like most woodworking professionals, Ireland’s first shop was his garage. “There is hope for others just starting out in a two-car garage. Just make sure everything is on wheels,” he says laughing. “When I began, I literally went out and bought some materials I liked and conjured up some smaller furniture pieces. Then I threw them into the trunk of my car and schlepped them around to everywhere I could think of that would maybe, feasibly, take them. I got the pieces into a couple of galleries, they sold, and I knew I had made it,” Ireland adds. After that point he let everyone know he was open to doing any type of woodworking.

While building unique furniture pieces is his main passion, Ireland’s first few paying jobs were for cabinetry or built-in pieces. Since he had done similar projects in the past, he agreed to try building cabinetry, and his business took off from there. “The first few jobs went well. I find it comparatively easy, and it brings in better money than building small pieces of furniture,” he says. Grossing $80,000 last year, Ireland expects to see a 25 percent increase in his gross income this year.

The Evolution of Ireland’s Cabinetry

An anigre veneer dyed blue, complemented with a maple interior, glass shelves and stainless steel legs, give this unique curio stand a great visual appeal.  

 "I started out as a wood man — ‘Let the beauty of the wood speak,’ and that’s fine. I have always loved the beauty of wood,” he says. But his artistic side soon took over the evolution of his shop, and he began to look for other media to work with. Originally Ireland produced what he calls run-of-the-mill cabinetry designs done solely in traditional woods for his clients.

Gradually, though, he began experimenting with different media and varying curves. The transition into the new design niche went fairly smoothly. “Clients used to come in and say, ‘I want this’ or ‘Give me that,’ but I have developed far enough along now that I can say, ‘No. I don’t do that, I do this,’” he says. Ireland says he doesn’t want to make ‘just ordinary kitchen cabinets.’ “I want people to come to me because of what I do, and say, ‘That’s cool. Can you make me something, not that thing, but something?’”

Now Ireland focuses more on jobs that are artistically challenging to him, instead of traditional cabinetry designs, a decision that makes him stand out from his competitors. The business he is getting is definitely because of the designs he offers. ”If I offered something like Old World colonial, then I would be fighting [for a clientele base] with everyone else in town. I like what I do because I use a lot of different materials, contrast and color. I use color [in my pieces now] more now than I used to,” says Ireland. He especially loves working with and juxtaposing metal laminates and high-end wood veneers of all species.

“Laminates are a great way to offer a client pizazz, interest and art. Above all they are affordable, and I can do a piece in everything from a patina copper to steel, textured metal and so on. Additionally, I can get [the materials] onto curves, which are a real design motif in my work, and still make it affordable for the client.” He also uses solid woods in his work and tries to avoid building anything out of MDF.

Faired curves, curves that cannot be drawn with a compass, are another favorite feature that Ireland incorporates into his designs. “Around here, other shops do curves, but they are just simple radius curves. I incorporate true curves into my designs, and I think that that catches a person’s eye,” says Ireland. “This type of curve allows more freedom in a design.” These curves are not without their challenges, Ireland says. But it helps that he found a glass maker who can produced faired-curved glass panels. Ireland adds that he has also been able to work out a lot of the hinging problems afforded by the curved panels by tapping into his engineering training.

This furniture piece is inspired by Egyptian art, says Ireland. It is made mostly of hammered brass, polychrome, upholstery, mahogany and gilding over wood.  

 Using design-driven materials effectively
There are no limitations as to where he will use laminates or veneers on cabinetry or furniture. Ireland says he particularly likes using laminates, though, because wood and quality veneers are becoming increasingly expensive. “I have stopped using maple because the quality has become so poor. Now there are as many as 12 flitches on a panel where there used to only be four or five,” he says. Ireland has also heard rumors that cherry, one of his favorite woods because of its color and aromatic properties, is also heading in this direction.

When Ireland does use wood veneers, he dabbles in a myriad of wood species from anigre to zebrawood. He creates color accents on cabinetry and furniture by combining various shades and species. For example, he says, “I like zebrawood because it is spatial. Its figure moves your sight around the piece, so I like to angle it and wrap it around things.” He gets 10 mil paper-backed veneers from either Edgemate or Sandply from Jacaranda Inc. Non-backed veneers are purchased exclusively from Certainly Wood. Ireland builds all his own molds to lay up the intricate curves found in many of his pieces. He then applies either extended Titebond, an aliphatic yellow resin glue, or contact cement to the veneers and laminates. He uses a vacuum bag press that he made himself, and says timing is everything. “The one downside is if I apply a finish lacquer too quickly, the chemical reaction will debond the glue.”

Pretty exclusively, Ireland uses a nitrocellulose lacquer with a sealer base for his finishes, usually Sherwin-Williams’ T75 CAB-acrylic lacquer with a vinyl sealer. “This has proven to be a pretty durable finish, especially in kitchens. But it is also friendly enough that I can put it on furniture-grade pieces and get it to polish out with some depth, leaving a nice rich look to the piece,” says Ireland. Occasionally he will shellac or varnish a piece as well. Woods are stained or tinted with a lacquer, or a powder water-based aniline dye from Lockwood is used. “These dyes prove to be really durable in color. I particularly like to use the aniline dyes for bright colors like red, blue or yellow,” he adds.

Ireland was first inspired by laminates’ design potentials when he was asked to do a project using stainless steel. He went to his metal supplier and was told that the metal was a hard medium to work with. About that same time, Ireland received a sample set of Decometals in the mail from Formica when the collection first came out. He says he was immediately taken with the collection because it emulates the look of true metals, a look that he likes to incorporate in his designs. Additionally, he finds the metal laminates much easier to work with and manipulate than bare metal.

“It is phenolic-backed, and I can curve it and bend it the way I want. I have even developed a process where I heat the laminate and postform it, or heat it, pop the phenolic backing off and wrap the metal around the piece [I am working on],” he says. “It’s a workable product, it looks great, it’s durable and very affordable.” Besides Formica, Ireland uses laminates from Wilsonart and Chemetal and says he is open to any product that will further enhance his designs. He primarily uses textured and patina metal laminates in his work, but says he wants to start using more patterned and speckled laminates as well.

Currently, he says his customers are asking for either a Craftsman look with a contemporary edge to it, or a contemporary, almost slick, look. Older Egyptian, Japanese and African art pieces, as well as Looney Tunes (especially those from the 1950s) are the inspirations for many of the contemporary design ideas he presents to his clients. “If you look in the background of those cartoons there are houses, cabinets, cupboards and furniture that has a certain look and feel to it. I like it, and I have incorporated some of [those attributes] into my designs,” he says. Overall, though, he is mostly inspired by what strikes him and says he hopes his pieces will be as original as possible. “I don’t mind when somebody asks, ‘Was that influenced by...?’ But if they think [it’s an exact replication] then I have goofed,” he adds.

Although he likes metal laminates, Ireland says he is currently contemplating ways to integrate other materials into his work including solid metals, such as stainless steel, copper and brass, and slate or stone, either sliced and polished or in a raw state. “The trick will be in their thinness, so the media is not overwhelming to the project,” he says.

Networking Increases Profitability

Olive burl veneer; ash, which has been stained red; and black, ribbed aluminum and stainless steel laminates were also used throughout this retro-looking, modern kitchen.  

 Since business has been consistently steady, there has been no need to advertise. Some cabinetry and built-in furniture jobs have been procured through exhibitions at local home trade shows, and some are contracted by designers and architects. But most come from referrals from previous clients.

Ireland has also developed a working association with Boris Elashkin who operates Falcon Woodworks, a cabinet shop, which is a couple of suites down in the same building. Ireland has known Elashkin for about six years and they have been working together for the past two. They met on a kitchen job that they had both been contacted for. Elashkin was primarily doing cabinet refinishing and refacing at the time. “He’s quite good,” says Ireland.

Elashkin is a Russian immigrant who came here after the fall of the Soviet Union with nothing except a solid background in woodworking. It was not long before he established himself in the United States as a craftsman and business owner on his own accomplishments. Now the men share contracted job duties and equipment, but in two separate suites. “The downside is that we are separated in the same building. But advantages are: we keep the dirty operations, such as sanding and finishing, in Elashkin’s shop away from the cutting and assembling and designing (in Ireland’s shop). This allows me to bring clients in here to discuss a design, because it is fairly clean [on my side],” Ireland says.

Ireland taught Elashkin more about cabinet manufacturing, so he himself could begin to focus more on design. The businesses operate as if they were one, but they are two separate entities that share the talents that each owner can bring to the table. “I think I’d like to see Boris as the cabinetmaker and myself more as the designer and builder of fine furnishings and marketer for both shops,” he says.

About 40 percent of the conjoined jobs are kitchens and baths; built-ins make up another 35 percent, home offices 5 percent and freestanding furniture pieces like armories and sideboards make up another 20 percent. Typically there are both owners and one part-time employee working between the two shops, but additional help is hired if a job warrants the need. “We pretty much do no more than three jobs at a time,” Ireland says.

Ireland starts a project by sitting down with a client and asking him what he is looking for and what functions he wants. Then he draws his designs and shop drawings by hand on a drafting table with a drafting arm. “I prefer not to use a CAD program because it tends to drive the design, and I don’t care for the results,” he says. When he is done, he provides his clients with a three-view drawing and often builds them a scale model of their project, constructed almost entirely from the same materials that the final piece will be made of so they get a feel for the final piece. “Making models helps me work out design problems ahead of time. I build the piece in my head as I build the model. Clients love them and frequently keep them on or near the piece to show friends,” Ireland says.

Promising Ideas for the Future
About 98 percent of the shop’s output is residential for upper-middle class to truly wealthy clients with only 2 percent being commercial. Most customers have an idea for design. They understand what is and isn’t good design,” says Ireland. Sometimes homeowners will go to a home center to gather ideas and sometimes Ireland will send them there to look at styles and colors, so they can develop ideas about what they want in their own cabinetry.

A small entertainment center on the low end runs around $5,000, and a full kitchen, installed by Ireland and Elashkin, runs around $20,000 to $25,000. “Usually we make pieces that we can break down and deliver,” Ireland says, because they serve clients who are mostly local. However, Ireland occasionally accepts jobs that are either in a different county or a different state, and he will deliver and install those as well.

Most of Ireland’s cabinetry and furniture pieces are detailed by hand, so equipment requirements are small. “We don’t even have line boring equipment. We hand-drill all of our shelf holes,” he says. Everything is hand sanded with random orbit sanders, a tool that Ireland says gets his vote for ‘tool of the century.’ “It’s an amazing tool,” he says, adding that eventually he would like to invest in a thickness sander. Currently his machinery includes a Powermatic 66 table saw, a 13-inch Delta planer, a 6-inch Delta joiner, a Jet sanding station, an Inca 12-inch bandsaw and a variety of hand-held and portable power tools.

In marketing their work, Ireland says he and Elashkin want to focus on the idea of ‘expressing individual personality’ to the average homeowner. “There are a lot of shops here in California doing cabinets that look very similar to each other, and the architecture of the homes is similar as well. But when people get into their houses they want to express their own personalities. Our idea is to approach them [with our unique designs and styles] and say, ‘Here is what we do, and we think that we can bring a lot of personality to your house,” Ireland says.

Even though he uses a lot of laminate already, Ireland plans to incorporate it even more into his designs. “I think that it is affordable for the client, friendly to the forest, and it gives me a lot of design options. That is why I use it.” He is also working on a series of what he calls “robotic” furniture pieces, furniture featuring remote controlled doors and drawers. He plans to bring these pieces to market at galleries in cities like Chicago and Seattle, and also wants to work with the design community to create interesting and artistic pieces.

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