September 2005

Tradition with a Twist

John Clark combines traditional woodworking techniques with a flair for detail and design, to create artistic veneered furniture.

By Hannah Miller
The Eye Above Us: This early writing table is a takeoff on the seat of government. A column of Formica ColorCore mimics the Washington Monument and is topped with the pyramid and eye from a dollar bill.

John Clark's grandmother in Jackson, MS, may not have realized she was teaching him standards of furniture making by surrounding her family with 17th and 18th century antiques.

But growing up, Clark says, he and the rest of his family got the idea that "this is what furniture is about."

"Going to her house was like going to Winterthur or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston," says Clark, owner of John Clark Furniture in Penland, NC, and former head of the furniture making program at Penland School of Crafts.

What Clark learned, and what he puts into practice in the studio furniture he sells through galleries and on commission, was not period style, but traditional technique.

Mortise-and-tenon, dovetailing and frame-and-panel door construction are all hallmarks of his work, which Clark often uses to produce distinctly individualistic designs.

For "Good Government, Good Citizens," a piece he created in 1986 after receiving his Masters in Fine Arts at Boston University, Clark incorporated Formica, glass, paint and anodized metal to create a writing desk symbolic of Washington, DC. One of the side supports distinctly resembles the Washington monument. Made of gray Formica ColorCore routed into a brickwork pattern, it is topped with the pyramid and "all-seeing eye" from the back of a dollar bill. A glass side panel, done by glass artist Ken Carder, includes portraits of "good citizens." Postcards of the city are enclosed in glass in the back rail, and the painted legs mimic Washington's weathered copper roofs.

Although Clark says his work has changed in recent years, becoming more traditional in form, he still likes to work with unusual materials. But whereas the nontraditional materials used to drive design, now, "I use them sparingly, if it happens to work," he adds.

One recent project, a sideboard with a black granite-looking top, has an apron made up of hundreds of small, glued-in bars of Macassar ebony. Clark says he often uses Avonite or Fountainhead, a solid surface by Nevamar, in place of granite, which he then cuts to size using a Felder table saw with a carbide blade.

With solid surface material, Clark says, "I can do it all myself, in-house. I can work it to the tolerances and do the details I want to do."

Passion for Detail

Clark's passion for getting the details right is what led him into furniture making. Today, his work is split 50/50 between commissions and galleries, including the Penland Gallery, Grovewood Gallery in Asheville and the Sansar Gallery in Bethesda. His work is also publicized in Guild sourcebooks and through word of mouth.

Wenge, curly ash, and mahogany veneers are inlaid into this wenge dining table. Hundreds of tiny convex bars of wenge are glued into the apron for a fluted effect. Photo by Tom Mills.

Although gallery work is very lucrative, he says, it is sometimes "too broad a frame." Clark instead says he welcomes the limits imposed by a client's desires. "That gives me something to work from," he says.

Clark recalls one commission for mahogany/purpleheart tables, which included purpleheart panel doors layered with dyed bird's eye maple veneer. For a distinctive design element on the doors, he removed the teal-colored veneer at the edges and in the center design to reveal the purpleheart underneath. Then, he says, the client instructed him to build a secret compartment. "[The client said,] 'You can never tell. I might want to put a treasure map in there,'" he says. The tables also have slits in the back to help keep electrical cords out of the way.

Clark says he applied the same layering technique used on the tables to a bookcase he built for an auction benefitting Penland School's furniture studio. Strips of mahogany were affixed to an MDF frame, and overlaid with curly maple veneer. After routing the veneer, the revealed mahogany resembled an inlay.

In another design twist, moons - new, crescent, quarter and full - appear in ebony and bird's-eye maple in several of Clark's pieces. In one dining table, for example, the moon's progressive phases circle a center moon, and when the extension leaf of the table is removed, a couple of phases disappear. At the edge of the same quilted-maple table is an apron of 462 tiny glued-in bars of maple, capped top and bottom with mahogany.

Clark also incorporates architectural themes into his work. When building a case with several tiers, he says he often starts with a foot, tops it with a post, and in the upper tier, tops the post with a column and maybe a finial. "Very architectural," he says.

A quilted mahogany entertainment armoire extends the architectural theme even further. For this project, Clark used a Festool OF 2000E router to create a brickwork pattern in accents of ebony veneer.

Other equipment in the 1,700-square-foot studio, attached to Clark's home, includes: a Felder shaper, SCMI planer, DeWalt radial arm saw, Rockwell drill press, and Oliver jointer, sander and lathe. For his high-end finishes, Clark uses M.L. Campbell Magnalac lacquers, applied using a DeVilbiss HVLP gun. He also uses an oil finish occasionally. He gets most of his veneers from Certainly Wood.

Roots in Wood

Clark cultivated his love for wood while at an early age. As he grew older, Clark worked as a forester, then renovated an old house in his hometown of Jackson, MS.

Phases of the moon in ebony and bird's-eye maple circle a center moon in this quilted maple and mahogany table. For a fluted effect in the apron, Clark glued in 462 tiny convex bars of maple and encased them top and bottom in mahogany bands. Photo by Robert Cutter.

Clark says he loved working in construction, but "the scale of a house, working alone, can be overwhelming." Doing things the way he wanted, with extreme attention to detail, "you could spend a day framing in a door," he says.

He focused his efforts on furniture instead, "a much more compact thing." In making furniture, he adds, "I can get things just the way I want them."

Clark spent two years "thinking, talking and looking - dabbling," he says. Then, he took a short course in contemporary furniture manufacturing at the Appalachian Center for Craft, a division of Tennessee Tech University in Smithville, TN. To his amazement, Clark says, he learned more in two weeks than he had working on his own the previous two years.

Clark came to Penland, IN, in 1985 to build the school's furniture-making studio, stayed nine years as coordinator of the furniture program and served as artist in residence for two more years. Today, he spends most of his time at his company, John Clark Furniture, but still finds the time to teach the same type of short courses that inspired him, both at Penland and at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, TN.

Clark adds that educating people on furniture making is an invaluable endeavor. If you were to interview the students, he says, "chances are they'd say [the course] is a life-changing experience."


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