An Off-Balance Furnituremaker

Russell Hall, nicknamed ‘Piezo,’ says he likes to design pieces with ‘slightly skewed proportions.’

By Ann Gurley Rogers

     
Piezo

Portland, OR

Year Founded: 1993

Employees: 1

Shop Size: 2,300 sq. ft. shared co-op

FYI: Russell Hall, who goes by his nickname, “Piezo,” started selling his furniture at craft shows but switched to going through galleries “to let others do the selling.”

 
   
     

Everybody calls custom furnituremaker Russell Hall of Portland, OR, “Piezo.” “When I was about 17 or 18 years old, somebody called me that and it just stuck,” he explains. “That has been my name ever since.”

Piezo got an undergraduate degree in art from the University of Northern Iowa, with an emphasis on sculpture and drawing. “After that, I went to New York City,” he says. “That is what you are supposed to do when you are an artist, right? Well, I floundered in my direction and purpose. So to pay the bills, I started building theater sets and trade show displays and, occasionally, I made some furniture.”

From the beginning, Piezo was self-taught as a woodworker. “There were lots of books and lots of mistakes to learn from,” he says. “My approach always has been to dive into a project that is bigger than I can handle. That teaches you a lot.”

Piezo lived in New York City for eight years, but has been in Portland for the past 10. It was not until he moved to Portland that he became serious about making custom furniture, he says. The cost of living is less there, which gave him the latitude to branch out and experiment with furniture.

     
 
Aluminum and African ribbon-stripe mahogany make a striking contrast in this “Valuables Cabinet,” which measures 72 inches high by 24 inches wide and 17 inches deep. The mirror also serves as a drawer front.  
     

Piezo began with a shop in his home, but three years ago moved to a co-op. He used to have an apprentice, but not now. He says he prefers to work alone. However, he shares the 2,300-square-foot shop with two other woodworkers, and there are about 20 other woodworkers in the building, which offers opportunities for consultations and networking.

“This is a great situation,” he says. “With a home shop, it is so easy for a person to become isolated. In this situation, it is easy to find somebody to consult with, either about a technical challenge or an issue of aesthetics. It does not take long to figure out who is willing to share ideas and talk about issues and who isn’t.”

Pricing Always a Challenge

Being a one-person operation, Piezo does it all, from sales to janitorial duties. As far as the business end goes, he says he is self-taught and admits that he could use a lot of help, especially with regard to figuring out prices for his work. Often a project has taken much more time than he anticipated, he says, which hurt profits.

“There have been times when I have bid a job thinking that it would take me about 80 hours and it actually took 120,” he says. “A mistake like that devastates me financially. But I have improved since I developed the habit of keeping a log for each project. Now I can be more accurate in estimating how long things take.

“I was weaned on power tools,” Piezo adds. “In my theater work, I built a room in one day. I still enjoy working fast, and I like to design pieces that I can build quickly. Part of it is boredom — after working on a piece for a while, I get mired in the minute details and find that I am ready to move on to the next project. Also, while I am working on one piece, I start getting ideas for another one and I get anxious to move on.”

Beyond Power Tools

In the shop, Piezo’s largest pieces of equipment are also quite old, including a Klusman 800 36-inch bandsaw and a 12-inch American joiner. He has several Grizzly machines — a 16-inch bandsaw, 8-inch joiner and a 6-inch by 80-inch edge sander — and several from Delta, including a 10-inch Unisaw tablesaw, two 12-inch planers, a 16-inch drill press, 12-inch compound miter saw and a dust collector. He also has a shop-built vacuum press, Powermatic 66 10-inch tablesaw and an Accuspray HVLP spray system for finish work.

Piezo says he prefers to work in exotic woods. “I am fortunate, because in Portland there is one of the largest family-owned lumber companies in the world, Moxon Hardwoods. It is based in Australia, but one of its two U.S. distribution centers is in Portland.

“I like woods from Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and I like to combine species in my pieces for contrast,” he adds. “I also like to add other materials, like glass and metal, also for the contrast.” One of his most recent pieces is a good example — it incorporates an asphalt driving patch, 4,800 upholstery pins, reclaimed timber, African mahogany and chain.

     
 
Piezo burned the wood for these table legs to create an interesting charred effect, which contrasts with the bud vase and flower sprouting from the top.  
     

“I also like to design a piece so that it has slightly skewed proportions, so that it seems off balance,” he says. “I find that this approach produces a piece that holds one’s interest longer than one that is made with perfectly logical proportions. The pieces I like to make give the sense that they just might fall over at any minute. The reason that they don’t fall over is that their mass makes them stand up. Also, for texture, I have burned pieces or used various objects to beat the wood.”

Some of Piezo’s pieces show an influence of Asian design. He says that a friend and customer encouraged this direction by giving him a book on the Japanese school of thought called “wabi-sabi,” which is based on the beauty and appreciation of imperfection. This same customer commissioned him to make a bed based on wabi-sabi, which he made of wenge and reclaimed mahogany. The mahogany that was used for the headboard was originally acquired in the 1920s by a cabinetmaker from a Baltimore cabinet shop, which had salvaged it from a veneer manufacturer. The headboard has signs of a hatchet or ax along the edges.

       
 
Inspired by the 20th-century Spanish painter Joan Miro, this whimsical cabinet is called “Miro’s Surprise” and combines African ribbonstripe mahogany, aluminum, brass and wenge. It is 69 inches tall and 24 inches wide at the bottom.  
       

Piezo says he used to exhibit at craft shows both in California and Colorado, and he still has customers from those shows. However, for the past few years, he has shifted gears and depends on sales through representation at two galleries. One is William Zimmer Gallery in Mendocino, CA, and the other is Earthworks with three Oregon locations — Newport, Yachats and Lincoln City. He says he changed for several reasons.

“I am better at making my work than selling it. So I decided to let others do the selling,” he says. “Also, I have come to realize that being in a gallery gives me credibility and that most people are more willing to buy if their taste is validated by an expert. I found that traveling to craft shows is brutal on the furniture and on me.”

Clients who see Piezo’s work on display at the galleries usually approach him to commission something for their home or office. “I like to see pictures of other pieces that they like, not to try to copy anybody else’s work, but just to get a better idea of what they like and a better understanding of size and proportions that they are comfortable with,” he says. “Then I start with a sketch that I show the client. Most of the time I hit on something they like the first time, but not always. The next step is a formal drawing. Then we visit lumberyards to look at wood. Sometimes local clients see the piece as it is being made, but most of the time, they do not see it until it is finished.”

Some of Piezo’s furniture sells for a few hundred dollars; other pieces go for as much as $10,000. Most are in the $3,000 to $7,000 range. He refers to his pieces as “furniture art,” with some bordering more into sculpture. All of his work demonstrates an exotic style and a strong interest in texture — with an “off-kilter” edge.

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