Timeless Design, Timely Material
New England craftsman adapts 18th century skills to space-age materials.
By Barbara Garet
For four years, while attending vocational-technical school, Joel Miller worked part-time at a premiere New England furniture shop, learning the time-honored woodworking skills of 18th century craftsmen. Working alongside master cabinetmakers at Eldred Wheeler, he saw the creation of museum-quality reproductions characterized by intricate fittings and joinery, and decorative mouldings, inlays, carvings and turnings.
Then, in what may have seemed an unexpected turnabout, Miller spent five years learning how to work with Corian solid surfacing material, a 20th century product created from natural minerals and high-performance acrylic. Miller says he began to see that the material had the potential for many uses besides countertops. He became the lead fabricator at Surface Technology Corp., a major solid surfacing company in Boston.
In 1997, Miller decided to combine the skills gained from traditional woodworking with the potential of the newer material and apply his knowledge of both to furniture making. He established Sterling-Miller Designs, Brockton MA, to create custom furniture from Corian. He became a certified Corian fabricator, and his work is now displayed at the Boston Design Center.
“I always felt it made sense to use Corian in furniture,” Miller explains, “for the same reasons that it is used in kitchens. It is hard, strong and durable, stain-resistant and renewable. It’s childproof.”
Moreover, Corian also has properties that can bring design concepts to life, Miller says. “The primary reason is that when heated, it can be shaped. It can be whatever the designer wants it to be.” Merge those qualities with a variety of colors, new textures, tactility and even translucency — there is no limit to its uses, he adds.
Miller’s output ranges from conference, game and end tables, to art display pedestals, to an “overstuffed” Corian chair that weighs between 150 to 200 pounds. But his most intricate project to date is a miniature bonnet- top secretary to be used as a jewelry box. Designed in a 1775 country style and downsized to 24 inches, it is made from 1/2-inch Corian.
The concept was intriguing to Miller. Eighteenth century furniture makers took pride in their fine carpentry, especially mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints. How could he show this skill when handcrafting a product that makes seams/joinery invisible?
He chose color to highlight the joinery. The frame itself is Sierra Sandstone Corian, and he wrapped the drawer dovetails in a 1/16-inch layer of contrasting Nocturne. Raised panel doors have stiles and rails of Nocturne and panels in Sierra Sandstone.
The bonnet itself was thermoformed to a specific bend. The slightly concave sections in the bonnet were hand-carved. Drawer sides and bottoms were milled to 1/4-inch thickness. The finial and knobs were turned on a lathe, and ogee feet were built up from two pieces of 1/2-inch material. The finished piece weighs about 25 pounds.
Miller was one of the key people involved in fabricating 20 “overstuffed” Corian chairs and four loveseats for Grand Central Station in Manhattan (see CWB June 2000). “Nothing of this scope had ever been done before. We took thermoforming to the next level by making a multidimensional product from surfacing material,” he says.
Another, more recent high-profile project was creating six custom Corian vanities in Queen Anne style for the new Henry Hudson Hotel in Manhattan. Designed by Phillipe Starck, Paris, the vanities are free standing, with thermoformed cabriole legs and basins. The Corian components were heated 25 minutes at 315F in a 13-foot oven that resembles a pizza oven, then placed into custom-made male and female molds to achieve the curves. There is only a limited amount of time to get heated material into the mold, Miller says. Corian stiffens up as it cools and even though still pliable, internally there is stress. After 30 minutes, the parts are released from the molds.
Six pieces, individually bent, form each cabriole leg. Hollow at first, the legs were supported by bent steel that also runs the length of each vanity, then filled with a two-part urethane foam that hardened and bonded with the steel and the Corian.
Each tabletop with basin is one piece and the apron is made up of four. The material of which the mold is made depends upon the desired bend, Miller says. “Generally, we use MDF or Wacky Wood, which can be shaped.”
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