Although Judson Beaumont's company is called Straight Line Designs, his pieces' whimsical curves provide a unique appeal for 'kids of all ages.'

Judson Beaumont resists being labeled as a children's furniture designer.

For one thing, "We are all big kids," says Beaumont, owner of Straight Line Designs Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia. And indeed, his palette of bright colors and free-form shapes appeals to people of all ages.

Also, his work goes beyond the dressers with arms, cabinets with faces and other furniture that looks as if it belongs in Roger Rabbit's Toontown or Pee-Wee Herman's Playhouse. He has built pieces for film sets, retail displays and trade shows. His "Red Box Studio" booth for Wilsonart International toured the trade show circuit last year (in 1999) showing off what woodworkers can do with laminates. 

Curves, unexpected shapes and bright colors are the trademark of Judson Beaumont's designs, as can be seen in the "Victor" hutch. "Victor" is 56 1&Mac218;2 inches tall by 31 1&Mac218;2 inches wide. Photo by Storme.

Other projects have included interactive exhibits and displays at a British Columbia trout hatchery, water park sculptures in Japan and an outdoor playhouse at Vancouver's Canuck Place.

Aiming at kids, however, is close to his heart, Beaumont says. Besides furniture, he also has worked on children's play areas for a handful of hospitals, with his first project a clock tower and a fiberglass tree to cover waiting room pillars. Some of his recent jobs include two hospital play areas in Summit and Morristown, NJ.

Beaumont also has branched out from custom work and limited runs to mass production, licensing new designs for a company created to showcase his work. Funtime Designs, started in 1996 with a Vancouver plant, ships around the world and is featured in catalogs from J.C. Penney Co. and Sears Canada. The company is licensed by Warner Bros. to use the studio's Baby Looney Tunes characters on cribs, chests, changing tables and armoires. Workers are turning out 75 units a day, running 24 hours a day, and business continues to grow, Beaumont says.

The Funtime pieces are priced competitively -- $200 to $349 for dressers, for instance -- and open Beaumont's unconventional designs to a wider audience than the furniture that comes out of his own Straight Line shop.

There, prices for what he describes as a combination of art and furniture range from $1,800 to $5,000. Beaumont says that he is happy with his present collaboration with Funtime Designs. "I am learning a lot from Funtime," he says. "I love the fact that I can build something and get it mass-produced and see it going down the line and getting in people's houses. But I don't want to spread myself too thin."

Staying independent and following his vision wherever it leads is important to him. He thinks of himself neither as an artist nor a furniture designer, he says, and dreams of going beyond the furniture category to designing everything from radios to toys.

Beaumont's training began with art school and sculpting. Wood attracted him as a medium and that led, in a roundabout way, to furniture. A visitor to an art show at the school told Beaumont that one of his wooden pieces, which was based on basic geometric shapes, looked like a coffee table. "I was very offended," Beaumont says. "I thought, 'This is art.' But he wanted to pay me $300 for it. That was a revelation."

That revelation brought him to the conclusion that furniture is simply functional art, he says. Eventually he rented 500 square feet in a building full of other artisans in a Vancouver industrial area. He began with a borrowed table saw and quickly found work supplying computer desks, displays and other custom pieces.

When his friends started to have children of their own, he expanded with furniture aimed at them. That led to a commission to do an entire bedroom, which he fitted out with a slide and a bridge.

"All of a sudden it became a business," he says. By 1991, he had added employees and now has a staff of eight. He eventually expanded his space to 3,000 square feet. He stayed in the same building because it continues to be convenient to be near the other artisans. He doesn't have to go farther than down the hall or to a different floor when he needs metalwork or an upholsterer, he says. Today, his sales fluctuate between $350,000 and $450,000 a year.

Beaumont's original plan was to build furniture to finance his artistic work, but along the way he had another revelation: Although he wasn't creating traditional furniture, people wanted his different approach.

How different? "My stuff is like Howdy Doody on acid," he says.

Judson Beaumont displays a piece of MDF to show how he sketches directly onto the material.

To get that look, he sketches as much as possible, focusing not on other furniture but on architecture (Frank Gehry is a favorite inspiration) or something completely different, such as ceramics.

"Everything for me starts with a piece of wood," Beaumont says.

He prefers working with medium-density fiberboard because he can draw directly on a sheet, he says, adding that MDF also can be worked without requiring a large investment in tools.

His shop includes a Delta table saw, Makita planer and plenty of hand tools.

When he builds a piece of furniture, he cuts the front and back out of MDF as mirror images and fits them into a box. To achieve the bends and curves so common to his designs, he builds plywood ribs and nails them together, then puts them into a torsion box.

The process is like building an airplane wing, he says. He avoids steaming the wood to make it bend, he adds.

Pushing the limits of what's possible and striving for a look of something that can't be done, is an approach he gleaned from art school.

"Instead of copying something exactly, I approach it like sculpture, not like fine furniture," Beaumont says. "There are enough people doing that (fine furniture) out there."

He finishes his pieces with veneer. Maple is a particular favorite because "it's popular and it looks great," he says. He also favors knotty pine and birch. Kid's furniture tends to see hard use, and both maple and knotty pine take the knocks well. He says he likes to start with a distressed or antique look, "so the more they beat it up, the better it looks."

Both woods also show off nicely with the water-based stains he uses. He favors bright colors from Behr and Selecto. The end result "looks like candy," he says.

The biggest challenge in producing genre-bending work is marketing, he adds, "selling ideas and concepts that people didn't know they wanted."

That also includes connecting with potential customers. "There is no point in designing all this stuff if I can't get it out there," he says.

Visibility helps his efforts. Beaumont's work can be seen on his Web site, www.straightlinedesigns.com, in public areas from hospitals to stores and, in his Funtime guise, in two of North America's biggest retailers. He has also been featured on cable TV's Home & Garden Television.

In addition, he travels to schools in Canada and the United States for the WoodLINKS program to help promote careers in the wood industry to students. During his talks, he shows off his work and involves his audience in design exercises.

Before he made it his life's work, he enjoyed woodworking, "but no one ever said, GÇÿyou can do this for a living,'" he says. Working with WoodLINKS might open that same door for one or more kids, he adds.

It all goes into "educating people that there is more to furniture than what you have seen over and over," he says, "It's okay to have a piece of furniture with arms and legs sticking out of it, and it's okay to have drawers that are a little crooked. They are still going to hold your socks and underwear."

 

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