Wood 'Doctor' Turns One-Dimensional Pieces of Veneer into 3-D Works of Art

Jonathan Pressler uses veneers in unique patterns to create furniture with 'mathematical and visual harmony.'

By Karen M. Koenig

You might say Jonathan Pressler takes a philosophical approach to woodworking. As a doctor of philosophy turned woodworker, Pressler said he takes great pride in taking design "problems" and changing them into well thought-out works of art.

"I like to look at complicated problems and come up with well-conceived solutions," said Pressler, owner of Rush, NY-based Jonathan Pressler Design. His background in philosophy is noticeable in the way he tackles many of his furniture and accessory designs.

Pressler said he likes precise detail in his work. "I like to have the things I make have clean edges. In other words, I want them to look how I intended, not as though they came together by accident.

"I never liked looking at furniture and just seeing a two-dimensional board -- or something cut so it appears just one-dimensional, as though nobody's really played with it aesthetically. I consider many of my designs a joining of mathematical and visual harmony," he added.

This visual harmony is best seen in the Penrose glass-topped coffee table, named after author and physicist Roger Penrose, whose mathematical and scientific ideas were used to advance hypotheses about the nature of human thought and consciousness.

In designing the table, Pressler said he broke the project into a mathematical equation of problem and solution. He identified the "complicated problem" as taking one-dimensional, symmetrical pieces of veneer and designing them into a functional piece of furniture with a flair for the dramatic.

The solution, he said, was "to use curly maple veneer, varying the direction of the grain pattern to give it an asymmetrical appearance." Use of dyed black pear for inlay between the individual veneer pieces gives the final piece a three-dimensional appearance, Pressler said. At first glance, it appears as though the veneers were rising and falling, in geometric, cube-like shapes.

"This was very time-consuming, but relatively easy to inlay. I used steel templates to rough cut the veneer on the veneer saw, or in some cases, tried to do multiples on a router," Pressler said. Each piece on the 32-inch by 52-inch tabletop was then glued separately onto a plywood core.

The three interlocking pedestals underneath the tabletop are solid wood. "The pedestals are movable. Each arrangement of the pedestals can yield a different look," Pressler said.

Pressler's Penrose side table is designed similarly, but without the black pear inlay. Curly maple veneer is again placed symmetrically on a plywood core, with the varying direction in the grain pattern giving the side table an asymmetrical appearance. The 19-inch-deep by 19-inch-wide side table sits atop a 22-inch-high pedestal base.

"In this, as with the coffee table, even though it doesn't look symmetrical, the opposite sides are equal, reinforcing the mathematical and visual harmony," Pressler said.

It was Deco, not mathematics, that inspired Pressler for the Postmodern Ark entertainment center. Constructed of birch veneer with dyed maple inlay and solid brass details, the Ark stands 84 inches high by 60 inches wide and 24 inches deep.

"This is a big, boxy piece. I wanted to emphasize the height, not the width, so I broke up the front, making it look like two towers," Pressler explained. The center section on the left side has room for a TV and audio/stereo system. "I also made it so there's lots of storage and places for components," he added.

Both natural and synthetic veneers are extensively used in some of Pressler's other creations. For example, Brookside reconstituted veneers in "sapele pommele" and black "ebony" are used in making the 14-inch-wide by 78-inch-high by 14-inch-deep Obelisks -- more universally known as CD storage cabinets for holding up to 200 compact disks. Pressler used gold leafing on the handle and trim to give the Obelisks a decorative touch.

Another example of his work with veneer is Pressler's Ceremonial Vessel, which is a lidded bowl turned from birch plywood and surfaced with a variety of veneers.

Adding metal to the mix is something fairly new for Pressler. "I got the idea a little over a year ago. For a while I was building intricate furniture, which is hard to price so it's still affordable. I looked for a simple concept that was compatible with my production -- something straightforward to make.

"That simple concept was to take bent metal and bolt it to a square piece of wood to make a table. Then I started doing drawings and thinking about how the concept could be visually interesting," Pressler said.

"I must have drawn thousands of legs. But it got me thinking about the materials and shaping," he said.

Only ash is used in combination with the metal, he added. "The main reason is that ash presents a nice contrast of material, plus people are not so familiar with it in furniture that they expect to see it used in a certain way. For example, with cherry, the perception is for it to be used in a more traditional piece, one emphasizing the dovetail, butterfly splines."

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