August 2, 2014

Katie and Joseph Thompson, Designers and Makers in All Things Wood

Solo show at Dwelling’s LOCAL Maker’s Series in Charleston, South Carolina

Since discovering their seat design, dubbed “The Perch,” I’ve easily became an admirer of the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Thompson Woodworks in Eutawville, South Carolina. Here, they share both their respect for wood and joy for making bespoke, heirloom-quality furniture in addition to a range of objects, from candle holders to wall pieces, with the home in mind.

When did you start your fascination with wood 
and creating with wood? How did you turn the fascination 
into a long-term passion?
Joseph: I became intrigued with woodworking while I was living in Columbia, South Carolina. I then withdrew from college and went to a wooden boat-building school at the Silva Bay Shipyard School in British Columbia. After two years there, I returned to South Carolina, but wanted to get into one-person projects, and I really enjoyed the School’s cabinetry course in British Columbia. Then I took a three-month intensive course at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, and came back in 2008, starting Joseph Thompson Woodworks full-time.

Katie: I grew up watching my father do various little woodworking projects and I always wanted to design something for him to build. I grew up eating at a pine dining table he built in high school, it was in my grandparents’ house for a long time, then my parents’, and now we have it in ours. When I met Joseph, there was an instant connection between us with our similar passions for design and wood—he had already been woodworking for six or seven years.

Milling a White Oak that had fallen on our old workshop earlier this year.
Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

You only use “responsibly harvested fine hardwoods.” 
What does this mean?
Joseph: We harvest or purchase our materials with a conscience. We do a lot of custom work, and that requires us to order exotic woods sometimes. We are sure to use FSC-selected woods in those cases. We now harvest a fair amount of wood ourselves from our property, either from fallen or dying trees. We have wood that was harvested from Katie’s family’s property in Pennsylvania, or we find wood in old barns and moving trucks in the mountains of North Carolina. Basically, we know how precious our materials are, it’s part of our deep reverence for the work, and also our passion for creating it into something worthy of the wood.

Are there craftspeople you look up to? Who?
Katie: Friends of mine, Kate Rothra, makes the most amazing flame work glass jewelry out of Charleston, South Carolina, and Martha Collins, who makes incredible wood cuffs with 1,000s of tiny pieces in a single cuff. She’s from Washington.

Joseph: I look up to anyone who is trying to make living as a craftsperson! To name one, I’d have to say one of my teachers at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship—Adrian Ferrazzutti in Ontario.

What are the advantages of being a married creative couple 
who own and sustain a business?
Katie: There are so many, it’s hard to count, but we do try to recognize every day just how blessed we are to have what we have. As far as business sustainability, it’s huge to have a partner by your side that is 150% working with you and knows you and your style. We also bring so many different things to the table, and our strengths as individuals really help bridge the gaps when we come together as a team.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
Katie: Ha-ha, we try our best to avoid them, rarely do we argue about work when it’s not involving something from our personal life. We actually see eye to eye on a lot of things, but I do tend to get frustrated with the speed of the process sometimes. We do our best to say “Look, this is business, let’s get to it.” We’ll work it out and then get back to the workbench.

How do you get the word out about what you do and get clients?
Katie: Social media has been a great resource for us. We have a growing Instagram account that is always bringing in new opportunities, sales, and press. Aside from this, we maintain a monthly newsletter to keep our clients and followers updated month to month on classes, new designs, press, events, and exhibitions. Speaking of, we also do a few shows per year, in 2014 we had a solo show at Dwelling’s LOCAL Maker’s Series in Charleston, South Carolina, and we’ve traveled to the One of a Kind Show in Chicago during the past few years and will attend this December as well.

Joseph: Word-of-mouth is always the best advertising! There is nothing better than a happy client.

What are must-don’ts in working with clients?
Katie: Don’t let them underestimate the magnitude of the process. This rarely happens to us, but it’s important for everyone to be on the same page. A handcrafted chair can take up to two, maybe three months to build, if it’s a custom piece. Keeping the client involved and informed on the construction process, the handcrafted joinery and details, etc., helps them understand what is going into their piece, and they usually just generally love knowing what went into it anyways.

Also, a must-don’t is working with a client that you know you shouldn’t be working with. This can happen for various reasons: you might really need the job, or it’s a project a little outside of your comfort zone of quality. If the project doesn’t seem to fit right, don’t take it—it will cost you in frustration and provide a less gratifying experience for yourself.

Latest arm-chair design turned upside down for detail work underneath the seat.
Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

Cherry-wood dining table. Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

What does design—the noun and verb—mean to you?
Katie: To design is to create something to solve a problem, a need. It’s creating a solution, and yet it’s also the creation itself. It’s also creating something people might enjoy—it’s an expression, it’s a viewpoint, and it’s culture.

Design has literally constructed our society, the way we live, and our lives. It’s incredibly mind-blowing and it’s infinite, yet it’s very personal. Everything is perfect for what it is, yet everything can still be completely different, through design.

Joseph: There are times that I design, and it’s fluid. Other times, it’s a grind. Sometimes the only design I come up with is a pile of crumpled papers by the trash can. For me, a design and to design are the same thing—it pours out of you. It’s hard to distinguish the difference.

Writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Building/Strategy at?
Katie: In furniture making and woodworking, in particular, there is a wave of women hitting the shops and cranking out some really nice, solid work. We all tend to hide in our shops—women or men—so it’s difficult to get a real feel for just how many of us ladies are out there. There is no doubt that this is a field dominated by men.

What is your definition of bad design?
Katie: Design that simply doesn’t work! Whether it’s aesthetic or functional.

Joseph: Bad design is just as evident as good design, both aesthetically or functionally. For me, bad design is something that doesn’t work—where either the designer tried too hard or didn’t try hard enough. Good design is usually effortless you don’t even know it.

Joseph makes a hand plane. Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

Joseph demonstrating how to sand a chisel during a hand-tools workshop. 
Photograph: Jen Ray

Joseph demonstrates grinding a chisel during a hand-tools workshop. 
Photograph: Jen Ray

Joseph sharpens a plane blade with his latest design in the background. 
Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

How does time factor into your work?
Joseph: Time is a major part. It’s either a deadline, or how long a particular technique has been used (time-tested). There is the cost of the materials, but what my clients are paying for is a handcrafted piece of furniture from raw lumber. Basically, my work is time. Each joint is hand-cut, then the sanding, then the finishing—everything is done by hand. That takes time. A lot of time.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying 
and how did you deal with it?
Joseph: Every piece has its challenges. When doing custom work, every piece is brand new, so figuring out the design, or altering an existing one, for every project can be really challenging.

Katie: Learning patience, and to work with the wood.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
Joseph: I use a good ole pencil and paper, but my ultimate tool is my discipline to go to work. When nothing is happening or being made, it’s that motivation to get in the shop and get things done.

Also, Instagram has a really large woodworking community that is great for bouncing off ideas, troubleshooting, or just connecting with other woodworkers.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources 
of motivation/inspiration?
Katie: It can be tough sometimes. I draw a lot of inspiration from shapes, or removing something out of its intended construct or space. That usually helps me figure out the details I’m going for, or discover something new I hadn’t seen in a piece before.

What is your advice to people who aspire 
to be a creative practitioner?
Joseph: Don’t be afraid to fail.

Katie: Be prepared to work, even when you don’t feel like it. When it doesn’t seem worth it, or you’re feeling out of sorts, that can be often when the best ideas come about.

Cherry-wood dining table. Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

Three miniatures, two stools and a table. 
Photograph: Joseph Thompson Woodworks

What is your advice to people who aspire to be a furniture 
or home product designer and maker?
Joseph: The best advice I received was to “Get good, then get fast.”

Katie: Focus on function. The form can follow once something works fantastically.

How does South Carolina contribute to your work? 
And what makes it special for startups, business, 
South Carolina provides us a home, an encouraging place to work, and endless inspiration here in the Lowcountry swamps. South Carolina is actually a great place to start a business, and Charleston is just booming with exciting new creative and tech businesses coming in. You can’t drive over the Ravenel Bridge, or by a large field of fresh corn, and not be moved.

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All photographs courtesy of Joseph Thompson Woodworks.

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Typeface of quotes is Caslon designed by William Caslon (1693–1766).

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Read my Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) answered by woodworkers Katie and Joseph Thompson.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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