Labour Of Love: A Q&A With Furniture Designer Jonathan Otter

Thirteen years ago, Nova Scotia-based furniture designer Jonathan Otter was honing his craft in a makeshift studio — a single car garage, a space loaned to him by a generous friend. Today, Otter is an internationally renowned designer, whose handcrafted pieces having earned him awards at home and abroad. To say that he has come a long way is something of an understatement. And despite his humble beginnings, as well as the fact that Otter is a self-taught maker, his furniture comes with price tags that one might not expect to find in rural Nova Scotia. Otter recently shared with the CBC that his Lounge Chair No. 3, the recipient of the Jury’s Joker Prize at the Arts and Crafts Design Awards in Germany  this year, retails for $33,000 thanks to the 500 hours of labour involved — not an endeavour for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the customer light of pocketbook!

We recently had the opportunity to speak to Otter about his process, his love of “old world” methods, and life as a family man.

You were awarded the prestigious Jury’s Joker Prize at the Arts and Crafts Design Awards in Germany a few months ago. Congratulations! What does this award mean to you, and how do you think it will affect your career moving forward? 

Many artisans wonder about the quality of their work.  A steady line of paying customers is wonderful validation, and I have been fortunate in that regard, but in the past I have wondered what a jury of  trained art and design experts would make of my efforts. Awards like this inform me that I am designing and making objects that are fresh, inspiring, and desirable.  The awards also garner attention that I could not otherwise receive. Recently, one Sunday morning I found my inbox full of requests for my furniture, not knowing that I had been featured on the national news the evening before.

All I really want, though, is to provide enough to take care of my family and have time for the most important things in life.  I felt that reaching for recognition through awards like these would help me to achieve that balanced life. So design awards are a means to an end for me.

You didn’t use measured drawings for this award-winning piece. Is designing by eye a regular fixture of your process? And how much trial and error or ‘happy accidents’ are involved when designing with intuition?

Normally, even with my other sculptural pieces, I sketch it out and then plunge in and work intuitively.  Once in a while there are some unhappy accidents, but usually I ‘ease up to’ the final product, testing it for looks and fit as I go. But this chair was so complex that I knew simple visualization would lead to disappointment. Lounge Chair No. 3 was the first time I used clay for modelling before I began.  I mocked up a plywood cutout in full size and shaped clay over it until I felt the design was right. Then I began free-hand carving in the wood, working from the clay model with my eyes and measuring with my fingers as calipers.  This method is still very ‘old world’ but with less risk. It also means that no two chairs will be exactly the same, which increases the rarity and authenticity of the work in my view.

How do you go about selecting the materials used in your furniture pieces, and what is the process for determining what they become? Do you begin with a vision and seek out the materials to realize that vision, or do the materials themselves inform the final product?

I begin with a vision of what I feel would look best, then find materials to suit.  I strive for striking contrasts, luxurious colours, and sensual shapes.  I design without regard for the difficulty of a project, so I choose materials without regard for their cost; I want the best.  It is my working time that forms the largest portion of final price of a piece; it seems ridiculous to economize on raw materials. Besides that, I love the purity of working with genuine and real things.

You experimented in your father’s shop as a child and this awakened your passion for woodworking. What lessons did he impart about the craft?

Dad picked up mostly rough carpentry in the ’50s, learning as he went along. He showed us boys how to do countless things with wood and metal. We lived on a farm and there was always something that needed fixing or building or sharpening, so the basic skillset for woodworking was there before I left home.  I am thankful that my parents created an environment that was conducive to creativity and learning.

What’s the first thing you ever designed? 

As a boy, I recall hammering bits of wood together and calling it a boat. As a professional woodworker, the first thing I designed was a ballustrade for a staircase. It was a crazy spiral design that the customer was looking for and I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I needed the work so I plunged in and took the commission. I ruined one in my shop, but got it right on the second one.

You work with your brother, Joe, a formally trained cabinetmaker. What is your process of collaboration?

He has a skill set that I have not mastered — a production approach of finding ways to do high quality work faster. Sometimes this is by using technology and machines to our advantage, often it is by ganging tasks. In turn, I invite his input into design solutions. We run a fairly loose collaboration with neither of us looking for prominence. We work well together.

You’ve described a ‘worrisome trend’ of designers relying on computer screens in order to work. Have you ever dabbled in this process yourself, and what shortcomings of this method led you to remaining a hands-on maker?

I have never personally used computers to design; I don’t have the education for it. I would like to, of course, and I will likely pursue it in the future, but I remain committed to keeping it in its place. I have used drafting and 3-D modelling services, but soon reverted back to my ways of designing with T-square and pencil; the results were not satisfactory.  Obviously, there are advantages in using computers to design. For instance, having a file that can be used with CNC machines can do wonders for production numbers. But something is gained, something is lost.  My point really speaks to the danger of relying solely on computers without having worked with wood, or metal or leather or whatever material from which we are designing things. We might liken it to an architect who has never built a house or worked in construction. The grounding in reality is missing.

You live and work in Nova Scotia. How does the landscape inform your work, and do you make use of local materials?

I suspect the landscape influences me in subliminal ways that I am not yet able to verbalize.  There is a certain raw beauty to this area where I work; it is largely unsettled and uncultivated. The truly beautiful hardwoods are not native to this part of the world, so though I use some species of woods that grow here, it doesn’t play a huge role in my work.

Have you ever been tempted by the idea of moving away from Nova Scotia to design in larger markets?

Absolutely. And I have had offers as well. Until now, our income has been low, but our quality of life has been high. I would never switch that order of things.  But my wife and I have a young daughter and we need to think about her future, so if a move would result in a similar quality of life and a better upbringing for her, we will certainly make that move.

Which furniture piece would you describe as your biggest accomplishment to date?

It would certainly be Lounge Chair No. 3. Six months in designing, prototyping and making, dauntingly complex to accomplish, frighteningly expensive, and nearly universally well received — it was a labour of love.

What’s next for you?

Speaking of temptations to move…we will be traveling to Europe in the very near future where I will be in consultation with other design and furniture studios.  We will see what transpires.