Jordan Waraksa is the multitalented force behind FIDDLE + HAMMER, a Milwaukee-based company that crafts heirloom quality furniture. An artist and musician, Waraksa channels his unique skills and sensibilities into the company’s creations: modern pieces made with traditional methods, all from the finest materials possible.
We recently spoke with Waraksa about his career, his other artistic pursuits, and one particularly stunning creation from FIDDLE + HAMMER.
Before you created the brand Fiddle & Hammer, you were an avid sculptor and also a violinist. Being a multitalented artist and craftsman, when it comes to these varied pursuits, which did you fall in love with first? Is there one discipline that you feel most at home in?
I fell in love with music first. After many years of practice and hard work at the violin, it slowly became an apparatus of newfound subconscious creative expression. It was my way in. Both disciplines are very close to my daily creative pursuit, and that is why I call the company FIDDLE + HAMMER. The sculpting and manipulation of materials keeps my body and hands busy, which sets the mind free.
When did you start playing the violin and what level of expertise have you maintained?
I started learning the violin at the age of six with the Japanese technique of Suzuki, which basically involves a lot of listening to recordings for young children to naturally learn it like they would a language.
I pursued fine art and music educations simultaneously. It was an incredibly intense five years of study and practice, but each day was packed with a dynamic schedule, like getting right from the dusty wood shop into a tuxedo for a performance on stage with an orchestra. It was everything I ever dreamed to learn about. I hold a BFA in Sculpture from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and a BA in Music Performance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
I have performed with both local and international symphony orchestras, but these days I write, record, and perform with my band, THE VITROLUM REPUBLIC. We’ve released four full-length albums of original music, composed an award-winning soundtrack for a short film screened at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as numerous musical compositions for my own sound sculptures, short films, TV, international art exhibitions, and most recent collaborations with the Milwaukee Ballet.
Music and math go hand in hand. Do you feel this plays a role in how you think creatively and how you design your pieces?
Yes, they do, but I try to let the math part not be too influential in the design or execution of the piece I’m working on. To me, music has the power to create mood right from the very first note heard. I’d like to think my creativity with tangible materials in sculpting and making furniture is just a way to express what I feel from the temporal things in this world, like music.
What first sparked your interest in making furniture? Did you know from the get-go that this would be a professional pursuit, or was it something that began more so as a hobby?
In going to art college at MIAD, I enrolled thinking I would major in drawing. My first class of the semester we walked into the wood shop and I was in love. The smell, the machines, the tools, the warmth and familiarity of wood in my hand — it was just all so alluring. I sculpted in wood in that shop every chance I had for four years, and slowly brought the functionality of kinetics and sound into my wood sculptures. My thesis gallery show prompted me to make it a professional pursuit, as I was contracted to build and create things for breweries, design offices, and homes. I was straight out of school with no tools, no machines, and really no experience — I just said yes to all the projects. I didn’t even own a hammer. This became my definition of opportunity, saying “yes” to things you cannot do yet.
The creations of FIDDLE + HAMMER exhibit a dedication to heirloom quality pieces, both through the materials used and the methods of making. We understand, for instance, that you use traditional joinery. Where did you learn this technique? Did you go to a carpentry school, apprentice, or is your talent self–taught?
MIAD provided the wood shop and environment for me to be curious and learn things at my own rate, but there was no traditional furniture class. But some of the guys who ran the shop were furniture makers, and I picked up a lot from them just by hanging around. I distinctly remember being handed a book about James Krenov. Looking back, that book may have been the moment where I really decided I wanted to make furniture. The rest was self-taught.
Your products are primarily crafted from exotic woods — black and blue walnuts, fumed cherries and oaks, mahogany, etc. How do you go about sourcing these from your shop in Milwaukee? Is there a kind of wood that you enjoy working with the most? (You posted on Instagram recently that wood is “instantly knowable.” Is one more “knowable” than others to you?)
Well, actually, all the woods I use are local and domestic. I think about sustainability a lot and started out as a poor student making things from lumber mill dumpsters and metal scrapyards. In Wisconsin we have incredible hardwoods that are being salvaged from the urban landscape and rural counties where I live and work.
When I say “blue walnut,” it is a name I coined for the transitional grain in a walnut tree that blends from heartwood to sapwood. I don’t use any stain in my shop, either. I can naturally change the colour of the wood by employing a patina or fuming process, which reacts with the tannins in the grain. It’s pretty fun to watch.
Yes, “endlessly knowable.” Every time a board comes out of the planer, another layer of history, colour, and grain composition is revealed. It’s a beautiful surprise, with so much subtleties and truth if you learn to read it. White oak is my current muse.
You also make use of oxidized mirrors in a cabinet and, for one project, throughout an entire room. What prompted you to start using this material? Was there a learning curve in working with something so much more fragile than wood and steel?
Huge learning curve. You have to slow way down and use a lot of precaution with safety and transport especially. It was promoted when we designed and built the interior of MANE Salon in Chicago, Illinois. They wanted mirrors that were oxidized, but you could still see a pure reflection for obvious functionality within the space. A little baffled by this, we had to invent a process that was able to do both. My wife and business partner, Cora, is the artist who actually does the painterly-like oxidation compositions on the glass, and it’s mostly due to her creativity and persistence that we even figured out how to do this process at all. The next thing we knew, our best client saw the Salon and asked us to fill an entire room with the technique.
Let’s talk about the Bellaphone, a signature piece and standout for FIDDLE + HAMMER. How did your musical background prepare you when it came to the design and execution of this intricate piece?
My training as a musician definitely influences the delicate craftsmanship, the emotive quality of my work, and the overall creative practice. My first Bellaphone was created as a way to create sound sculpture back when I was doing my thesis in college. I dreamt of large, wooden looming forms emitting orchestral compositions. The wooden form would act like an instrument to warm the tone and help amplify the vibrations. I wanted to create an experience that would pull you in with a sense of magic and wonder. I specifically wrote musical compositions for each of the wooden horn-shaped sculptures I was carving at the time. It was an exciting time of discovery to push everything I’d learned all together in one piece. I still get excited to hear my music being played through the Bellaphone.
We understand that it’s made from reclaimed whiskey barrel staves. What led you to this (seemingly unusual) choice? Was there a huge trial and error process involved, or did the material lend itself in obvious ways to the final product early on?
A fellow artist friend of mine in Chicago referred me to a competition where you had to make art from a Herradura Tequila barrel. There was a huge cash prize, and I didn’t hesitate. I had a gut feeling that by taking the barrel apart and using the staves, it would be no different from the other woods I’ve previously used to build Bellaphones. As it began to take shape from the tequila barrel, I was blown away by the beautiful colours of the charred wood interior. Each piece started to unveil a unique tone, grain pattern, and history. I was sold. This was yet another way to add story to these unique sound sculptures.
The Bellaphone specifically marries art with technology. How did this project begin and how long did it take you to develop it to completion?
I have made and sold fifteen Bellaphones in twelve years. The first one took six months to make, and now I can make a set in four to six weeks. I have worked with some incredible sound engineers at the top of their fields to dial in the fidelity and sound quality to an amazing listening experience.
The Bellaphone has enjoyed considerable press in the U.S., but it’s also received international attention as well. Does the Bellaphone now sit in homes beyond America’s borders? What’s the furthest you’ve ever shipped?
Yes, I have toured around a lot with them for international design shows all over the globe. Currently they are living all over the U.S. from coast to coast, and in Vancouver, Canada.
We have to ask — have you ever made your own fiddle, and if not, any aspirations to do so?
My goal with FIDDLE + HAMMER is to create furniture like an instrument. Heirloom quality materials and craftsmanship, coming together to create a multi-sensory experience.
I have not made my own violin, and I think I’ll leave the art of violinmaking up to the trained luthiers that have been studying it for centuries.
Images via FIDDLE + HAMMER