Visions drive passionate work - Alternative materials

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“To make something that’s interesting and not boring, but also simple, is extremely difficult and can take a long time,” explains Fox. “For some reason — and it doesn’t always work this way — I think of the process of designing as somewhat organic. You literally plant the seed, the plant grows at a lot of different rates, and you might be doing something else, and that affects the soil conditions or however you choose to think about it.”

The furniture maker has designed and built more chairs than any other type of furniture. He routinely makes prototypes of his chair designs, but rarely for other pieces.

Alternative materials
There is excitement in Fox’s voice when he speaks about some of the

materials he has used, particularly in his chair backs. When he comes across a newfound material to experiment with, he’s like a little kid on Christmas morning. Stainless-steel rods or huge pieces of a plastic-type material called Imago don’t look like they’d make comfortable chair backs, but Fox has managed to succeed at achieving that. His use of alternative materials is the signature of his furniture designs.

“I don’t know how it started. I think it is kind of contemporary architecture-based. It’s one of the things I’m interested in … One of the issues for us is you have to have a comfort level in manipulating the material and how you would deal with issues you wouldn’t normally deal with in wood. There are lots of different questions about all of them, such as their working qualities.”

The problems that arise when working with different materials are mostly in terms of expansion and contraction. Many of the traditional woodworking rules apply no matter what Fox is building, so he has to learn how to address wood movement on an individual basis with each material.

Here are a couple material thoughts from Fox’s bag of tricks.

• Imago: “In the case of our plastic chair [the “Owl Chair”], we used Imago, made by Knoll Textiles. The Imago is off the charts, I think. It comes in a 4x8 sheet; one sheet will make six of those chairs. One of the real advantages is that we can manipulate it on woodworking equipment, so we can cut it on the table saw, sand the edge, [and] we can drill it. The only little variable is the shaping of it ... we’ll heat the material with a radiant heater and it will get kind of mushy, and then we have a male form and we’ll slump it, then put it in our vacuum bag to hold it while it’s cooling.”

•  Copper cloth: “This screening is incredibly seductive, and we now have three projects that we’re using it in. It looks like a screen door, but it’s made out of copper and it’s actually considered to be copper cloth. It comes in a variety of thread counts and the stuff is amazing looking. We bought it a few years ago just because it seemed cool.”

Fox has always had a couple of people working in his shop. John May and Bill Smith basically do their own thing and work for Fox on a piecemeal basis. He calls them subcontractors; they work on their own projects and lend a hand when Fox needs their assistance. The arrangement is basically one of sharing shop space. There have been occasions when Fox has hired an employee or two, and the results have been mixed since working in a studio shop that produces mainly one-offs can be difficult.

“We’ve had people from a variety of schools and a variety of programs. Some have been better than others,” Fox says. “It would be one thing if we were doing repeat commercial work or we were doing kitchen cabinets or something that had some consistency from project to project. You could train someone to do certain operations that are done over and over again. But that’s not the case here. We need to teach people that come here and work the way that I do it, and it’s more a way of thinking.”