Renewal in retirement

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Lee Johnson retired about 10 years ago from his position as a lobbyist — he prefers the term “liaison” — in the energy field. He worked for more than 20 years in Seattle, did a stint in Washington D.C., and finished up in Portland, Ore. Once retired, he grabbed his passion for building furniture and forged ahead on his new career. But at the same time, he looked back — way back. Johnson enjoys building “adaptations” of period furniture. Yes, he does some 18th century American pieces, but he prefers furniture designs that span several centuries before that with origins primarily in Europe.

Lee Johnson

Owner of: Lee Johnson Wood Art

Location: Portland, Ore.

Shop: 1,100 sq. ft.

Experience: More than 30 years; 10 as a professional

Previous employment: Energy lobbyist/liaison

Specialty: Furniture with classic Western European decorative carving

Challenges of carving: “Can I control the tool while reading the grain? Can I understand the underlying form? Can I make the peach look fuzzy and the apple shiny? Can I pick out the dominant lines in the fretwork and display them to best advantage? How do I make that acanthus look Swedish and that one Roman? Is the decoration enhancing or distracting?”

“While I think I understand the lure of reproducing furniture that has stood the test of time with its utility, strength and beauty, I find a greater challenge in borrowing some of the best from classic works and adapting proportion, technique, decoration and what-have-you to make unique pieces which meet the need at hand,” Johnson says. “Why copy when I can invent new ways to apply proven designs?”

Johnson’s adaptations cover a wide range of styles and movements — Art Nouveau, Gothic, Rococo, Renaissance, British Craftsman, Western European and more. He talks about classical Greek and Roman proportions, and math and geometry in the context of furniture design.

“I have studied historical geometric design,” Johnson says. “Did you know that the second-best selling book until 1900 to the Bible was Euclid’s 13 Elements of Geometry? And since then we have become a nation of geometry dummies. We just don’t do it anymore. I just get such a kick out of geometry; it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s only natural to assume that the Portland furniture maker has always been a history buff, especially in the 1500s to 1800s range, which is the time span many of his designs are based on.

“My fascination with history didn’t start until I was in Washington during the bicentennial,” he explains. “I got bit by the bug of the beginnings of the country’s history and, at the same time, I was beginning to learn about real furniture making, and particularly decorative work on furniture. So that obviously took me into the history realm, a happy combination of things.”

Mr. Fix-It
Johnson’s woodworking career began by working on three homes he bought, lived in, and sold on Queen Hill, a neighborhood of old homes in Seattle. It was literally on-site job training.

“That was learn-as-you-go, and I had to get more sophisticated as we bought more expensive, old places with fancier stuff in them. We moved three times in Seattle; we were there for almost 20 years. I built my first nice pieces in the late ’70s in Seattle as gifts for my wife.