Taking inspiration where you find it

Furniture maker fashions unique creations from found wood

by Suzanne Kamata

TOKUSHIMA — Californian furniture maker Cynthia Kingsbury works in a 100-year-old timber storage building at the foot of a lushly forested mountain in Tokushima Prefecture. Dried sticks are piled like kindling beneath her worktable. Her dog Tingi, a black Labrador-Doberman mix, is sprawled across a carpet of woodchips and shavings, chewing on a twig. A branch with a knob evocative of a deer’s head leans against one mud and straw wall. (“You see a deer?” Kingsbury asks. “I see a giraffe.”)

“The Throne,” a driftwood deckchair created by Kingsbury with a seat made from salvaged wood slats.

While other furniture makers design their work on paper and then choose materials, Kingsbury is inspired by the material itself. As the name of her company, Found Wood, suggests, she works almost exclusively with wood she finds in her surroundings, such as driftwood collected at the estuary of the Yoshino River.

When she first began making furniture five years ago in California, she used cuttings from the bush maples on her property. She soon began scavenging wood from trimmings along the sidewalks of San Francisco and in Golden Gate Park. “I like working with wood,” she says, “but I don’t like cutting down trees.”

Her studies in Japanese flower arrangement have trained her for improvising with the pieces at hand. “In ikebana,” she says, “we don’t get to choose our own materials. They’re put in front of us. Whatever it is, we have to deal with it.”

Before ever attempting to construct something to sit on, she and her partner, Andy Couturier, built a modified A-frame on land they own in northern California. They bought the land with money earned during a brief stint teaching in Tokushima nine years ago. It was during that first visit that Kingsbury, 37, became interested in ikebana, an art form that influences her craft.

“I wanted to learn something cultural,” she says of that time. She already knew that she enjoyed working with flowers. After college, she’d made bouquets for a delivery service that supplied flowers to supermarkets.

“I loved doing that — working with colors. And they smelled good,” she says.

After signing up for a class in Japanese flower arrangement at a community center in Tokushima, Kingsbury changed her ideas about beauty. In her previous job, she’d been aware that “people didn’t want spaces in bouquets.” But in Japan, under the tutelage of a Japanese teacher, she was converted to the belief that “asymmetry is beautiful,” a theory she now employs in furniture making.

“Anyone can make a straight chair,” she asserts. “I really like natural curves, trying to put different shapes together and leave spaces.” Kingsbury credits Kakuzo Okakura’s classic “Book of Tea,” first published in the early 1900s, as another influence. According to Okakura, “In the art of the Orient uniformity of design is fatal to the freshness of the imagination.”

In leaving spaces in her work, Kingsbury allows for viewer participation. “It continues to be interesting,” she says, whereas a symmetrical piece of furniture cannot hold one’s attention for long. With money in pocket from teaching English conversation, she returned to California and began working on the house, something she’d dreamed of doing since reading “The Other Side of the Mountain” as a child. Incredibly, the house was not enough to keep her occupied and she began looking for a summer project.

Furniture maker Cynthia Kingsbury in her workshop.

While looking for something on Japanese joinery in a Berkeley bookstore, she came across a book on making furniture from twigs. Her first creation was “a chair that fell apart.”

According to instructions in the book, she was supposed to drill holes for the nails that would hold the chair together.

“I didn’t have a drill,” she remembers. “I didn’t know how to use a drill. So I just hammered — a mistake.”

Later, a friend recommended another book that proved to be influential: “Making Rustic Furniture” by Daniel Mack. So impressed was she by Mack’s work that she drove her truck cross-country one summer to take part in one of his occasional workshops.

Following Mack’s detailed instructions, she learned to carve a tenon (a projection carved at the end of a piece of wood, for insertion into a matching hole).

“I had never carved anything before. I was not one of those kids that carried around a pocket knife,” she says. She went to a hardware store to find out where to get a knife for carving wood and was laughed at. She wound up buying one at a pawn shop.

Her first successful piece of furniture was a footstool with eight hand-carved tenons, which she learned to make following instructions from Mack’s book. Since then, she has made chairs, benches, sculptures and a music stand, among other projects.

She has recently earned a license to teach ikebana in the Sogetsu school and has begun the study of the design and maintenance of Japanese gardens.