Eric Manigian has found his creative
style heavily influenced by his experiences in Japan and with
traditional Japanese tools and practices. He studied sculpture at the
Pratt Institute in New York, then spent a year in Japan studying
meditation before returning to the U.S., where he looked up one of
his prior instructors.
After learning about Japanese hand
tools through workshops with Japan-born Toshio Odate, Eric became
involved with the Timber Framer's Guild. The nonprofit organization
focused on historic building techniques was involved with a project
in which they brought some high-level Japanese carpenters to the U.S.
to build tea houses in the Monterey, California, area. That project
occurred around the same time that Larry Ellison, a founder of
software company Oracle, was having a Japanese-style complex built
for himself in California. Although Eric didn't participate in the
Ellison project, both of those experiences "brought a lot of
people into the traditional Japanese architecture and building
methods," he said. "There was a band of North American
people who got fascinated with Japanese tools and teachings and
Eric went on to study architecture
after participating in the Timber Framer's Guild, and did later
participate in a trip sponsored by San Francisco-based Hida Tools to
an annual Japanese carpenters' convention, which also included tours
of toolmakers' shops. Eric says he has a strong appreciation for the
traditional Japanese tools such as saws, hand planes, chisels and
hammers. "Their hand plane is really quite beautiful," he
said. "I think a lot of Westerners are getting themselves
chisels and saws, but the hand plane takes more knowledge to set it
up right. I like the feel of white oak rather than the Western hand
plane's steel, and the easy adjustment with a hammer rather than
turning a dial in and out."
Eric also cites the laminations of
steel used in the metal areas of Japanese tools -- "their harder
steel is harder than American, and their softer steel is softer than
American," he says -- as appealing to him. "Their
toolmakers are really tuned in to the simplicity and weight balance
of those tools. Japan is one place that's always honored the
craftsmanship of the maker and the user, and the dialogue together
has produced a very fine working relationship."
"They've had several hundred years
of refining culture, and it's a sensibility I just sort of strongly
Much of Eric's inspiration for his own
designs comes from "a quiet observation of the wood itself. If
you're bringing a perspective of respect for the material and the
origin of the material, you slow down and make quiet observations."
For instance, Eric says his "Fold"
series is a sculptural investigation of wood as paper and paper as
wood; whereas his "Bandwidth" series was "derived from
an intimate observation of the inherent patterns in the wood's grain
itself. I just exploded it."
While much of Eric's current work has
been furniture, lately he says he's found himself exploring more
sculptural ideas. While he doesn't actively create many designs that
are specifically for architecture, Eric says he finds all three areas
-- furniture, sculpture and architecture -- "feeding each other
in terms of form and how they express ideas and connect to each
His "Enso Table," project,
for instance, a 15-foot diameter round table made of five sequential
slabs of spalted maple joined with pegged scarf joints, has an
architectural quality to it. Eric found the spalts reminiscent of
calligraphy: "Enso" is the Japanese word for the
ink-brushed circle which embodies the Sanskrit "shunyata"
or "emptiness." Eric considers the table his epic piece.
When you're dealing with
three-dimensional space, Eric said, "it gets hazy" to
distinguish among architecture, furniture and sculpture. He
prefers to "erase those borders," and also to tell the
story of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese sculptor who also designed lamps,
children's playgrounds, parks and more. "I like to cite him to
challenge the snotty idea that 'Art' with a capital 'A' is somehow
practiced with more intelligence than design. I ask, 'Was Naguchi
less intelligent when he was designing a lamp or a coffee table than
when he was carving stone?'"
As for his own materials, Eric says,
"for furniture, I've mostly worked in walnut. In architecture, I
like cedar." While he works with a couple of small milling
operations to use wood from downed trees, Eric tries to concentrate
his work on another face of "being green," or environmental
awareness: "Nothing is green if it ends up in a landfill,"
he said. "If all the processes that go into construction produce
a pretty bad project, people will throw it out eventually."
After having a client indicate that
they were thinking about their children, who would inherit the
furniture Eric was building, at the time of choosing the design, Eric
says he now tries to "build a piece with a multigenerational
view. I feel that's truly an overlooked aspect of green intention."
While he still wants to "take chances and be daring" in his
designs, "you feel a different obligation," he said.
In another instance of responding to
the next generation, Eric said he often finds himself responded to
queries from younger people who ask how to get started in the design
business. "I tell them, 'Build the piece you want to be
commissioned for, because no one else can imagine what you're
imagining,'" he said.
As for his own works of imagination,
Eric said, "I like the grounded-ness of making something to
serve people: the sincerity and integrity of craftsmanship, the
sensuality of materials and the challenge of trying to make something