By the time John Eric Byers graduated
from college, he realized he didn't want to be the teacher he'd
studied to become. Instead, he preferred to work with his hands.
Having earned money throughout college and high school summers with
work in others' woodworking shops, John Eric found woodworking to be
an appealing road to achieve that goal.
John Eric had grown up in Rochester,
New York, and, at the time he graduated from college, famed
woodworker Wendell Castle, a founder of the art furniture movement,
had a school there. John trained at that school for two years in the
mid 1980s. "When I was there, there were 30 students: 15
first-year and 15 second-year, and Wendell's studio was in the
After finishing that training -- which
included design courses from Wendell Castle and technical classes
from other faculty -- "at first, I was just going to look for a
job," John Eric said. "Wendell's advice was to do my stuff
full-time and other people's stuff part-time." He ended up
accepting a position as an artist-in-residence in Philadelphia --
with a New York Foundation of the Arts grant he'd received for his
student work financing the move -- and, after a couple of years
there, took a job making furniture for a designer with a showroom in
"At school, I'd learned about
being meticulous and using hand tools," John Eric said. While
working with Bob Ingram, "I learned how to make a living, how
to be efficient in the machine shop." Throughout all that time,
"Within the mix, I was making my own speculative, one-of-a-kind
pieces," John Eric said. "Studio furniture was big then."
"When I first started making work
at school, I just wanted to be a woodworker," Eric said. "I
was excited just about anything related to wood." As he began to
explore more of what he wanted his style to be, he noticed a couple
of guys at school who were painting their pieces, covering up the
wood and focusing on form. John Eric began emphasizing form and
monochromatic finish on his pieces while in school and now, 25 years
later, he said, "My work has never been about the beauty of the
material. It's about the beauty of working with the material.
"I paint pieces black because
there's no way you can disguise the scaling, proportion and form,"
John Eric said. "My canvas is the work I do with finishing."
Although he's gained in sophistication with 25 years of experience in
finishing, "I've always held on to milk paint, or an opaque
finish," he said. "I've always responded to textiles, and
ceramics has always been a big love of mine, and milk paint has a
glaze quality to it.
"I'm drawn to the tactile
experience, where you go up to a beautifully sanded piece of wood and
run your hand over it, and it feels so good. I'm trying to create
that tactile experience with my own work, to create my own surface."
From a distance, he said, you might see that a piece of his has good
presence, proportion and scale, "but as you get closer to the
design, closer to the work, you see the individual characteristics of
Although structurally, his pieces might
look as if they're made with solid wood, they are actually a version
of hollow core stack laminate, John Eric said. The pieces are lighter
than they appear, and very sturdy. For several years, John Eric used
a lot of mahogany and sapele, but he has had to decrease his use of
those woods after developing allergies. Currently, he's using mostly
domestic hardwoods such as ash, poplar and cherry for their working
qualities, describing cherry as "a wonderful surface to work
with for carving tools" and poplar as "OK, but not as
In all of his work from 2000 to 2008,
he did all of his surfacing via hand carving. Following three
shoulder surgeries in six years due to overuse from repetitive
carving on surfaces, however, he's now using a mix of hand gouges and
power carving tools to create his textured surfaces.
"The most intensive piece I ever
built was the piano I did for Steinway and Sons," John Eric
said. "The amount of labor I put into that piece was the
equivalent of six months for seven days a week. It took about a year
for two of my fingers to work right because of all the carving I did
on the piece."
Although it was interesting to
collaborate with a company for that piece, John Eric said, "It's
always the next piece you get really excited about. That's what
motivates you; you just want to keep creating stuff."