Conservative contemporary is about the only term Bobby Michelson will accept to describe his unique style of furniture. A keen observer, however, might also note how his graceful furniture maintains a careful balance between art and function. Delicate curves predominate and masterful joining bring the whole piece together. His work has been displayed at art shows across the country, and he recently received a special recognition from his home state by winning a 2001 Individual Artists Fellowship in Craft award (worth $5,000!) from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
Bobby’s success started 20 years ago, when he first decided to do something he really enjoyed. It took a few years, however, to reach that decision.
“I got my first taste of woodworking in junior high shop, but my dad was a dentist and we didn’t have any tools, so that really didn’t go anywhere. In fact, I started in pre-med and pre-dental at the University of Alabama. I was always good in science and thought about following in my father’s footsteps, but I didn’t have the grades to get into professional school. Since I enjoyed the psychology of marketing, I switched to business and marketing. Then I discovered during my senior year, that all the entry level jobs would be sales-related & and a salesman I’m not.”
So Bobby ended up with a marketing degree and unsure what to do next. A retail job didn’t last long, and with a pretty limited background, he found a job with a high-end cabinet shop that was just starting out. Gaps between jobs, however, soon resulted in his being laid off. Then he worked off and on for the next four years for another woodworker who specialized in Californian Roundover (popular in the late 1970’s, this furniture was characterized by rounded corners and soft lines). After a subsequent tenure with another high-end shop ended after only a year, Bobby’s frustration led him to go into business for himself.
“When I decided to go into business, I had a hand drill, a sander, and few hand tools. I had saved up a little money and decided it was time to find a building and equipment.” Bobby recalled. “So I started going to auctions looking for equipment. I didn’t feel like I needed everything, but at least a full complement of a joiner, table saw, planer, radial arm saw. First thing I built was outfeed table for the table saw. Then my first paying project was a tiny cabinet job. That afforded me the money to build a simple assembly table. After that first month of buying a few tools and equipment, I was pretty much living on a shoestring.”
Aside from what he learned at the various shops, Bobby improved his skills by reading magazines (Fine Woodworking was a favorite), went to a few seminars, and basically by trying and doing learned to enjoy the processes and challenges of higher-end furniture. It was a struggle at first between making a living and creating the kind of pieces he wanted to make.
“When I started out going to shows, I’d have some show pieces, but I’d also have some simple sellable pieces,” Bobby recalled. “I soon realized that this was a “show” and I needed to show off. I decided to try to sell only at the level of the work I wanted to make. Unfortunately, a lot of people beat their heads against the wall trying to compete with the commercial furniture makers’ prices. You just can’t survive at that level & in this day of mass merchandisers there’ll always be somebody cheaper. So, the only way to make any money is to throw the ball high! Part of my product identity is always trying to raise my level as a craftsman.”
“I knew a few people and picked up a few commissions that paid the bills, but when I got caught up I’d do the speculative pieces. Then I marketed them pretty much through art shows, sold some, and slowly over the years built up a clientele. And here we are 18 or 19 years later,” he laughed.
Most of Bobby’s influences have been relatively subliminal. Though he never studied Frank Lloyd Wright, his parents had (still have) a mass-produced dining and living room set designed by Wright. His piece, Frank’s Coffee Table, pays subtle tribute to the Twentieth Century master architect. Though he didn’t know his name, he discovered at his first Furniture Society conference that the work of Michael Fortune had made a big early impression on him. As had the distinctive shell desk of Jere Osgood. He admits that his respect for the wood — he sometimes try to determine what the wood wants to be — sounds Krenovian. And with his recent Nature or Nurture series, most people see the influence of George Nakashima with his use of natural slab edges.
“A lot of times when I see pieces that I like, I wished I hadn’t seen them because & gosh, I can’t do that now,” he declares.
He likes doing commission work because starting is the hardest part of what he does. And he encourages his clients to bring in their ideas & even a stack of pictures that they like. Then he can begin feeding off their ideas. The speculative pieces he does are often determined by what he’s recently sold during a show.
“I need two tall pieces for the corners of my display, some sort of coffee table for the middle, and some other pieces,” Bobby explains. “So, when a piece sells, its position in his show display often determines part of the design.”
To create his own designs, he sometimes just sits down in the office and starts sketching to get an overall feel. He then goes into the shop, gets out a piece of plywood and starts laying it out in a full scale drawing. This allows him to look at the curves from long angles and get comfortable with the shape. The next step is to start drawing the curves on the wood & adjusting the proportions to the size of the wood.
The Nature or Nurture series is a result of that process & plus having access to a supply of hardwood slabs.
“I’ve been getting the slabs from a gentlemen who lives near Lynchburg, Tennessee. He’s a retired woodworker and is selling off his stored wood. Though most of his wood was squared off, near the edges of the barns and shed I found these natural edge slabs. After I’d done a few pieces, I came back with a couple, one to show him and one to give to him in appreciation. But, being pretty traditional, he just didn’t get it.”
That’s an attitude that Bobby went up against for his first 14 years in the business. Until one day he had what he calls a transition point and decided that, if he was going to do this, he had to throw the ball high again and started applying at some of the bigger, nationally renowned art shows. It’s a transition that paid off, and this year he’s done shows in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Ohio.
“They just seem to ‘get it’ better up there,” he noted. “Though there’s still a lot of people who don’t appreciate the amount of time involved. And when I ask some folks about the color of wood they want, they say it doesn’t matter because they want it stained dark. They just don’t realize wood comes in different colors. I’ve got a friend who had a customer come in who got all perturbed because he wouldn’t tell him where to get a can of patina.”
He loves the interaction at the shows, but finds there’s only so much he can say. That’s where his website comes in. He thinks of it as a brochure that, though it doesn’t bring him any direct sales, provides a way to tout his work and perhaps give his customers the confidence to write a big check for a commission. He also enjoys the loyal clientele he’s developed over the years, particularly when he gets to go back and see something he’s sold them a while back.
“It’s gratifying to see my pieces fit into both contemporary and traditional settings,” Bobby declared. “And it’s a lot of fun to come back and see some of my older pieces, particularly the ones in cherry that develop a rich patina, and think, my God, they’re even prettier now than they were.”