David Fobes: Furniture as Interactive, Functional Art

David Fobes: Furniture as Interactive, Functional Art

You don’t have to know David Fobes has a twin brother to enjoy his work. But it adds another level of meaning to the symmetrical, geometric, and mirror images that appear throughout much of his work.

Designing and teaching in San Diego, California, David combines a fine art sensibility with furniture building. All his pieces incorporate traditional woodworking techniques, but woodworking is simply the medium he uses to create works of art. The fact that it still functions as furniture that people can interact with makes his art more experiential than painting or sculpture. His pieces have been exhibited across the country, and his classes always draw an overflow crowd.

Design and woodworking were always important to David. His father and grandfather introduced him to woodworking tools at an early age, and he gravitated toward design and architecture in school and later in college. In 1978, with a not very marketable degree in environmental design (architecture with an emphasis on fine art and design), he found work doing carpentry and large-scale woodworking projects for custom-built homes.

“The supervisors would point me in the direction of more complex finish work,” David recalls, “And I started doing some furniture on commission. So I began to acquire more and more tools.”

Around 1979, he got involved in correspondence art. This involved sending postcard size-art works (originals or color photocopies) to exhibits or individuals all over the world. Having developed a reputation among correspondence art circles for his graphic designs, David was invited to participate in a gallery show in San Diego. He had the idea to combine some of his carpentry skills with his art and create a collapsible chair that could be sent through the mail. The postage on the chair would become part of the piece. When the Post Office insisted it be in a box, David added a box to the design that became an end table for the chair when the whole thing was set up.

“That was my first piece of furniture that crossed the fine line between fine art and design,” David recalled. “I continued to work on construction, but, for the next ten years, also did a lot of commissioned furniture work … some traditional and some experimental. I was self-taught, so I learned new techniques from Fine Woodworking magazine and cabinetmaking books. I was charging practically nothing just to be able to do the work.”

Then in 1988-89, David read in Newsweek about a show organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They had invited about 20 artists to reinterpret works in their collection. He was interested to note that one of the artists involved was Wendy Maruyama, who was teaching at San Diego State. The professional way she approached her work and the fact that she expected the same from her students changed the way David looked at his own work, and he entered the university’s MFA program. After getting his master’s, he started teaching at the university, and then landed another teaching job at a local community college.

“Teaching is what really sustains me,” David explained. “That’s freed me up from taking on a lot of commission work over the past couple of years, and I’ve been able to build work on spec and for exhibitions.”

Painting the wood with a unique imagery had always been an important part of his work, but about five years ago, while working on a slide presentation of his work, he had an epiphany.

“I noticed that there were a lot of mirror images and symmetrical work, and I suddenly realized that I’m reproducing my twin-ness. I began looking at my older work and saw that I’d been doing this for years subconsciously. That’s when I did the green double chair (“Sideshow”) … which was the acknowledgment of that consciousness. And now most of my work is based on that consciousness.”

As he delved deeper into his imagery, he discovered how important color and geometry had once been among different people. Even as recently as the 19th century, the Pennsylvania Dutch used their famous geometric hex as a form of mystical protection from evil.

Working from his basement shop in San Diego, David builds his furniture in what he calls a workmanship-like manner.

“I want them to work. Open a door or a drawer and it should work beautifully and not distract from or impede the experience. I’m not interested in the craft outcome but in the experience outcome. I generally don’t do dovetails because they consume time that’s not necessary to achieve usability. For most work I don’t think going to that next level is necessary.”

The fact that he paints his wood may make some woodworkers’ hair stand on end. But his research has shown him a long history of painting furniture.

“When people couldn’t afford mahogany, they’d make a piece out of pine and paint it to look like mahogany. There are some wonderful American pieces built out of poplar but painted to look like expensive wood, and they took great liberties with their interpretations of the wood and really got into the joy of just painting.”

In the process of working with so many paints and finishes, David has lately become committed to using nontoxic or low-toxic finishes and stains and is trying to use sustainable hardwood. He gets urban forest wood from a fellow who cuts, mills and dries blighted red gum eucalyptus from the city of Los Angeles. It’s got a beautiful grain and has moved him to leave some of the wood unpainted.

Does he see himself as artist or woodworker?

“Woodworking is the process I use to express my art. It has a sculptural aspect and I enjoy doing it. Every artist has a particular medium which they are attracted to. Woodworking is what I have a good feeling for. I haven’t experimented much with other materials. I’m fluid with the process and the tools of woodworking, and I understand what I have to do to get the idea done. I’m pretty stuck in woodworking.”

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