Although she grew up “in a very crafty family” with a background in sewing, cross-stitch, tin punch and all kinds of Girl Scouts crafts, it wasn’t until she was grown up and trying to furnish an apartment that Laurie McKichan took up woodworking.
She and her then-boyfriend, now husband, had purchased an antique table but, every time they looked for chairs to go with it, arguments ensued. Jokingly, Laurie said she’d “make some.” At the time, she was taking community education classes in other subjects, so she signed up for woodworking, too – in a class where everyone was required to make a coat rack. “I have mine still,” she said. “It’s not very pretty, but it works.”
“Now, looking back,” Laurie says, “I had no clue” about such things as wood movement. “The teacher would say, ‘you can’t do that.’ With plastic, plywood and granite, you see stuff done” that wouldn’t necessarily work with wood – for instance, she created a triangle shape from ash and edge banded all three sides, including the two diagonal, end grain sides, with walnut. So far, it’s still holding up, and “it looks kind of cool,” she said.
Also taking those community education woodworking classes were others among a group of dedicated people who were on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, including people building things for their homes or their grandchildren with tools they didn’t necessarily have access to at home. “I met great people,” she said. “You learn from other woodworkers.”
Laurie, in fact, took learning from other woodworkers into a somewhat more formal process as her next step: she moved from the Minneapolis area to Chicago to apprentice first at Berthold Schwaiger’s Bauhaus Institute, then for Jeff Miller of J. Miller Handcrafted Furniture. At both places, there were regular meetings to discuss what each person – approximately 12 apprentices at one time at the Bauhaus Institute; one other at Jeff Miller’s – was working on, and there were commissioned pieces to build. “At the Bauhaus, people came knowing it was a school. At Jeff’s, you were thrown right into needing to do top-notch work.” It was good preparation for opening her own shop when she returned ot Minneapolis, Laurie said, because ,“Every project is different, and you’re thrown into it and you just have to do it. You become no fear.”
Among the different projects she’s done, those she cites as her favorites include a kitchen project wherein each piece – a plate rack, valances, etc. – had its own identity as a piece of furniture, her Valley Bench and the James Bookcase.
The James Bookcase, solid walnut with a frame and panel back, was a gift to her husband (whose first name is not James). “I love making things for friends and family,” Laurie said.
She thought the Valley Bench was challenging but fun, a simple bench that allowed her to try some weaving, which she had always wanted to do. “I like a lot of stuff,” Laurie said. Although some day she’d like to try carving, and putting some glass and tile into some of her work, “I’m trying to limit my enthusiasm for the things I do.
For example, she hired an upholsterer for that portion of her M Chair and Ottoman, a Morris chair and ottoman built of Baltic birch and plywood as an inexpensive way of creating a prototype for a Morris chair before cutting into more expensive cherry wood. Laurie doesn’t do her own upholstery and claims she doesn’t want to be good at everything.
She also notes that, like knowing how much a good upholsterer costs, many people these days are not familiar with custom furniture. “It’s an education process,” she says of her participation in local arts and crafts fairs and, to some extent, dealings with clients. “People don’t know how much a piece of wood costs.”
Still, dealing with clients who commission her work is one of the fun aspects for Laurie. “You can tell they’re excited, and it makes you excited.” One of her recent commissions, for the Mid-Century Modern Cedar Chest, for example, has really sparked an interest in the Heywood-Wakefield line of furniture that inspired it.
That style’s simple lines are similar to some of Laurie’s other favorite styles, including Arts and Crafts, Danish and Shaker furniture. Those aren’t the only styles she works in, though, because, in addition to designing and making her own projects, Laurie also does some woodworking as a builder for other designers. “I just get to build, stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily build myself. It pushes my own boundaries.”
Currently, for example, she and Richard Helgeson are building a Tree of Life sculpture for a church; in that case, some of the design element actually comes from a liturgical consultant – in this case, Nick Martell – Laurie said, noting that church work is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of how building for hire differs from the simple items she would normally build out of her preferred woods of cherry, walnut and oak. The scale and the size, she explained, are greatly different than her own projects.
When she builds for another designer, Laurie said, “I like being able to help the other person and do a good job for them. It’s like being an apprentice, and that’s how I learned.”