We’re super excited to check out IDS Toronto in January. We’re also honored to be sponsoring their Maker section as it’s been our mission to share the work of those designers, makers and brands who are innovating, making a difference or creating design that betters our lives. Makers have often been at the center of this mission, bringing their uniqueness, entrepreneurial attitude, and creative spirit to the design world, offering a refreshing alternative to big brands. The makers will share their designs and products with over 12,500 distributors and industry professionals across Canada and 26 other countries; and 34,000 design savvy consumers. The Maker section is perfect for businesses that have manufacturing capabilities, and are looking to expand distribution.
One of these makers who will be showing in the Maker section is Christopher Solar. We talked to him about his journey from hobby to business.
How did you get into woodworking?
It started as a hobby when I was working as a software designer. I dabbled in other creative pursuits like printmaking and photography but I clicked more with woodworking. My early efforts at making furniture were pretty rudimentary, but I gradually gained expertise and confidence and got to the point where I thought I’d like to make a go at doing it full time.
How long has your design studio been in business and how has it changed over time?
I started making furniture professionally ten years ago. For the first few years I was making very complex custom work on commission, more or less in the vein of “studio furniture”. Initially I thought that would be the most rewarding approach, as each piece would be a new challenge. Over time I realized there were a lot of pitfalls to doing one-off work. It’s filled with uncertainty and clients for that kind of work are few and far between.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been working to establish a small design collection, and have those products be the foundation of my business. I still do custom work but it’s a side line. With my collection, I want to have pieces that express my pared-down aesthetic and are made to a high standard, but are within reach for a larger audience.
How many people work with you at Christopher Solar Design?
I’m a sole proprietor, but I’m not on my own at work: I have a co-op student, and I share my studio space with three other people, two of whom also make furniture.
As a small business owner, what are some of the challenges that you face?
I think the biggest challenge for me is having to do—and be good at—so many different tasks, from designing and building pieces, to researching materials and processes, fixing machines, planning for trade shows, staying on top of social media, and so on. It will be good to grow the business more so I can offload some of those activities.
You say your products are hand-crafted. What kinds of techniques are you employing in building each piece?
I use a combination of machine and hand tool processes to go from raw materials to finished piece. A lot of care goes into the very first step, which is to select the wood and choose how it will be broken down into furniture parts. I generally don’t use artificial stains, so getting consistent colour and grain across a piece takes some effort.
I use large machinery for milling and cutting wood, and hand tools like chisels and planes for refining surfaces and joinery. I finish the pieces with a non-toxic oil that’s hand-applied. Seat-weaving is all done by hand as well.
Practically speaking, I’m a woodworker—I work with wood—but that’s not really how I self-identify. I think I don’t want to be constrained by people’s expectations of what a “woodworker” does and doesn’t do. I love wood and use a lot of it, but I also have no qualms about combining it with non-traditional materials.
How has modern technology (if at all) helped your business – either for manufacturing and/or marketing?
Technology is instrumental! All of my pieces are designed in 3D on the computer, from early mockups to the finished piece. I’m not using digital tools for fabrication of the actual pieces, but I often use CNC to make things like patterns and templates to assist in production. With my background as a software designer, working with the computer has always been a natural thing for me.
On the marketing side, technology is definitely important. Social media, the web, and e-commerce are letting me reach people that might otherwise never encounter my work. These tools allow me to move far beyond the local market that has traditionally been the scope of a cabinetmaker, yet still interact directly with my clients.
Your mosaic mirror is really unique – can you talk about how that came about and the process?
That piece springs from two aspects of my personality; one, I’m fascinated by texture and patterns formed by repetition, and two, I hate to throw things away. As I work on furniture projects, I accumulate all kinds of scraps and offcuts. I wanted to find a way to use these otherwise useless leftovers, and I got the idea of reducing them to very small pieces and essentially make a composite material that could be cast in a mold. By doing so I’m able to use the wood but not in a traditional woodworking way.
The pieces of wood are cut to uniform length and are mixed with black resin. The resulting goopy mess is tightly packed into a ring-shaped mold, with all the wood segments standing on end and the resin filling the voids between the wood. When the resin has hardened the ring is removed from the mold, and I carefully cut into it to expose the wood and shape the mirror frame.
What is the most challenging piece of furniture you’ve ever made and why was it so?
It would have to be something from my earlier days as a custom maker. A couple of pieces come to mind where I was going straight into the deep end as far as using techniques and materials that were unfamiliar and very challenging. The first time I ever built a cabinet with a door, for instance, it was actually a commission for a cabinet with four curved doors that had to line up exactly since they also had curving lines of inlay flowing across them. I guess it was satisfying to meet the challenge but at the same time by the end I was sure I didn’t need to do that again. In a way, I proved to myself that I could do that kind of work and freed myself to not do it.
What piece will you be bringing to IDS Toronto in January?
What’s unique/interesting/different about Canadian design? In other words, what makes Canadian design, Canadian?
It may seem trite, but I think Canadian design is really shaped by our landscape and our climate. I see a lot of Canadian designers using wood as a primary material and doing so in a very natural way, whether in the literal sense of using live-edge slabs or (as is more the case with me) using it as a simple, relatively unadorned material. There are often parallels drawn between Canadian and Scandinavian design and think it’s true that the similarities in our environments have shaped us in similar ways. I think Canadian design is still coming of age, but it is definitely becoming more sophisticated and distinct.