Where I Work: Sean Woolsey

The work of California-born Sean Woolsey has piqued our interest for a few years now with his impeccably crafted furniture and gaming tables (shuffleboard and ping pong) that are handmade and guided by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. Founded in 2011, the studio’s portfolio continues to grow with design-focused pieces that are handcrafted and built to last for generations to come. For this month’s Where I Work, we head to sunny Costa Mesa, California to the Sean Woolsey Studio to explore the relatively new space and to see how things work.

What is your typical work style?

Ever since having a kid, I have had a pretty regimented M-F work schedule of 9-6 with lunch in there somewhere. Sometimes a workout at lunch, too. I used to work super late into the night, and on the weekends, but am more balanced now. Having more normal hours has been good, and pushed me into a consistency. Usually, in the morning I hammer out all my computer work, then have lunch and try and design/prototype in the afternoons, and then more computer work at home for a bit in the evening.

What’s your studio/work environment like?

I like to have a pretty clean and structured place, it keeps my mind more organized and efficient. There is a place for everything. The natural lighting in our studio is great and the weather is awesome. We are about a mile from the beach, so surfing frequently is a priority. I like to have a fun atmosphere to work in, somewhere that I am pumped to go in every day.

How is your space organized/arranged?

Our studio is broken up into a few different zones – we have a showroom in the front, two offices and our woodshop in the back. One office I rent out to a jewelry designer/maker. I have a large office that looks both into the showroom and into the woodshop. Originally, my office was two offices, and during construction, we blew out the center wall and added a large window and glass sliding door into the showroom.

I have a desk (used for all things digital), and a drafting table (reserved for only analog drawings, sketches, and designing). Also in my office, there are a couple of our chairs, a daybed (for naps) and a bookshelf filled with all kinds of books, magazines, samples, fabric and wood samples, etc. Also, I have a large magnetic whiteboard behind my desk that is my inspiration board. I repurposed an old sail to cover the ceiling and painted on some quotes.

How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?

We moved into this space Oct. of 2017 and we were directly across the street for almost 6 years in a shop half the size. It was the easiest move ever, we literally pushed all our heavy tools across the street. Construction in the space took about a month. This new space has a cool history in Costa Mesa. Years ago, the whole building housed Modern Amusement (a clothing brand that I once freelanced for), then there was surfer/artist Andy Davis’ art studio and then for the last few years a friend’s ad agency. I had always loved the building and told him that if he ever wanted to move out to let me know, so we jumped at the chance to take over the space.

If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?

More space! Haha. We are already outgrowing this space.

Is there an office pet?

No, I wish. Would love to have a couple of dogs. One day! We do have a dog hotel next to us though, haha.

Do you require music in the background? If so, who are some favorites?

Yes, music, podcasts, and audiobooks are pretty much constant. Music is more for designing. I listen to a lot of Jazz while designing and doing art. I listen to everything from Miles Davis to Bonobo to Bon Iver to M83 to Ben Howard. A few of my favorite podcasts are Up First, Planet Money, The Accidental Creative, The Tim Ferris Show, 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, Invisibilia and Lore to name a few.

How do you record ideas?

Yes, I recently bought a Rocketbook Notebook and am obsessed. Now the whole team has them, and it will most likely be the last notebook I ever buy. I love how it feels to write on the paper, that everything is erasable, and how you can use their app to store a digital file of the pages.

Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?

Yes, many inspirations, quotes, images and products that we have in the works.

What is your creative process and/or creative workflow like? Does it change every project or do you keep it the same?

It usually starts by drawing quick ideas in my notebook. Then picking what I like best, and figuring out the rough details of the design. Then I move to full scale on paper and will revise when needed. Next is to build a full-size prototype in cheap wood. Then rework the kinks. Lastly, we build the design in the final material, do a photoshoot, and launch the product. At some point, in there we also make a Sketchup model.

What kind of art/design/objects might you have scattered about the space?

In the showroom, obviously our pieces, and some of my art. In the woodshop, mostly tools everywhere, but in semi-organized sort of way, haha.

Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?

Yes, lots. Typical woodworking tools like a bandsaw, jointer/planer, table saw, routers, router table, workbenches, hand tools, drill press, table saw etc. A couple of my favorites are the 1940’s drill press from my wife’s grandpa and my hand tools.

What tool(s) do you most enjoy using in the design process?

I am obsessed and have quite a collection of mechanical pencils. As for designing, I enjoy using my Rocketbook, Sketchup and most of all being in the shop getting my hands dirty.

Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell us about your tech arsenal/devices.

MacBook Pro and monitor plus an iPhone. And a good set of speakers that we made in the shop. MasterDynamic headphones for full focus.

What design software do you use, if any, and for what?

Sketchup, Adobe Suite, and Ommwriter (for interviews like this one)!

What’s on your desk right now?

Laptop, speakers, pencils, water, notebook, phone.

Is there a favorite project/piece you’ve worked on?

Hmmm. I usually enjoy the process more than the outcome. Which in a sense is good, because I am always looking for the next challenge. However, I get bored easily and tired of making the same thing over and over. My favorite piece recently would be our pool table, which took a lot of head-scratching and engineering. I also made a Conoid chair (designed by George Nakashima) when I first got into woodworking years ago, and really like that piece, as it represents a lot in my journey. That was the piece that taught me the most about woodworking. As a project, designing and building out our new space has been really fun. We did it in a month which was nuts, and we did everything ourselves. I love to work with space and decide how it should be used, how to make it fun to work in, and maximize its functionality.

Do you feel like you’ve made it? What has made you feel like you’ve become successful? At what moment/circumstances? Or what will it take to get there?

You are only as successful as you tell yourself you are. I like to ride the fence of success, halfway there and halfway not. Comfort is the enemy of greatness. I like the challenge of being the underdog, and working hard to get there, and never being bored. I do try and celebrate the small victories of life, the everyday successes as that brightens my mood and the atmosphere in general.

Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?

We are next working on a drop leaf dining table for small spaces. It will be easy to ship, and easy to have in a small space, yet easily convert when there are more than two of you at the table. I bought a vintage one a few months ago on Craigslist and I love the adaptability of it and am confident that we can make a fresh one that many people will enjoy.

Do you have anything in your home that you’ve designed/created?

Not much at the moment. We had a dining table, but I gave it to a friend. I did a lot of custom pieces for our house (like a bar, shelving, and a large walnut countertop that goes over our dishwasher). And I made our credenza as a one-off years ago.

Photos by Lonnie Webb and Scott Snyder.

Caroline Williamson is Editor-in-Chief of Design Milk. She has a BFA in photography from SCAD and can usually be found searching for vintage wares, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in pen, or reworking playlists on Spotify.