Form and Function

When furniture is sculpture

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Japanese kanji character from a book. A tree stump on the side of the road. A piece of particle board that has been sanded down and polished. These are all items that sparked Stuart Welch’s imagination enough to be transformed into pieces of uniquely elegant furniture.

Twenty-five of Welch’s pieces are currently on display at the Skagit County Historical Museum in La Conner in an exhibit titled “Woodworking… A Process.” The exhibit features tools from the museum’s collection as well as an explanation of how the furniture is made.

Welch says his work has been inspired by a life steeped in travel, global economic development and art. Situated in a nearly hidden lot off Highway 20, Welch can often be found sanding away in his shop—a 1,600-square-foot corrugated aluminum building with bright teal windows—and chatting with his neighbor “Wild Bill,” a local glass artist.

A 1973 graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Craftsman, Welch has had a varied and dynamic career, beginning as an assistant to Wendell Castle, an American furniture artist often credited with being the father of the art furniture movement. He also designed and prototyped pieces for Gunlocke Furniture Company, worked as an advisor to furniture manufacturing development in Indonesia, and was a private consultant to P.T. Puri Agung.

Welch credits his success to being encouraged to cross the threshold from functional craft to artistic creation. A rocking chair he constructed in high school, for example, swiveled and rocked 360 degrees instead of in the usual back-and-forth motion. Visiting a furniture exhibit at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian and working under Castle helped open his eyes further, and he began to see furniture as a form of sculpture.

“All of a sudden furniture became a three-dimensional canvas,” he says. “But Wendell also taught me that if you take furniture into the realm of art it has to be impeccably crafted. And if it’s not perfect, do it over again.”

Many of Welch’s pieces are reminiscent of furniture design in South Asian countries and feature darker woods such as teak or mahogany as well as tiered shapes and the use of wheels. Other pieces he simply describes as “irreverent,” like a bench with inlaid wood that echos a piano keyboard, a whimsical grandfather clock with haphazard angles, or a storage box he crafted for his wife constructed almost entirely from pieces of polished particle board.

“I like how you can add details to furniture that might be humorous, or at least bring it into the realm of humor,” Welch says.

Then there are the political cuckoo clocks. His “Shovel A Little More Coal” features a miniature freight train hauling two cars of coal and a soot-covered canary that pops out at the top of each hour. Another clock, “Plantsanto,” features giant corn and “Frankenvegetables” that wrap around the clock. Finally, “Rising Tide” sits on stilts above an empty rowboat as a tragic homage to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

“I enjoy producing work that challenges me and also people’s conventional ideas of what furniture should be,” Welch says. “Making objects that others want to touch, question and use is very satisfying, and it is most gratifying to create furniture that makes people smile.”

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