Furniture Maker Transforms Wood

Browsing through the myriad tables, lamps, pedestals, chairs and dressers crafted by Chris Lehrecke reveals a prolific furniture maker and designer with a delightful multiple personality. Some pieces are so in touch with nature, they are reminiscent of what is found on a walk through the forest. Others are impeccably clean-lined structures ready to take up residence in a Kyoto penthouse. Still others reveal ties to an African sensibility. The former Brooklyn resident has three pieces—an early African stool, a chip chair and a pedestal—in Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. For the past two decades, he’s lived in Bangall, NY, a hamlet in the bucolic Hudson Valley. The setting has proved to be a wellspring for the furniture maker in both available material (trees) and more importantly, inspiration.

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Why do you have such an affinity for wood?
It has a soul. Every piece is completely different. It has a personality and it shows the signs of its life. I’m 35 years into doing this, but I am still intrigued by wood as a material.

Does a specific piece of wood speak to you in terms of what it should become, or do you start with an idea and then look for the piece that would work?
I do both. Depending on its look and shape, it becomes clear what kind of piece it will become: a lamp base or a tabletop, for example. When it’s obvious what it dictates, I work with the natural parts of the wood. But a lot of designs I do are not like that. From my design and architecture background, I try to do a clean and crisp piece of furniture in which the wood doesn’t have to have much character. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. I try to find pieces that don’t have too much going on so it’s all about the design. I have ideas going all the time. It begins within my head, seeing things that inspire me.

Do you work with perfect logs or are defects part of the charm?
The lumber and architectural industry only want perfect trees—a lot of the logs that get rejected I end up getting. Often times, they are more interesting; I always work with burls. I don’t have a problem with that because it shows more of what the tree is about. There’s also so much interesting stuff in the shape of trees where the branches come out. If you avoid that, it limits how much of the tree you can use. I like to use as much of it as possible. I’m not afraid of defects.

Do you have favorite types of wood?
There are so many. I work with 20 types. The darkness of [walnut] is appealing. White oak I love a lot, it can be used indoors and outdoors. Maple and cherry I love, too. There are trees with no commercial value that I have come across, which are some of my favorites because it’s such a surprise when you find how beautiful they are. I work a lot with catalpa. It’s highly sought after in Japan, but it’s considered a weed in this country and is rarely used. It has a beautiful grain and an open Japanese feel to it. There are five to six trees that fall into this category: butternut, chestnut, black locust. They have no commercial value but I use them all the time.

What influenced your minimalist and modern design aesthetic?
I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a glass house in the woods; it was full of George Nelson furniture. I moved back to New York City in the early 80s and worked in a furniture shop where I was exposed to a nightmare of a decade—it was so overdesigned where you made a piece of furniture from six different materials when you really only needed two. But I learned about materials during this time. It was a good period in terms of learning craft. I went off on my own in the late 80s/early 90s reacting to that and went back to my beginnings: modern 50s and 60s that I had an affinity for. Also, I had a friend who imported African furniture. I was impressed with the simplicity and intrigued by the shape and the form. My aesthetic is the pull of these two: minimal 50s/60s and Scandinavian, as well as the chunky-shaped African pieces.

Many of your pieces seem to have a nature-based sensibility.
I take lots of walks through the woods for an hour almost every day. [The cabinet with pulls resembling mushrooms] was one I did with my wife, Gabriella Kiss, who’s a jeweler. We picked those mushrooms and made molds of them. The base of the cabinet is an elm branch that I eyed on my bike rides. For five years, I collected the branches from various walks. When you cut into them, they were perfectly sound inside. I integrated it into the base of the cabinet, which looks like it’s floating in a swamp with mushrooms growing on it. It celebrates the aging process.