Some ideas arrive largely formed - a flash of inspiration while in the shower, or an idea that comes to you overnight. Others are a process of evolution that take a few attempts, perhaps inspired by a few other insights along the way before they are somewhat presentable.
I was fortunate in my former career in the tech world that many of the first category came to me when working on a challenging analytic problem, how to think about the value of servers in a server farm, how to model the dynamism of a datacenter, or how to pick the “best” set of pallets for an order. But you didn't come here to read about those! Rather, I’ll identify the first inspirations for a few of my recent creations in the woodworking world, two of which I am happy with, and one of which is still a work in process and may yet evolve into something else before it sees the light of day.
Twenty Years to Backlight a Vase
It was probably nearly twenty years ago on a visit to the New York International Gift Show at the Javits Center - an annual massive exhibition I had the pleasure of walking for many years while my Mom owned her gift shop in upstate New York - that I saw a shadow-box console table I really appreciated. I can’t find any pictures online that come close but, drawn from memory many years later, it looked something like this. I had no use for such a table in a cramped dorm room, but the craftsmanship, clean lines, and multi-functional aspect of it really stuck with me.
Ten years later, with the privilege of owning a home with a cute little loft but with no furniture that would fit just right - low enough to not obscure the window, wide enough to perfectly fit but shallow enough to not overpower the space, and practical enough to aid with my burgeoning book collection, I resurrected this idea with my first major furniture piece. I backlit the shadowboxes and turned a console table into a credenza, but there is a clear paternity from that original end table.
I can also credit that project with whetting my appetite for good tools: with a $99 table saw and a hand drill as the only power tools used in this project, I saw the need for equipment both more accurate and more reliable, and invested in a much more substantial table saw not too long after this project.
Flash forward a few more years, and as I was noodling with ideas on how to incorporate more glass into my pieces, I was thinking of individual standalone backlit shadow boxes. Turning around, noticing the three giant - and growing! - boxes of “scrap” wood in my shop - wood too good to toss, but too small to use in a larger project - I came up with this. Its simple, it’s practical, and it’s a lot classier than the $15 plastic ones you can find on Amazon.com or in cheap gift shops.
And these backlit bases are a lot easier to ship than a credenza! Available online in three "standard" combinations here, or customizable here with just about any wood combination you would like to see.
A “lenticular image” is just a fancy name for a concept everyone who has gotten toys from a Cracker Jacks box, or who has seen some modern street art installations or even some advertising in the subway station. In fact, for many years, my Dad worked on a high end commercial lenticular art business at Kodak, back when Kodak actually made stuff.
Appreciating these installation pieces, I thought I’d try my hand at making my own. Sure, you can make an 8x10” piece with some simple software and a little equipment - but who has a 3’ wide piece in their home? And how hard can it be to do it by hand, for some simple geometric shape shifting? Turns out, very hard.
Making the substrate was technically easy enough though a bit tedious as I routed out all 168 of these lines from a 4'x3.5' piece of fiberboard. (Yes, a CNC router would make quick work of this step, though I couldn’t quite justify the investment of something like that).
The much harder part turned out to be how to print or paint that geometric pattern onto the fiberboard. Marker would be too imprecise and time consuming; printing and pasting narrow paper strips would be challenging and wouldn’t last. Printing one giant sheet of paper and folding around the edges wouldn’t allow for the imprecisions in my hand routing. Out of ideas, this fiberboard has languished in a neglected corner of my shop, waiting for some attention.
However - again, inspired by some extra “scrap” in the form of thin maple strips - I thought I’d try my hand again at a similar idea, but let the wood grain be the “paint” in the art, rather than attempt to paint any pattern. As a long strip, it looked pretty cool, already surpassing the appeal of my unfinished textured fiberboard, but it wasn’t yet something I would hang in my home. Cutting off a few pieces and playing with their arrangement led to this - first in a complementary maple walnut combination, and again in this more contrasting maple wenge combination. Now, I have something I’m pleased with, and that I hope that you might appreciate as well. Now available in the store.
Wine Rack Fail
Not every idea comes out as well, however. Some are just outright failures. Or perhaps more generously, I might consider them steps on the way to better ideas.
Witness this wine or sake rack. It has a much shorter gestation period from idea to creation, visiting the True Sake store in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley last month. I loved how they turned the variety of glass and range of sake filtration into an eye-catching display, and figured I’d try a much smaller version of that for home consumption.
I spent a half morning prototyping a rough version of this in a two-by-two display with walnut and fitting it with an LED. And what do we have? Nothing - it ain’t no good with wine bottles. Perhaps I need to go back to the true True Sake, and try it with a more-transparent set of sake bottles instead...
But I think that’s only half the problem. I used thinner walnut to prevent the small rack from looking (or being) too heavy, but I think that also gives it a cheap Target or Ikea look when a bottle is removed. Maybe a more unique hardwood will do? Maybe that combined with sake (instead of wine) will indeed work?
At the moment, this piece will be joining my fiberboard-based attempt at lenticular art, in the cobweb-filled dark corner of abandoned project ideas and lost afternoons.
Your Successes and Failures?
I’d love to hear your inspiration stories for things you’ve created - both those that succeeded and failed.
And I always love to hear your ideas about what you’d like to see me add to my collection - perhaps you can be the inspiration for my next set of pieces. For an story of that, check out last month’s posting which featured a few new pieces based on requests, which spawned over forty lamps.