Interview: Michael Dreeben, Independent Furniture Designer and Winner, DWR’s 2008 M+D+F show

Michael Dreeben, who recently won Design Within Reach’s M+D+F show, is one of my favorite, independent furniture designers, and I’ve written about him and his work before (here and here). Dreeben’s pieces appear streamlined and almost natural, however upon closer examination, the furniture, which include chairs, tables and the Billet Chaise (which was his award-winning entry at M+D+F), are deceptive in their simplicity .

I was curious about how somebody chooses furniture design as their profession and what goes into the process of designing and manufacturing furniture. In a world where we are so disconnected from what we buy and consume, it was fascinating to learn about the design process and to actually see where those designs are brought to life.

I was happy to discover that his west side workshop smells like sawdust and stain and is located in a space sufficiently large enough to amplify the sounds of creation.

Congratulations on winning the DWR M+D+F show. What was that experience like?

It’s always nice to get a pat on the back – particularly for pieces that have taken a long time to develop.

Has it changed anything in your day-to-day life?

Not substantially, though I have gotten a bit more attention from interior designers and from the press.

Who are the primarily influences on your work?

Hans Wegner, George Nakashima, the Shakers, Charles Eames and Marc Newson.

Continued after photos . . .

The Billet Chaise in cowhide

Can you tell us a little about your background and education?

I’ve always made things – since I was a little kid. This continued in College (Colby, Waterville, ME), where I worked on sculpture. (Though I was in fact a U.S. History major — because I felt that an undergraduate studio art major wasn’t really rigorous enough – and I think that was probably the right choice for me.)

Some years after college, I completed an MFA in sculpture at the University of Chicago and eventually won a Fulbright Scholarship to study tradition craft in northern India. In the years since then, I founded and operated Accuslab, LLC (along with a business partner) and from 2000-2006 we supplied highly refined cast concrete furniture and architectural components to large retailers including Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, and Expo Design Center. Since leaving Accuslab in 2006, I’ve focused on Michael W. Dreeben, Inc.

How did you decide to make furniture? Is that what you wanted to be when you “grew up”?

There was a steady and I think very natural progression for me from the abstract sculpture I was making in college to the semi-functional, absurd machines I was making in graduate school and finally to furniture making. What I found was that with the more abstract, purely expressionistic work, I couldn’t really account for the decisions I was making in a meaningful way – the whole exercise began to feel wishy-washy, for lack of a better word. Through those years, I found that introducing function into my work provided the sort of framework for material decision-making that had been missing.

When I was kid, I did not plan on becoming a furniture designer per se, though in retrospect, it was clear I think I would end up in some kind of creative profession that involved material and making things.

My personal two favorite pieces

When you design a piece, does the image just pop into your head fully-formed? Or does it come in pieces? How do you create?

More often, a portion of a piece – a component or a transition – will pop into my head. From there it’s more a matter of hard-fought problem solving, some trial and error, and often a lot of time. Many of my pieces also start life as variations on existing themes.

What is the technical process for designing furniture? What goes into it? What are the steps that occur before we can actually see a piece?

It varies. In general the wooden pieces start life as full-size prototypes, with at most a rudimentary sketch. Usually with these, we’ll build them three or four times to work out design kinks. Both the Billet Chair and Chaise started at plywood patterns, which were later translated in CAD models and produced on a CNC mill. The seats for both of these began as hand-sculpted positives.

Increasingly, I’ve designed directly in CAD (with the help of my friend and colleague Ray Doeksen) – which has advantages and disadvantages: we’ve found, for examples, it is extraordinarily difficult to model complex, compounding curving shapes. On the other hand, CAD is excellent for generating wire frame constructions that would be virtually impossible to prototype by hand.

Is all your furniture made here?

The larger scale pieces – desks and dining tables — are all made at our studio in Chicago. The remaining wooded pieces including seating, case goods, and occasional tables, are all prototyped here, though I am in the process of organizing production for them in India. Most of the Billet group is produced in Chicago, though I am likewise seeking production for certain components in India.

Has the process of making furniture in India had unintended consequences to your business, i.e. changing the way you design, made you aware of Eastern designers, etc.?

There are certain craft categories, saddle work, cast iron, and stainless wire frame work for instance, for which there are excellent production resources in India. So, increasingly, I’ve oriented my design work around their strengths.

How has technology changed the way you design furniture?

Without doubt, in terms of technological developments, CAD has had the most profound impact on my work. It’s key in terms of communicating ideas to my design/production partner in India. For pieces like the Billet group it effectively supplants costly permanent tooling. And for certain projects, it’s an unparalleled design medium.

Do you make custom pieces?

Sometime. We tend to focus on projects within our scope, in terms of our production capacity and design relevance. I would never turn away an interesting project if I think we can do it.

Continued after photos . . .

How do you feel about the furniture industry in the US today?

I think the furniture “industry” is so complex and multi-layered, that it’s hard to give a definitive answer to that question. There’s certainly a lot of interesting stuff being produced out there – as well as plenty of crap.

What is the most challenging part of operating a small furniture business?

(I suspect you might get a different answer from someone else.) For me the toughest part is sales/marketing. It’s what I have the least experience with.

Do you have any advice for young furniture designers?

Remain flexible in your approach. I think the best designers are able to step outside of themselves (without, however, compromising their core values and succumbing to fashion) and approach problems without preconception.

Thanks, Michael.

For more information about Michael Dreeben’s work, please visit his website.

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2 Responses to “Interview: Michael Dreeben, Independent Furniture Designer and Winner, DWR’s 2008 M+D+F show”

  1. Beautiful stuff – I love the simplicity.

  2. I’m guessing its in his(the guy’s) contract to be featured in all feature stories. We all know its the cat that is the master of that shop.