Ben Borley: Plywood Furniture As Art

Ben Borley of Winnipeg, Manitoba is a furniture artist who favors designs that use everyday, inexpensive materials like plywood.  E&S Tile’s Aaron Everitt had the opportunity to interview him recently about his work and design philosophy.

Borley was raised on a farm west of Winnipeg and has spent his adult life working in and around the creative arts.  He studied music at Grant MacEwan in Edmonton and Landscape Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

Ben Borley's Betula Table

Ben Borley’s Betula Table

Our interview was prompted by seeing his latest project, Betula, a nesting table designed from birch plywood, now on display in the Exchange District of Winnipeg at the store 84 1/2.

Aaron Everitt:  How did you get started in furniture making?

Borley: I was always interested in making things, probably from growing up on the farm and always having tools and seeing Dad work on things around the farm.  But then more specifically going to design school and seeing examples of all the different things that people had done and then being curious about the processes behind the work. Using plywood began for me because I wanted to see if I could do something at home that pushed the material and enabled me to put my own spin on a design with a material that was readily available and inexpensive so I could see if I could create something that was unexpected from a particular material.  I also was interested in seeing if I could do the work without setting up a big factory or shop, but instead with some patience, and some work see if I could make my own examples of highly designed furniture.

Aaron Everitt:  We’ve seen some of your previous work in cardboard and duct tape. Is the plywood furniture coming from the same love of those kinds of industrial materials?

Borley: I guess I really like those kinds of materials.  Seeing in college the amazing work of Frank Gehry in cardboard and that’s what pushed it for me to something beyond “experiment”.  When you see something like that, that has been done to a really high degree it’s inspiring.  It made me think about pushing a design and a material so that the caliber of the design holds up against any other material.  I didn’t want to make something that was noticed simply because it was made from a material, I wanted the design to stand on it’s own merits rather than depend on the trendiness of a unique material to make it interesting.  I want to use common materials and see if I can push them beyond what the conventional wisdom says they can be used for.

Aaron Everitt:  It’s interesting that you like to work with materials that would be considered “ugly.”  Even if it is unique like birch plywood, most people don’t think of that as a finished material.  You use those materials intentionally but you say it’s not to be trendy, so what drives the use of those materials for you besides your personal tastes?

Mr. Borley: Honestly…practicality and economics.  I would love to work with beautiful hardwoods and other more conventional materials but those kinds of materials limit your ability to experiment.  Making a mistake on a sheet of plywood is a whole lot more acceptable than making one on a piece of hardwood that might be several hundred dollars. I want to push the limits of a material with shape and form and so the less expensive materials allow for the experimentation. I feel like I can be a little less precious with those kinds of materials—it becomes alright for me to fail. At the same time the quality you can get from those kinds of materials can be quite beautiful.  When you work at it, the industrial type products can rival some of the really high end materials.  It certainly requires more work to get it to that level of quality but I like the way they elevate the material in people’s eye.  I like the idea of using items and materials that our society deems “disposable”, it places less pretentiousness on materiality and more emphasis on form.  I also knew, specifically referring to Betula, that using that kind of material would make it singular…a product you wouldn’t see anywhere else.

Betula Table

Betula Table

Aaron Everitt:  Your first piece that you did in the plywood media was a bed.  That seems awfully ambitious for a first piece.  What made you start with that as your first experiment with plywood?

Borley:  It was out of necessity.  I knew I wanted to eventually experiment with the material, but we had just moved into a new place and my wife, Jenny Western, and I had been looking for beds and had found a couple that we liked but we both had different ideas about what we wanted.  We traveled to Minneapolis for a long weekend and saw one by a furniture maker there that we both really loved but it was pretty expensive.  It kind of triggered for me the idea of building one and using the material that I wanted to experiment with.  I thought, “this is great…I need a bed and this enables me to make it and not have the need to find a place to store it while I wait for it to sell.”  I always like when projects start that way for me…out of necessity.  I think if it’s for myself, I will put a little different kind of effort at it.  I can do it exactly how I want.  I don’t have to be limited by other brief or arbitrary constraints, I can take my time and then all I am limited by is the idea that I was building something around the fixed dimensions of a queen sized mattress.  I had an idea about how I wanted it to look and how I wanted the mattress to perform in the furniture itself and then I could set to the work of experimenting.  If all of the ideas failed, I really wasn’t that far behind economically because of using that less expensive material.  It gave me the chance to test out my woodworking skills and learn how the material was going to work

Aaron Everitt:  What did you learn from building the bed that helped you decide that you wanted to continue to work in this material?

Borley: I learned how the material responded to different elements of the woodworking process.  I had started with the legs and the first one that I built basically blew apart.  I hadn’t glued it correctly.  It also gave me the chance to translate the scale.  I could do a little research online about plywood and joining but nothing I was reading was on the same scale.  I knew a few things that I wanted to make sure of when I was doing the design.  I wanted to create the shape by bending not cutting and I wanted to use glues that were more common and more environmentally friendly than the industrial grade adhesives. It was also a process of figuring out what the right tools were for making and bending the plywood so that the pieces I was building could be done so in a modular way.  I didn’t want to take anything for granted or live by the assumptions that were out there.  Even when I went to the wood store and was buying the materials and glue, most of the guys I received help from told me right away that what I was trying to do wouldn’t work.  So I tried my best to ignore as much typical advice as possible because I knew my objectives and what I was building hadn’t been done on that scale…at least not what I had ever seen.  It’s like anything though, I am still finding new ways to work with the material, and I want to continue to find ways to do it better.

Aaron Everitt:  I know your connection to music through personal experience. In your approach, all things were on the table and you didn’t want to be limited by what you “knew” or what others said was the right way to write or play.  You once told a story about a book called Effortless Mastery in which the premise of the book was that our expectations of music are so limited.  You gave the example from the book about the idea that if kicking a refrigerator made the sound of a chord, we would all be amazed and bring all of our friends over to show them this incredible  thing we had discovered.  But when we play music we limit ourselves because it isn’t “creative” enough or we find it too simplistic.  How has your life in music and your creative abilities in that media influenced your furniture making?

Borley:  I think the singularity of it…making something completely unique and completely within your own voice.  I also think that design and music share the same connection to precedence.  There are lots of examples out there in both mediums that enable you to see and learn what has been done and what you can create that stands outside of that. You can see what other people have created and compare your work to theirs and learn from their previous work and ideas. I also know that in both furniture making and music I always have a lot of strong influences but the same desire in both to push past simple mimicry and create something completely unique to my voice and style.

Aaron Everitt:  It strikes me that your furniture making is also somewhat akin to that same desire to have your art seen and used by others.

Borley:  I really appreciate pragmatism.  Furniture allows the viewer or the user to interact with it in a different way than art that hangs on the wall or music that resides only in your memory. It would be interesting for me to make large scale sculpture out of this same material but I don’t think I would be as good at it.  But I think when most people see a table they can understand that spacial relationship.  They can visualize using the tables and almost place themselves in the context of their own home with the furniture.  The best part about creating furniture that is artistic is realizing that so many people have just bad furniture and by creating something like this people can accomplish both satisfying the artistic desire but also having something practical that they can use.  The other part of it is that Winnipeg has a fantastic art scene and creating something like this is working in a medium that a lot of people aren’t already working in. Creating handmade furniture lets me have some space to create something that others aren’t already doing.  The other side of this coin is that I wish I could build my stuff for less so it could be more approachable, but it just doesn’t work out that way.  I have too many hours into each piece to make them like something you could buy that was made from a machine.  If people just need nesting tables they can probably find them for less than 50 dollars in a mass produced format.  I am working in a price range that would appear to be a luxury item—so I guess I am trying to attempt to bridge the gap between static or temporal art to pragmatic and useful art.  I am really excited about furniture and guess for myself I want to have pieces that I just enjoy being around and I sense that people have a longing to be around things that last a long time and have an element of treasure to them.  Even though I know that whatever I make will eventually be junk, there is a romanticism to the idea that it will last a really long time.

Aaron Everitt:  When I first started designing interiors and drawing houses, I did so all by entering the data into a CAD software or by precision type drafting.  The more I have been influenced by other talented people and listened to great designers, the less I relied on the computer and the more I began to trust my hand.  To the point today that I don’t do any drawing in the computer at all.  There is something really nice about the idea to me that a line isn’t perfectly straight and the size of the room might not be perfectly to scale because there are better things that happen when I am not limited by the constraints of precision.  I think that’s what compels me about your stuff.  There is still the element of humanity in it.  You have to work to get the outcome that you want rather than having it all tooled by a machine or cut by robotics you have to work hard to get the outcome you desire.  Specifically as it relates to Betula, there had to be a great deal of work to make the curves and size as precise as you hoped for.  What elements of your design are you most proud of?

Borley:  I think sometimes in the furniture world you are limited by either having very whimsical, free-formed, hand-made design or you are relegated into the ultra-precision designs of the machine.  I think what I am most proud of in this piece is that it seems to have bridged that gap.  They are highly precise but yet entirely made by hand.  I think that was the best part about working in the bent ply material.  I knew what I could get out of it and the precision limits of the material and so I worked to maximize the way the precision translated into the piece.  I think its a nice combination of using materials that are not made by hand and tools that are hand tools but still machinery and taking the time and work it takes to build at this level of precision.  It’s a nice negotiation between handmade work and industrial materials.

Aaron Everitt:  What about the future of your furniture making?

Borley:  I hope to keep developing my reputation and brand as an innovative furniture maker and to begin to solicit either additions to the pieces I have already done or commissions for future pieces that people might have in mind.  I want to continue to explore these industrial materials and see what kind of limits I can absolutely push them towards.  I really hope that I continue to learn about what it is that I can do with the material and how that can meet the needs of future clients.  I am really excited that the furniture gallery in the Exchange took the nesting tables to showcase so we will see what comes of that for future work.

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