Michael Puryear: Master Woodworker

By   |   Makers

Michael Puryear is a world-renowned furniture-maker who combines contrasting colors and textures with a fusion of linear and curved forms, accentuating the wood’s natural character. Rich with references to Scandinavian and Shaker design and African culture, his pieces are permeated with shibui, a Japanese term for “subtle elegance.” Puryear approaches furniture making as a problem-solving practice. “The beginning stage is very internal, and I often get lost in thinking about the design in various ways,” he says. After sketching the form, he creates an orthographic drawing and maquette.

Although he dislikes being labeled an “artist” or “designer,” Puryear can’t escape fame thanks to the Dan Chair, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Designed in 2010, the chair elicits an antecedent style of seating connected to West Africa’s Dan people, and symbolically evokes the Atlantic slave trade. “The wood includes poplar from Monticello and pecan from Mount Vernon. These were sourced from the plantation houses of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington,” Puryear explains. “This chair was really an expression and acknowledgement of my pride in being a descendent of slaves.”

Puryear grew up in Washington, DC, with six siblings, all of whom pursued artistic professions; his brother Martin is a famous sculptor. “Martin’s career was much more linear than mine,” Puryear says. “It took me more time to find my focus.” While working as a photographer in New York in the 1970s, a side business renovating Brooklyn brownstones introduced him to the joys of working with wood. Puryear eventually relocated to Shokan, where he has filled his 1870s farmhouse with bespoke furnishings and converted a barn into a studio. His most recent commission was a bench for SUNY Brockport featuring a saddled seat and nontraditional form, using elm and white oak woods harvested on campus.

A fan of teaching because it gives him “the opportunity to step outside the studio and be part of a community” that influences his work, Puryear has taught at Tennessee’s Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, North Carolina’s Penland School of Craft, Maine’s Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, and SUNY Purchase; he’s currently a furniture-making and boat-building instructor at the Hudson River Maritime Museum.

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