Exclusive Interview: Michael Yates
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What does the intersection of masterful woodcraft, Japanese joinery techniques and modern style look like? The designs coming out of Austin, Texas-based handmade wood furniture company Michael Yates Design. Combining a heady mixture of exquisite materials, surprising details, sensuous curves and sleek lines, Michael’s pieces are one-of-a-kind.
Primarily a furniture maker, Michael also works on commissioned projects, larger custom jobs like kitchen cabinets and outdoor patios, lighting and some other unusual wood products that you’ll have to listen to find out about (hint: it has to do with a funeral). You’ll also want to listen to his interview to find out what a butter churn has to do with his work:
Our podcast music is “Dropping out of School” by Brad Sucks, licensed for use under
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Rather read Michael’s interview? We’ve thoughtfully transcribed it for you:
2M: We are here with Michael Yates, the owner and lead designer of Michael Yates Design, a furniture company specializing in handmade, modern wood furniture. Thanks for being here.
MY: Thank you.
2M: You incorporate Japanese joinery techniques in your work, could you explain that?
MY: Well, where I first learned about them was visiting temples in Japan, and shrines; it’s mostly temple and shrine joinery I try to integrate into my furniture, as traditionally the Japanese historically don’t have a lot of furniture. So where I can, I integrate it into my furniture. And of course they have [joinery techniques] that aren’t applicable for smaller pieces of furniture.
2M: So did you get started in the business because you took that trip to Japan?
MY: Well yeah, there were two things. One was my first project I ever made was a gift—I had gotten access to the University wood shop when I was studying engineering, and I made a dining table as a gift, and it was my favorite thing I had ever done in my life up to that point. You know I was in engineering school, and very far along, so I wasn’t exactly going to change majors or anything like that. But then I went and studied in Japan—language, and had an engineering internship over there—that’s when I really fell in love with their crafts of all kinds, specifically their woodworking tradition, which is one of the oldest and greatest in the world. Then coming back to the States, still in engineering, I just worked with it as a hobby, building pieces here and there in my kitchen. A few years later I decided to make it my career.
2M: It must have been amazing to live in that culture and be surrounded by such beauty.
MY: I lived in the traditional dormitory for the young men of this [engineering] company. I lived with them in their dormitory, which was an old dormitory, so I lived in that kind of architecture. And every weekend we went to a different temple—in Kyoto there’s a temple on every corner—and some of them are literally just world class structures. So every weekend I was there able to see some new ones.
2M: What else do you look at for inspiration for your designs?
MY: Well I think the first answer to that question is Danish, Scandinavian furniture. Their woodworking traditional is I think—along with the Japanese—the best in the world. Kind of their design philosophy is refined as well. Kind of practical design, that because of their skill in distilling what is really necessary in a piece—that’s what makes their work so beautiful—that Japanese and Scandinavian work. There’s no extra adornment; the beauty comes from taking things away that are superfluous, instead of adding things. There’s a purity in both of those traditions that really inspires me in terms of woodworking.
2M: I noticed that a lot of your work has a lot of really interesting details, like leather drawer pulls. Where do those ideas come from?
MY: I just make those up I guess. So generally speaking it comes from all over the place. But on a commission by commission basis, the inspiration comes from the need of the client. The size and shape of the thing, and what it needs to do, and the aesthetic of the room that it’s going in. A lot of times I really have to make my work kind of fit with what’s going on in their house. And so a lot of times those design details are driven by the needs of the piece. And a lot of them, too, are just to take any harshness out of the piece. You know a lot of my work is sculptural; it’s really just to take a lot of the hard edges off the piece and make it more—not organic like Art Nouveau or anything like that—but just make more smooth transitions throughout the piece. But in reference to the drawer pulls that was just something I came up with. Oh you know what—it was inspired by some leather drawer pulls I had seen on a Hans Wegner piece. I just thought leather is a nice material for a pull; it really ages well and patinas really well as time moves on. And I wanted to try to find a way to integrate it.
2M: Your use of materials is really high-quality and really exquisite. Is that also just based on a client’s need or do you like to experiment with different kinds of materials?
MY: I do like to experiment with different materials but any time I can build in walnut I build in walnut. I just love, love walnut. The way the finished project looks, the way it smells when I’m working with it, the way it feels, the way it takes a chisel—it’s just a fantastic material. Usually when I make a speculative piece I do it in walnut. But yes I love lots of other materials, too. And you’re right, it does depend on the client’s needs. Sometimes clients have more or less developed ideas of what they want. Usually they leave most of it to me but they have some general idea that they would like a light wood or a dark wood or a warm-colored wood. So yeah it is driven by what the client would like. Recently I made a dining set in ash, which I think is a very under-served—at least in America I think—very under-served material, that’s really beautiful, at least in what I’ve seen in American markets. But I think it’s a great material, so that’s a recent find of mine that I really like.
2M: Sounds beautiful. You mentioned some older or past designers influencing you. Are there any current designers in woodworking or in architecture that really inspire you?
MY: I guess in terms of woodworkers, you know we’ve lost a lot of great masters in the past decade or 15 years, of American woodworkers, like George Nakashima, James Krenov, maybe some others, and there are a lot of contemporary woodworkers who have had a real genuine philosophy about the material that is inspiring. In terms of design -wise, what I’m interested in right now is integrating antique hardware into pieces that are more dynamic. Like nautical rigging, I’m very interested in right now. I just bought a 1917-year-old butter churn.
2M: Did you say butter churn?
MY: Butter churn. It’s just gorgeous, and I hope to integrate it into a piece at some point. To get back to your question, there’s an architect whose name is Tom Kundig, and he integrates a lot of interesting moving parts into his spaces that he designs using really fantastic hardware. I wouldn’t call it antique hardware, because some of it is newly machined, but it has a certain age to it, just the look of it.
2M: You work on a lot of custom projects, is there a typical day for you as a designer? Do you keep to a schedule or is it all just project to project?
MY: I would be lying to you if I said yes. I aspire to have a schedule, but there are a lot of things to manage [like] doing design work for the upcoming projects. I have a very small operation, so running errands, meeting clients at a new site, doing material samples, and then the bulk of it of course: working on whatever pieces I have in the shop at that time. So regular day? No, not really; they’re all irregular. But the majority of my time is spent in the studio. I would say four days out of the week I really work a full day in the shop, but usually one day of the week is a lot of design work or phone calls or running errands.
2M: You mentioned that you worked on that first project you ever worked on, that dining table. Do you think you would still be a woodworker if you hadn’t visited Japan?
MY: I don’t know. It’s hard to say, but I think maybe not. Certainly I don’t think it would have been amplified—you know if it wasn’t amplified by the trip to Japan, right after I made that furniture piece—I don’t know; it might have gone in a different direction. Or it might have remained a hobby for a long time. You know since I had made one piece, since I had some context at least, when I was walking around those buildings—those temples and what not—I think it was just the perfect storm.
2M: Thankfully for us that happened so we get to enjoy your designs. You’re stationed in Austin, Texas, correct?
MY: That’s right.
2M: There’s this amazing event called the East Austin Studio Tour. All sorts of artists and creative people get to show off where they work. Do you have anything coming up for that?
MY: I do. I’ve been apart of it for a number of years, and this year, for the second year, I have a group show at a house called the Dragonfly House, that’s on the Colorado River; it’s a beautiful home. For the second time in a row the homeowners have allowed us to have a group art show there, so that’s coming up November 13th, 14th, 20th and 21st.
2M: So what is the most exciting project that you’re working on right now?
MY: I’m working on two things right now. I’m trying to finish an interesting credenza-shaped sideboard storage piece that has a desk invisibly hidden into it that pivots out from one corner. It was a really cool, fun design and a tricky thing to execute well, so I’m liking that right now. And kind of slowly but surely working on a project with my grandmother. She asked me about 9 months ago to build her coffin for her. She loves my work and she’s trying to proactively prepare for death, and wants to be buried in something beautiful. So we’ve been going through the regular design process: iterations of pictures and conversations and we have a design nailed down now…luckily there’s no urgency.
2M: Well thank you so much for talking with us today; it was very interesting.
MY: Thank you, Adrienne
2M: For more information about Michael Yates and his beautiful handmade wood furniture, michaelyatesdesign.com. You’ve been listening to a 2modern designer interview. For more fun podcasts, inspiring design posts and design advice, check out the blog at 2modern.com
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Michael Yates 2Modern Interview