A few weeks ago we visited the Bergamot Station Arts Center which is a true treasure in West LA. We ran into our friend Amy Devers who was also enjoying the scene and she introduced us to Russell Baldon who was showing art that evening. The conversation turned to Built by Kids and it was apparent that we needed to discover more about Russell and what he does. Not only does his work as a furniture builder qualify as art, he teaches this skill at the California College of the Arts and serves as the Chair of Furniture Design. He’s also raising a daughter who is adept in the workshop and has become quite the “maker” herself.
We asked Russell a few questions about his work with students, his process of furniture making and raising a kid builder.
1. As Furniture Chair and Instructor at the California College of the Arts, what skills do you feel are most important for incoming students to possess?
I look for students that are interested – not necessarily interesting. An interested student is motivated to try new things and hungry to gain knowledge. They have lots of questions and are secure enough to ask them. As far as a skill set, there is nothing specific required. I love watching people come through who at first know nothing about tools or furniture and watch them gain an understanding in the course of a 15 week class. The learning curve is vast.
2. When designing a piece of furniture where do you gain inspiration and are your first steps more conceptual or do you prefer to put hand to plow?
When I design I will often start with an abstract concept and build out from there. I have built projects around vice, identity, digital pixilation, emotional baggage, parenting and my parents among other things…
Once in awhile I find an object, material or technique that interests me in some way and it will launch me in a new direction. I draw some of the work but usually keep it to a minimum since I am always itching to get into the shop and work. I never look to other furniture for ideas – that always seems to cut out the best part of the project which is toying with ways to express a concepts that tells part of a story but not the whole thing. This way the audience actually has something to ponder as well and the work avoids becoming a one liner. I recently listened to artist Shea Hembrey speak in a TED lecture (awesome) and he talked about successful work having head, heart, and hands all present.
3. If there was one skill or lesson you would want your students to take with them after completing your class, what would that be?
An increase in their ability to problem solve. I have students propose objects that I have no idea how to make but together with the help of those around us we figure it out. It goes right along with the a developed sense of wonder. I would also add a understanding of the concept of building to spirit of the piece – meaning applying the right building techniques to compliment the concept of the work.
4. How do you best encourage a child to explore the “maker” side of their personality and do you have any tips for parents who wish to raise a DIY enthusiast of their own?
Be curious about things – pay attention to the overlooked and uncommon, explore things both close to home and far away, take everything apart, use tools, take risks, read books, don’t be scared of just making things up. My nine year old girl will suggest projects that at first seem completely unfeasible but with a little diligence we make it happen. We never throw away any household item or toy with completely stripping it down. Another great thing is give them a set of real tools of their own.
Here’s a sample of a project that my daughter started on her own that has blossomed into a side business with her and her friend selling their own work at Oakland’s Art Murmur. Last week the sold off about 80 pieces. It all started with adapting one toy and has now grown to hundreds. Their motto is “My Toys, My Rules.”
5. What material is your favorite to work with and why?
I don’t really have a favorite – that is like a writer having a favorite letter they like to use. Different materials say different things and it all depends on what you’re trying to say.
Russell grew up in the central valley of California where he designed and built wooden toys for his family-owned company. Upon moving to San Francisco in 1984, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in furniture from the California College of Arts and Crafts (pre-name change.) He went on to receive a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in furniture from San Diego State University in 1997. Along the way he has studied and worked with some of the nation’s leading furniture makers including: Garry Knox Bennett, Gail Fredell, Wendy Maruyama, and Tom Loeser. Currently he maintains a cooperative studio in Alameda, California and is the Chair of the Furniture Department at the California College of the Arts where he has taught for the last nine years. His own work expresses his belief that the elements of wonder are a basic component of what makes us human and stand at the core of our relationship to each and everything in our lives. He continues to examine how we receive and gather visual information from the many objects in the world around us.
A scandanavian style slojd carving knife. It is a great tool and i the sharpest thing I have. I know Del and he is an amazing maker.
Something cooked and eaten at home with my closest friends
My current truck seems to be fine.
I read alot so without going too far back in time here’s some that come to mind: Cloud Atlas, Moby Dick, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lush Life, City of Thieves, Under the Banner of Heaven, Dry Storeroom #1…
Station Agent, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Legend of Leigh Bowery, Bomb It, The Saddest Music in the World, Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, Donnie Darko, Shortbus, The Science of Sleep, American Hardcore, Napoleon Dynamite, The Way Things Go to name just a few…
Ultimate travel destination?
A warm deserted beach, river, forest, field. The key word is deserted.
First thing you ever built?
Furniture-wise a small table which I still have. Lots of wooden toys since that was our family business for years and years.
Here’s a link to Russell’s blog where he posts stuff he likes.