STUDIO: Riley Henderson - RH Timber

It's a quiet, rainy winter morning in Chicago and I'm sitting with Riley Henderson, artist and furniture builder, in his studio, chatting over a cup of coffee. We've already started talking about the importance of supporting the handmade world before I remember to start recording (I guess I really needed the coffee that morning) and Riley flips the tables with a question for me to start out.

Riley: So tell me about your website, what you’re thinking with your blog, this series.

Ana: So what I’m doing is creating a series of portraits and interviews with other makers, to help foster this community of people appreciating and supporting handmade goods and to show people what goes in to making them. Showing people everything that goes into the product and the people behind it, making it all more personable and valuable - that’s the idea.

R: That’s an awesome idea, that’s really cool.

A: Plus, I also haven’t been photographing, so it’ll get me to take pictures again.

R: I’ve been trying to do the same thing. Lately I’ve been in the same boat, where I’m like “I really miss making photographs” because whenever I do it, it’s either for my furniture (which is cool) or for freelance, like events. It just doesn’t feel as good. But I made friends - you know I work at a cigar shop - so I’ve been working there and I met this older gentleman who just moved to Chicago, and he’s from Seattle originally and was a huge photographer in the 60s and 70s apparently. Maybe not huge huge, but...he came in to the shop and he doesn’t smoke but he was like, “I’m looking for small cigar boxes because I keep my pens in them”. Just this really sweet old man. And we got to talking a little bit and I’m like, “Yeah, I think I know what you’re looking for. You can just have it.” And he’s like, “Oh, that makes me so happy. Do you like photography?” and I’m like, “yeah, I love photography”. He says “Well, I’m gonna trade you a print for this box. I’m a photographer...you don’t believe me, but I’m gonna be back and bring you a photograph. You can look me up, you can find me online” The only site that came up for him was the MoMA and he’s got a bunch of work in the collection.

A: Woah!

R: I think it was MoMA... but it was cool. His name is Shedrich. And he brought me back a photograph.

A: Shedrich Williames?

R: Yeah! So I met him at his house just to talk about photographs and stuff. He’s living in this small condo kind of near the shop, down by the lake and his walls are just full of amazing photographers.

A: So cool!

R: And we talked and he brought out his old folios and stuff and we were just going through work. That got me so amped to start making pictures again. And I’m like “I bet I would approach it differently now than I did when I was in school” Just having a different mindset. I don’t know if it was just seeing his work - because he does mostly black and white - but I started wanting to make more black and white work and figured I would start by just photographing my friends. I would love to have an archive of portraits of my friends and people in my life who affect me and influence me.

A: Definitely, that’s a big part of it for me too - so many of my friends make awesome things and I just want to be able to lift all of us up together.

R: Sure, yeah. We can and it feels awesome. I love that. It seems like there’s a lot of photographers from our class who have chosen to start making objects.  

A: So what was it for you, what was your path from photography to where you are now with furniture making?

R: Well, when I was graduating school, my thesis class was with Matt Austin and Andrew McComb. They had just started getting tired of photography and formed a little group doing performance art and stuff. Asher and Mike Meyers formed their group, Being Beings. This was the thesis class and they were all doing that stuff and I was doing some more directed photography. When I left, I did ACRE that first session and got a chance to try out a bunch of stuff I hadn’t had a chance to do yet, like this big flag piece that I made. Basically [it was] a big bleached flag and I got to re-stitch flags and was kind of on flags and fabric, but then my ACRE show had more to do with immigration. It revolved around the center-piece of this wooden steeple that I had built and covered in honey. It was an 8ft steeple - the framework of a steeple. I was thinking about what religion means for some people and what America means for others and it’s this beacon - the idea that it’s not always what it appears or it’s what you want it to be in the end, you know?
     But anyway, I had built that wood piece and had never really thought about wood before, for me it was just putting something together. I remember a friend of mine commented “I like it, it’s nice...the steeple could be a little nicer”. I didn’t take it badly, but it stuck in my head, where it was something people used to say about my photographs too, about the quality of the scenarios and the scenery or whatever is going on. So I had built that and then I did this residency up in Roger’s Park where I was thinking about furniture and how it reflects a time period - or it can. Once that time has come to pass and we look back, certain things kind of rise to the top as reflections of what was happening, who buys the furniture and uses it.
     It was right when Osama Bin Laden had been killed and I was thinking about that and also found out about John Brown. Do you know who John Brown was?

A: No, not off the top of my head.

R: He was a white abolitionist in just pre-civil war and he was really aggressive, ended up killing a bunch of people as response to lynchings. He was this really...what’s the word...extremist I guess. So I was thinking a lot about what makes somebody a villain and what makes somebody a hero, and perspective. I wanted to make a piece of furniture that combined the time period of John Brown with contemporary Islamic furniture.

A: Wow.

R: After researching that, you know, Islam is so wide-spread that that was kind of an ignorant assumption - that I could just make a piece of Islamic furniture. I mean, it’s world-wide. So I ended up focusing on early American Shaker furniture. Because it kind of represented what John Brown was about. In his early life, he was a common man, a farmer, but ended up seeing these injustices and simultaneously became a little more extreme in his religious beliefs as well. So Shaker furniture - the belief is function before aesthetics, that a piece of furniture should be simple, clean, and in that simplicity was godliness. That’s what Shakers were about, in a really short-hand. There were a lot of connections between that and how I saw John Brown.
     And so, I was upset with the way that the media was portraying Osama Bin Laden’s death. A large part of me felt closure about it, because it’s this big part of American History, but the fact that people were cheering in the streets - I understood, but also felt weird about cheering for anybody’s death. Regardless of who that person was.

A: Right.

R: I felt like they were disregarding a lot of the story by just showing that kind of footage. So I wanted to put all this effort and energy into building and designing this piece of furniture, which would require about 6 months - 6 to 8 months it took me to learn and build it. I sourced some of the wood from the forest near the home that I grew up in and I got the rest from the Rebuilding Exchange because it’s stuff that’s been torn out of buildings here in Chicago - old combined with the new. I wanted to build this chair as a story, with a history that was built into it and then I was just gonna burn it, just destroy it.

A: Did you?!

R: Well, I was thinking about it...that’s kind of how my old photographs were. I was making this angry, satirical work, where it was mimicking what I heard - these visualizations of racism in everyday conversation (which seemed to me to disregard the history of that kind of talk) and a lot of racist ideas now are born out of this kind of propaganda during the reconstruction era, so I was thinking “Well, I think the media is just fucking burning history by not commenting on any of the stuff that happened beforehand or disregarding human life, so fuck it, I’m just gonna burn this thing that I put so much effort into” But I realized, “Slow down, how do you fix that then? Is there an answer for that? Or are you just gonna keep mimicking what you see?”

A: And perpetuating that…

R: Yeah. And so I thought about it and I’m like, “Okay, what if instead of destroying this story and this history - I would want that to live on.” So I ended up - across from the residency there is a synagogue and a garbage can right on the corner - one day, I went out pretty early and put the chair in the garbage can, or propped it up against it and hid in the storefront across the street with a camera on it and I was just waiting. I felt like if I just gave it to somebody, and said “Here is this art piece I was trying to make, but it’s a chair, use it as a chair” it would have this weird connotation to it. So I wanted to sever that connection. I grew up a dumpster diver, because my mom was a dumpster diver and found a lot of valuable stuff so I was like, “I can’t be alone, somebody’s gotta see the value in it, hopefully”. About an hour went by, a few people passed it, and I started to get a little nervous, like, “what if nobody wants it and it’s just garbage?” Well, then that’s what it is, I guess. But eventually, this kind of elderly lady came up to it, looked at it, looked around, put the chair on her shoulder, and walked off with it.

A: That’s awesome!

The idea that technically, she could live with that chair for generations - that it is now a part of her life - that’s how stories should be and artwork should be, for me at least.

R: That was so good for me. I think that was exactly what I was trying to do and say. She doesn’t have to know anything about me to appreciate that piece of furniture.

A: Yeah, because she appreciated it on its own, even out of the context that you had built it in.

R: And she’s gonna imply her own stories on it now, hopefully. As long as it didn’t break on the way home or whatever.

A: *laughs*

R: The idea that technically, she could live with that chair for generations - that it is now a part of her life - that’s how stories should be and artwork should be, for me at least. So once I finished, I started building furniture for myself and thought, “maybe there’s a market for this, maybe people might like what I’m making” and it’s been about three years now and there hasn’t been a month without a commission.

A: That’s wonderful.

R: Yeah, so I guess the end of that was all you asked for *laughs*

A: No, I love hearing all that!
     So do you think you will continue to do any more art pieces with your furniture? Is that a goal of yours?

R: Yeah...for the last couple years I’ve been trying to think about how to re-incorporate my furniture into conceptual art making. Because I miss that. Furniture has become a different part of my life; I wouldn’t necessarily lump it in with the artwork. I’ve been focusing on the craft of it for the last couple years, which is really important to me now too. I’ve been really spending my time trying to be really good at what I do for quality’s sake, which seems even more important now that I’m not making the work for myself but deliberately for somebody else. I’ve been working on a piece for the past couple weeks...I’m still thinking about it and I’m not really ready to “talk about it” talk about it yet

A: Okay, yeah, I get that. So what’s your process when you’re working on your more functional furniture pieces? Do you start with sketches?

R: Yeah, I usually start with a sketch, I can show you.

A: Yeah, let’s see!

R: Since they’re all individual pieces, I usually talk to somebody about what they want from it functionally and what they want from it spatially. I love getting the chance to make new things, like when somebody comes to me with something that isn’t on my website, it’s great because I’m learning with everything I build. If I get stuck rebuilding the same thing over and over again then it gets kind of tiresome. I would rather build new things.
     The herringbone table I made a while back - did you see that coffee table?

A: Yes. I love that.

R: That’s really popular, people love that kind of design. Also, Rebuilding Exchange posted that on their website, I’ve been getting a lot of traffic from that, which is amazing.

A: Right on!

R: I built Amanda and I a bed, that’s where I first got the herringbone pattern, because I was thinking about a backboard.
     Then there was my first big corporate piece. There’s this bar called American Junkie...they wanted a bar built, a movable bar. So I built this structure and created a multi-layered stencil to do the Bacardi symbol on it. That was good, it was the first time I charged like, real money, for a piece…it was pretty awesome for me, I was super stoked.

A:  It’s a great feeling, getting what you really deserve and people not having a problem paying that.

R: Definitely.

We flip through Riley's sketchbook further and he continues to tell me about his creative process.

R: So a lot of the time I just sketch to see if it makes sense spatially, so they’re not the most detailed sketches, they’re just to kind of get an idea of the proportions, things like that.

A: So do you collaborate with people? Do you show them anything in the beginning stages and have them give you feedback?

R: Well now it’s easier because I have a portfolio on the website that I can say “the legs will kind of look like the legs on this piece” or “proportionally, it will be like this other piece”.

R: This couple wanted a coffee table as well as this kind of built in section...this ended up being minus these first two shelves so it’s just that single shelf there and then these vintage brass plated legs. So you can see through it and it had the two drawers on the sides. That was an interesting piece. That was also the first piece I realized how much wood could swell and contract due to the seasons. It cracked... Basically, if you think about it, it’s just a big circle - that’s how the wood’s joined together. I have it built in a way that the grain runs in the same direction all the way around so as it swells and contracts along the grain, it kind of breathes like an accordion. But I had this drawer pretty flush, like I had a little bit of room around it - what I thought would be enough judging from what I had read on how much wood swells and contracts, but that winter got so dry that it contracted around the drawer and as it was pulling against the drawer, it just ripped. An inch and a half thick piece of lumber just ripped in half. Luckily, it was just down the middle so I could kind of just clamp it back up and then I rebuilt the drawers so they were definitely small enough.

A: Wow, I knew that wood swells and contracts but I never thought of that much in relation to furniture.

R: Yeah, it totally has to be a consideration. Certain joints are right for certain things. And that’s the kind of stuff that you can’t know until you’re done, and that’s why you just have to do it. But I had an awareness of that when I was building this stuff, so I still make sure to tell my customers, if it’s something that’s new, “I’m learning, if something goes wrong, let me know and I’m more than happy to fix it”

A: Yeah, you want people to be happy with your work in the end.

R: For sure. People appreciate that. And people are coming to you for a particular look and reason, perhaps they want something to be built independently by somebody that’s just for them, that makes them feel good.
     Then I was trying to think about this chair...chairs are really tough, I don't know if people realize how difficult chairs are to make. Most of what I do are tables, and I do some other things too but mostly people want tables. If I’m using the hairpin legs, all I’ve got to do is screw those in to the top, there are really no joints to that, it’s a lot of screws and glue and building it in a way that makes sense. But with a chair, you’ve got like 14 joints (plus or minus). There’s so much more work and planning that goes into it and it’s so much more difficult and detailed.
     I also started building a guitar, which I can show you. I’ve got it over there.

R: I’m still workin on it. It’s a semi-hollow body. I’ve used traditional wood joinery on the corners, you can see here. So basically, I took these two boards, and on the inside board, I kept this tongue and then I cut a groove on this board. By doing that, you run it through and lock them together with a peg. That’s a traditional furniture joint.

A: That’s awesome. Are you a musician too?

R: Ehhh no. I like music, I write sometimes, but no, I don't play anything. I know a few chords on the guitar, but I have a friend who comes into the cigar shop who kept telling me “You should build a guitar”. I said, “I don’t know anything about it” and he was like, “Just do it.” So he got it stuck in my head and I wanted to try it.

A: Yeah, “Just do it." That’s good.
     So have a lot of your projects been for friends and family and spread by word of mouth?

R: It started that way. I found a wood shop out on the West side and rent there was $150 a month and it was open - kind of a communal space. I figured, “Okay, if I’m gonna rent space to do this, I need to make at least enough to cover my rent.” So that was my initial goal - just to make $150 a month. So the furniture I was making was relatively cheap, like a $200 table, bookcases and stuff. I had some friends of mine who really liked my stuff and their apartment was empty - they needed furniture - so they’ve got... I think three pieces of mine. That helped get me off the ground at first and helped to encourage me to keep making. I was able to post those images online and people saw them on Facebook and I got my first Instagram account. I thought, “This is a good reason to use it” and was posting images of the whole process which people really liked, I think - to be able to see how things are made and to have a story to tag on to the furniture, as opposed to getting something in a box that’s pre-made.

A: Exactly.

R: You can invest yourself a little more into it because you’ve seen how it’s made, you know the person that’s making it, it’s got a much more human element to it. That combined with the fact that people were getting custom furniture, was I think the biggest part. So Instagram’s been huge, Facebook’s been huge, word of mouth has been huge, that’s how I’d gotten my jobs consistently for the first year. Within that first year was when I got that Bacardi job which was great and helped propel me forward, and that’s when I started re-adjusting my prices as the quality got a little bit better. It was still really affordable, based on everything else that was out there. Word of mouth has been the biggest thing and it was working its way between friends but now it’s starting to branch outside of that. With the Rebuilding Exchange posting the Herringbone table, I’ve been getting all these jobs from people I don't’ know.

A: Wonderful!

R: And then it starts branching outside of that so more people I don't know.

A: Yeah, that’s when it gets to be exponential, people tell everybody they know.

R: For sure, it’s crazy. Now I’ve got the folder in my Gmail where it’s “post-poned furniture” and it’s stuff that I don’t have time to build right now. So it’s good. It’s just about figuring out how to organize my time, I think - because I don’t do this full time, and I’m not quite comfortable enough to do that yet. I like having a steady paycheck coming in...and then I’m willing to put in all my free time to my making aspect of my life.

A: Yeah, that can be a really scary transition. I thought I was there, but I’m not quite there yet either.

R: I don't think that’s a bad thing. I mean, there are some people who wear not having a job like a badge of honor, you know? But I don’t see it like that. If you can find something that isn’t soul sucking that you can do on the side to make money, I think you should. But then finding the time to make that switch is tough.
     I feel like if I were to jump over right now and try it, I could stay afloat. Since I can only get in here maybe three days a week now - if I could be here full time, then I could be knocking out more furniture, but that would also raise my prices... I could do it. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet.

A: Do you say that would raise your prices because you would be more dependent on it?

R: Yeah, I think so. And right now, everybody is saying - everybody except people that are buying the furniture - saying that my prices are too low and so it’s difficult for me to gauge. Because of the fact that I’m learning while I’m building, it doesn’t feel fair to charge the same prices as somebody that can build it more consistently. But, then again, you should value your time.

A: Exactly. Sometimes it’s really easy to look at somebody else’s work and say “oh, they must be way better at this than I am” but maybe they are just giving their work more value.  That’s something I have a hard time with and so I try to remind myself that we can’t really compare ourselves to other people, but…

R: It’s hard.

A: Yeah, for sure.

R: I read all these books by old woodworkers that are just so devoted to practice and quality and precision that it’s almost hard to see how I could ever live up to those standards. But I think it’s good to keep trying to live to those standards that are not always the most feasible thing. Sometimes it drives me a little crazy, like “I’m not there yet, I’m not there. How do I justify selling something that isn’t as great as what these guys are making?” But like you said, there’s so many different factors and just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s not as good. Or just because it’s not built in this one way, doesn't mean that it’s not as good. And now I’ve had a couple years to see how my furniture lives in the world and I can see see how it reacts. I’m building better furniture than I was two years ago - much better - both stylistically and quality-wise. So I feel good about that. I’m getting closer to paying myself what I should be paying myself.

A: Good! Because if we don’t give our work the value it deserves, then who will?

R: Right, that’s a good point.

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I'm learning a lot about furniture making during my time spent in Riley's studio. He's excited to share his work and goes on to show me how a dovetail joint is made. 

R: Rarely is there a need for just one dovetail - it seems like such a time consuming joint to me.

A: Is there a specific benefit or reason to use it?

R: Strength and aesthetic. There was a period of time where most joints were hidden, so you could do a joint like the dovetail but you would hide it - that was the thing to do. But then there was a movement where, due to the higher production of shoddy furniture, people started exposing their joints.

A: Oh, to show that this is a good, strong joint.

R: To show that this a quality joint and that became more of an aesthetic thing, to show your actual work. I really like that, especially when it takes so long to make something like that. There’s so much beauty in a small joint like that, that it makes sense to show it.

R: Working with all this reclaimed lumber is interesting, it requires a different knowledge of wood than if you get fresh lumber from the store that's cleaned up and good to go.

A: Is that something that’s important to you too, using reclaimed wood?

R: It started out as less of an importance and more of an interest, and it was a little less expensive. But I like the idea of using something that already has a history to it. It seems more interesting too, when I use it in furniture. It has more a wild grain pattern to it and I like to utilize the knots and that I find in it.