Woodworker West Article

Copied from Woodworker West Magazine

Last June, Woodworker West had the pleasure of selecting the “Best of Show” award at the “Design in Wood” exhibition in San Diego. The choice was easy, as Divid Marr’s “Vanity” was far and away the most outstanding piece in the show. Here is David’s story, in his own words:

dave marr with tables
David Marr with a variety of his side tables.

I am an artist, in the broadest sense. I have been a jazz musician for 38 years, traveling the world playing the string bass, and my accompaniments with several jazz legends have been recorded on more than 20 CDs. Over the years, my interest in woodworking grew, resulting in a gradual transition to where I have become a full-time furniture maker. The common thread is that both are creative outlets, involving improvisation.

I became fascinated with wood as a young boy, making things at the Boy’s Club and later in junior and senior high school woodshop classes. I supported myself, after school, working construction, as I studied music at San Diego State and honed my skills playing at local jazz clubs. In 1987 at age 27, I received a scholarship to study music at Berklee College of Music in Boston, after which I moved to Europe to play professionally.

Based in France, I had a lot of free time during the day, since most of our engagements were at night. I gravitated to the museums tolook at furniture and was captivated by the turn-of-the-Century European pieces in the Art Deco and Art Noveau styles. The work was incredible, so creative. I vowed that if I ever settled down in one place, I would have a shop.

The opportunity arose, when I moved to Chicago and bought an old house that was in total disrepair. I set up a shop in the basement, and over ten years, basically restored the house back to its original condition.  Though I continued to play music, I gradually found that I was spending greater amounts of time–sometimes 10 hours a day–in the shop, improving my skills. Besides working on the house, I began making furniture for ourselves and others.

After my wife passed away, I decided to move back to San Diego in 2005, where my parents were in ill health, and concentrate on developing a furnituremaking business. Having sold my equipment in Chicago, I was able to begin with a clean slate and build a new shop with upgraded machinery.

From being a jazz musician, I know how to live on the slim side of things, so I have the luxury to work on speculative pieces, rather than chasing after projects from clients. And similarly to jazz, I improvise like crazy. I don’t draw. I get an idea in my head, and I go down to the shop and start building. As the piece develops, I will make design decisions. I like incorporating little details, such as 1/16′ inlays on the edges. It is really time consuming, but it sets the pieces apart.

Art Nouveau / Deco Vanity
Art Nouveau / Deco Vanity Olive, Macassar Ebony, Pomele Sepete, Mahogany (31″ h, 50″ w, 20″ d)

I don’t copy, and I don’t make reproductions. That’s not to say that I don’t have influences. If I see something that I like, I will certainly put my own spin on it. The Noveau/Deco Vanity & Chair (left) was influenced by a picture that I came across of an Art Noveau piece from 1910. I was looking to experiment and develop my skills of woodworking with curves. The little chair was particularly difficult, because of all the tight curves.

Almost all my work involves veneer over substrates. For panels, I use lumber core, sandwiched with 1/8″ or 1/4″ MDF on each side, before I veneer.  Lumbercore is nice and light and real stable, and the MDF offers a flat surface for adhesion. If joints are going to be under stress, I will use Baltic Birch plywood. For table tops, I use 3/4″ MDF.

For a lot of my legs and curved elements, I use veneer over Poplar. If I can get the curve out of a piece of solid Poplar, I will make a pattern, flush rout the workpieces, and clean them all up by hand. Then, I make cauls, lined with cork, for pressing the veneer. For parts in which solid Poplar does not provide enough strength, I will use layers of 1/8″ bendable Poplar, skinned with 1/8″ MDF.

The custom furniture business is tough. I get inquiries from people, usually with a picture of some $400 piece that they got off the Internet.  When I quote them a price, I usually never hear from them again. With prospective clients, I begin by asking their budget, and if it is reasonable, I will work with them on price and visit their home to see what they want.

Since most of my serious clients have seen my previous work, they trust me, and a simple sketch is enough. I have a repeat client in New Mexico, who only wants to be surprised with the final piece. For the Dining Set below he simply specified the size, the number of chairs, and a request for a Southwestern theme with snakes and spiders. Otherwise, I had complete artistic license.

snake and spider table
Tarantula Dining Set Cherry, Eucalyptus & various veneers ( 31″ h, 36″ w, 72″ l )

For this year’s Design in Wood competition, I am entering a new coffee table, and possibly a more difficult piece, if completed in time. You can see more of my work at my website: www.davidmarrdesigns.com.