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Collette Collins Design: The art of living

From music to math, Collette Collins talks about the inspirations behind her award-winning creations.

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Not really. But if you look at my work it turns out that I usually use three. What I’m looking for is the same feeling in all the materials I use in a single piece so that everything feels organic. 

You have very clear ideas about what you want to achieve with your work, whether it’s a chair, a kitchen, a staircase or a painting. How do you balance that with what a client may want?

I try to take the spirit of the people I work with and get to know them. What they like, what their hobbies are. Because it’s about the client and how I can tell their story. I will search out whatever I need for a particular person. One client wanted a staircase made of koa [a Hawaiian wood] but I couldn’t get enough koa so we used rosewood.

I’m a shopper so I look for what people want. And I don’t shop online because for me all materials have a feeling and I want to see that myself. I’ll spend hours laying out veneers before my eye tells me which is the right material to use.

You say that your work is “architectural art.” Do you think of yourself as an artist?

I don’t think of myself as an artist or musician, but I am. I bring art into every functional piece that I create. We’re supposed to have this esoteric statement about what art is but I’m too down to earth for that. Art is living. To be a bookkeeper is an art, to be a dog walker is an art because it’s honing your craft every day.

You’re constantly developing new materials or using existing materials in a new way. Has this need to learn new things and push yourself always been part of your personality?

Yes, I’ve always had the desire to learn. I grew up in a small town without many stores so if we wanted something, we had to make it. I made a skateboard by taking the wheels off my roller skates and made the board. I had a microscope, an erector set — which was pretty unusual for a girl — and a tape recorder. My parents knew I had to make things.

Later, I was in an accident and with the money from that I made a lounge in our house and played my music there. I also used some of the money to buy my neighbor’s table saw and then started making picture frames.

You were also playing and composing music very seriously — you still do — and even thought about becoming a conductor. How did you make the transition to woodworking?

I was young and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was a performer and that was important but there was this other part of me, the engineering and math part of my brain, that I wanted to use. So I went back to school to study sculpture and got a job in a cabinet shop.

You’re very old fashioned in how you make your cabinets and furniture, even in your commercial work where you have to hire someone to help with the construction.

I do my drawings on the computer but I don’t use computerized fabrication, even for commercial work. Yes, if I were just a businessperson I would automate my shop. Yes, it takes more man-hours to do what I do. But I believe in sustainability and for people to have a job is really important. That’s a sustainable business to me. With automation you cut people out of jobs.

What do you get personally from the handwork?

It’s great. Why would I want to automate? When you build something with your own hands, there’s nothing like it in the world. It’s like singing a song and watching people cry. 


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