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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.
What is your starting point for projects, like your signature lounge chair?
When I see something that I like, I figure out the dimensions and then want to make something that I love. With the chair, I have a friend with a Danish chair that I really liked. So I made my own with a series of arcs, like cutting through the dimensions and dissecting different planes at different points. That’s the unconscious part of where my designs come from. In nature, you rarely find something that is perfectly round or perfectly square. That’s what I try to capture.
It seems like in a certain sense you’re creating things for yourself.
It’s true. I work because I work. If I have an idea, I will do it. Nobody has to commission me to do something. I can do concept to finished product. I can do the engineering and even if I have to hire others, like welders, it’s always my vision and I have the ultimate say in how the piece balances.
The stereo console is a good example. I wanted to work with paduak [wood] even though it’s hard to work with and stains your clothes. But it’s very stable and beautiful.
[Laughs] The biggest schism in my life is that I have to sell stuff.
You are extremely environmentally aware. How does that inform your work?
I don’t have any waste. I use everything, including scraps of wood, leather, metal, whatever I’m working with. I’m always trying to use what I already have or what I can reclaim.
I had a hard time when I started in woodworking in the ‘80s because people were just pointing at trees and cutting them down and I felt that was wrong. What I do well is thinking about how can I take natural materials and give them a second life.
What have your main influences been?
Both my mother and my aunt were very instrumental. My aunt was a crazy artist and was always asking me what I saw in different things. Once, we were on the beach and she picked up a piece of driftwood and asked me what I saw in it. I said a fish or something and she said, “that’s what you bring out in it.” My mom has also been a huge influence; she can paint, sew, crochet, refinish furniture.
I would also say Frida Kahlo, Sam Maloof, Joan Mitchell and Gaudi. I love Rothko and Mapplethorpe, and Louise Nevelson is one of my heroines. She’s always telling a story with her salvage and nobody else was doing what she was at the time. But my work is nothing like any of theirs.
I know that I have an affinity for a mix of Asian and African design but I don’t know where that comes from.
But it’s really the natural world more than anything else that has had the greatest influence.
What do you want people to think or feel when they see your work?
I want to evoke their emotions. Some people will see my things and be wowed even if they don’t know why. A piece may remind them of a place they’ve been or something they’ve seen. If they like something, they’re going to like it and if they don’t, they don’t. I don’t expect everyone to like my work or everything I do. And I like to create a sense of illusion.
You do commercial as well as residential work. At the moment, you’re building cabinetry for a commercial space. How do you bring art into that?
I bring the art of living in. To do these cabinets, I took a look at the plumbing and figured out how to make the space work. To me, that’s an art. And every part of that job is connected to my art because I care about the project and am part of a larger team. My feeling is, if you’re going to do something, make it matter. I don’t just show up and give you what we’ve built.
How has your work, and especially your woodworking, affected your life?
It’s taught me patience. In woodworking, you can’t miss a step. You have to go step by step or you have to go back to the beginning. And I’m having fun, which is really important to art. To me, art is comedy and happiness and joy.
Go here to learn more about Collette and her company, Collette Collins Design.
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