Collette Collins Design: The art of living

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

Artist Collette Colins

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

Collette Collins has been designing furniture, cabinetry and residential, commercial and public space for 30 years. Her award-winning creations appear in restaurants, feature films, museums and private homes. She has worked in furniture restoration, cabinetmaking, set design, prop building, sculpting and display.

Her love of art led her to first study music and then fine arts at Cabrillo College and San Francisco State University. Today she finds inspiration in a range of sources and materials. Because she is not attached to just one art form or medium, Collette draws from a broad body of knowledge and incorporates a range of materials into her fashionable, cutting-edge pieces. From exotic hardwoods to encaustics (hot beeswax paintings), rubber, fabric, leather, acrylic, even salvaged objects.

Collette works from a studio in Georgetown. Her work is currently on view at the Seattle Design Center's William and Wayne Gallery.

Alice Kaderlan: You started out life as a musician and there is a certain musical flow to your designs. Is that conscious?

Collette Collins: I don’t think so but I do equate everything to music. In classical music, you have a theme and I feel that same way about my work. There has to be a theme. There’s also proportion in music and my work does have certain proportions. And when I write music, I start out with all these notes and chords and then I say, “Ok I’m going to take out everything I don’t need so it’s really simple.” The Stones, Dylan – they play nothing that they don’t need. I see my furniture the same way.

Your work seems to spring naturally from the physical environment.

Yes, my work is very organic, even in my colors and shapes. If I make a paisley shape, there’s an organic feeling about it. And there’s always a story. Even if I make a door, there’s a story there.

What do you mean?

My wood door tells the story of the life of the tree. I use things in wood that other people don’t, like knots, because people have arms and legs and trees have branches. In woodworking, people often try to get rid of those knots but we all have them, both people and trees. So if I cut out the bad parts, the knots, it disconnects the tree from us.

So what kind of story can a wood door tell us?

It tells me the story of longevity, of the flow of life. I see all life as connected and a tree is connected to us. One of the reasons I’ve always loved wood is because it’s been alive and I am trying to give that which has fallen a new life.

How does that desire to give new life carry through to your other work, including your encaustics where you add leather to the beeswax?

There’s always reality to my work. With encaustics, my goal is to bring the beauty and soul of an animal to life, to give it a second life. Animals sacrifice their lives for us and our pleasure, so to make a thing of beauty from them is important to me.

Your work requires an understanding of math to get the proportions right. Were you good at math?

It’s true that my work is very scientific and mathematical. I wasn’t that great at math in school, but I use applied geometry every day. I may not follow a strict formula to get to the end point but I do use the idea of the Golden Mean [the ratio considered the most aesthetically pleasing] and never have more than three materials in my work. And I combine materials in unusual ways. I may use wood and leather together, or rubber and fabric.

Is this a hard and fast rule about not using more than three different materials?

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. 

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.

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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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