After a circuitous career spanning more than four decades, furniture maker John Spivey is finally doing what he loves. “I started with the idea back in 1977 or so,” recalled Spivey. “But I got diverted into other things, like being a carpenter or cabinet maker.” He also taught mathematics at Santa Barbara Middle School for years — unsure how to transform his passion for woodworking into a bona fide enterprise — until 2007, when Spivey “made the decision that [he] was going to do what [he’s] always wanted to do.”
Spivey — who moved to Santa Barbara 30 years ago to be with his UCSB-educated wife — designs and builds custom wood furniture out of a small shop as a one-man operation. Much of the work is inspired by his time in a Japanese calligraphy class, during which he was exposed to the art of sumi-e, an ancient East Asian style of ink wash painting. “I try to capture the gesture of a brushstroke as if the design was done by a sumi-e master,” he explained.
Citing their quality in addition to their environmental sustainability, Spivey revealed that his preferred medium to work with is North American hardwoods, specifically maple and cherry. “The forests on the East Coast are actually expanding, and as a lot of family farms are going under — they’re reverting back to forests,” he said. “This type [of wood] is not something that’s detrimental to the world in the way that harvesting tropical hardwood is.”
Given the meticulosity and perseverance inherent in fine furniture making, customers usually have to wait up to six months to receive their chairs and tables, but Spivey is grateful for their patience and understanding. “Clients are not usually demanding, because they treat me like an artist and they’re appreciative of my pieces,” he acknowledged.
For Spivey, as for so many others, the initial promise and excitement of 2020 quickly dissipated with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, derailing any hopes for potential in-person craft shows. “I was accepted into the Smithsonian show and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I also had a TV production company contact me because they wanted to feature me on an episode of a new craft series,” Spivey disclosed.
He also pointed out that the nature of his work lends itself to social interactions, as very few people buy upscale furniture without physically seeing the product first. “When people sit in my chairs, they go, ‘Oh my, that’s the most comfortable chair I’ve ever sat in,” he said proudly. “They touch the finish on the wood, and they fall in love.”
Despite the “great leavening” brought on by the past year, Spivey remains cautiously optimistic that things may regain a sense of normalcy by the fall. As he looks ahead to the Smithsonian show in October, he will continue to refine his craft in the meantime. “I design what brings a smile to my face, and fortunately people like my work and respond to my work in a way that I hoped that they would. That’s the gratifying part.”
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