When I think of Judson Beaumont I can’t help thinking of Willie Wonka – the original Wonka, from Roald Dahl’s matchless tales. Small in stature with boundless energy, both inhabit a magical factory with a small army of dedicated helpers. Endlessly curious and constantly creating, they whip up whimsical confections that delight kids (and kids at heart) worldwide.
Where Wonka has the Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, Beaumont has furniture that comes alive – clocks with attitude, cabinets that melt and explode, tables that lift a leg and pee (sort of).
Some pieces are expressly for kids, such as the airport play zones he designs or the entire children’s library he created for Princeton University, which includes no tables or chairs. Others, like his iconic Little Black (or Red) Dresser, a dress-shaped chest of drawers that hangs on a closet rod, are for the rest of us. A staggering amount of work has emerged from the loading dock of his graffiti-covered factory building in Vancouver, B.C. – plenty of repeats and command performances to be sure, but just as many one-offs and weird experiments.
Unlike the fictional chocolatier, however, Beaumont is happy to venture past the walls of his compound. Invited to a Hong Kong mall for a 2013 tribute, he sat for TV interviews and a performance by dancing children dressed like his furniture. He travels widely as a guest speaker and works long hours in faraway places to supervise installations, including the 200′-long wall mural he hung inside a Disney cruise ship, dry-docked in Spain.
Although his work is beloved as far away as Japan and Dubai, success was far from inevitable.
Stumbling Into Art School
At 18, the youngest Beaumont boy was floundering. High school had been a struggle, and he found himself delivering pizzas with no ideas for the future. His dad, a suit-and-tie businessman, had seen enough. Remembering his son drawing and making go-karts and skate ramps while growing up, Beaumont’s father signed him up for art school without asking, mid-term.
“Classes had already started and I felt stupid,” Beaumont says. “I walked into my first class, and there was a nude woman standing in the middle, as a model. She saw me come in and winked at me, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna give this art-school thing a try.’”
His initial motivation aside, Beaumont flourished in the art department at Capilano University in Vancouver, soaking up every mode and media. In painting class, though, he hit a roadblock. “I couldn’t do lifelike – those paintings where you feel like you are looking through a window,” he says. “So I started sticking wood pieces on the canvas.”
“I don’t think painting is for you,” his teacher said. “You’re a sculptor.”
In the basement of the school Beaumont found the sculpture shop and his calling. “They said, ‘You can do anything you want down here – carving, fiberglass, bronze casting, woodworking (there was a full woodshop) – just call it art.’”
That freedom was essential to his development. “I had wild ideas, I made sketches and sketches – a lot of them horrible – but all the time I was learning how to conceptualize pieces and figure out how to build them,” he says.
Beaumont’s strong first year at Capilano got him into a dedicated college of art and design, Emily Carr, also in Vancouver. After a couple years he was done with the required assignments and free to do his own thing. “I went crazy,” he says. “I was the last one in the workshop every night.”
The Magic Cube
Beaumont’s artistic breakthrough came while he was still in school, in the form of a cube. “I made hundreds of these things, out of every material. I didn’t know about building so the insides looked like junk at first. But I made them look perfect on the outside.”
When there were 30 cool-looking cubes lying around the shop, each a little world unto itself, a professor suggested Beaumont have a show, open to the public. “My stuff was on the floor; other students’ paintings were on the wall,” he says.
With no expectations, he was shocked when people started walking up to him with offers for his “coffee tables.” “I went up to my teacher and said, ‘They’re going to give me $300 for this!’”
“Good!” he said.
“They’re going to use it as furniture.”
“Bad,” the teacher said. “It’s art.”
But the cold cash spoke loudly, too, and Beaumont began to wonder why his pieces couldn’t be considered “functional art.” Soon after, he discovered the work of studio furniture makers such as Wendell Castle, and realized he wasn’t alone. Emily Carr didn’t offer a furniture program (today it does), but they grudgingly let him focus on furniture in his fourth year. He built clocks and other furniture and called it art. “I knew in my gut I was onto something. I didn’t need approval. It felt good, and fun.”
After college Beaumont took an unfulfilling job making props for commercials and movies, but quit after nine months. “I didn’t want to be just another prop guy,” he says.
While art school gave him the time and freedom to find his voice and passion, it was a broken-down factory building that allowed him to pursue his dream.
The Chocolate Factory
Following an ad for “artists’ studios for rent,” Beaumont walked into a “decrepit, ratty, horrible” building with no windows, lights or heat in an industrial section of the city. With the first floor occupied mostly by drug deals and prostitution, Beaumont marked his 500-square-foot space on the second floor in chalk, becoming the building’s first paying tenant. His monthly rent was just $300, leaving him enough cash to close off his spot with 2x4s and drywall.
A year later, the building was full of creative types like him. “It was like a greenhouse for working artists,” he says. “We never went home.”
Another key to his success was taking cabinetry jobs at first to pay the bills. “The goal was to finance my art career.”
His first tools were as humble as his surroundings. “I used a circ saw and a straightedge – no table saw!” he says. “I can’t believe the things I made with a jigsaw. I wasn’t in a hurry to be successful, but I was relentless. My buddies in the building would sit and drink beer and watch me hustling to make money. I had hard work and blind faith.”
After hours Beaumont built his funky cubes and boxes, putting them wherever he could around Vancouver – consignment stores, art galleries, in shoe stores as pedestals. He only asked to put his name on them. When he made them for store displays, “people liked the boxes better than the products on them,” Beaumont remembers.
“Because I didn’t even know how to put in a drawer in yet, I needed a confidence builder,” he says. “Boxes were something I could do. As they got more and more complex, I developed many of the ideas I use today.”
The young artist was making it work, and he began to expand his space, uncovering the old window openings in the walls and inspiring others to do the same. “Suddenly the building had a real pulse and was a nice place to be.”
Factory Was a Lucky Find: The first to answer an ad for “artists’ space” in an old factory, Beaumont walked into a broken-down building, occupied mostly by criminal activity. He chalked out a second-floor spot and has stayed for 30 years.
Today Beaumont and his five-person staff occupy 3,500 square feet in that same second-floor corner, with lofty ceilings, a flood of natural light and a rooftop patio he built outside his windows, perfect for taking breaks in the occasional Vancouver sun.
Greatest Hits: An endless stream of inventive pieces flows out of Beaumont’s workshop in Vancouver – playful pieces for kids and kids-at-heart. But functionality is never sacrificed for flair.
A Not-so-straight Line
The name of the business, Straight Line Designs, is ironic now – but wasn’t at first, in those days of cabinetry and cubes. Like any artist, Beaumont wanted to move on and keep exploring. He started doing curvy fiberglass shapes, like a big carrot with drawers in it.
He put his kids next to the big carrot, to give a sense of scale, and shot a picture for his first business card.
“Everyone loved that postcard,” he said. “I gave it to everyone I met and it landed me a big project at a ski resort.”
Just about that time, Beaumont saw the film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” It was another critical moment in his development.
“I watched the Toontown scene again and again,” he says. “Buildings were bending, there were eyes in windows – I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
He made his next cabinet curvy, skinned with Wilsonart plastic laminate, which meant he didn’t have to spray or sand. “Everybody in the building said, ‘No one will buy that.’”
They were wrong. Photographed beautifully, often with children interacting with them, Beaumont’s curvy cabinets and cartoonish installations were unique and well-suited to a worldwide market. “The internet was exploding,” Beaumont remembers, which brought him clients from around the globe and encouraged him to design weirder and wilder things.
Perfection Outside, Practical Inside: Beaumont’s art-school background taught him to design first and engineer second. His furniture is polished and unique while his construction methods are eminently practical.
Beaumont’s art-school background was an advantage in a number of ways. Free from the notion that things have to be difficult, or built with traditional joinery, he focused on design and making his furniture unique.
“Everyone knows how to make furniture the ‘right’ way,” Beaumont says. “I didn’t want competition.”
His practical construction techniques not only saved time, but could also be duplicated by his young assistants. Expert finishing brought each piece to life just as it did with his first cubes in art school, harmonizing the combination of materials.
Kids Sell Furniture: Universally appealing work, great photos and the power of the internet helped Beaumont find clients around the world. From the beginning he put kids (his own at first) in the photos to interact with the pieces and give a sense of scale.
The finished furniture is sturdy and functional, but the real appeal has always been the joyful design. At its biggest, around 2010, Straight Line Designs had 17 to 25 employees and occupied 7,000 square feet of space. It was way too big, Beaumont says. “It got crazy, the quality went down, I was losing money.” So he sized the operation back to its current manageable size, with a small, skilled staff, mostly young would-be designers and makers. They come and eventually go, and keep the place young.
Like Wonka, Beaumont knows that failures are part of the recipe. Where Wonka had his “Inventing Room,” Beaumont has his Saturdays alone in the shop – a time he sets aside for sketching, making models, fooling around with tools and techniques. It’s a space for his inner child to play, to explore dead ends and remember the pure joy of inventing that set him on this path.
With his staff gone, production halted and the big shop to himself, Saturdays are therapy, but also critical to his success. “You have to try and fail,” he says. “This bugged me when I was younger, but now I know that everything doesn’t just pop up.”
For Beaumont (and many other studio furniture makers), it takes dozens of sketches, experiments and full-on attempts to yield pieces customers might ask for again, which the workshop can repeat amid the piles of one-offs.
Some pieces are hits but prove too time-consuming to be made profitably. Still they are worth building, paying dividends in other ways. “People love miniatures,” he says. His camping-trailer doghouses and adult dollhouses that hang on walls are perfect examples. Both have already acted as important calling cards, bringing in much bigger jobs.
Misses Can Be Hits Too: Even pieces that don’t make money or go into production can be
powerful marketing tools, drawing bigger jobs.
At the end of the month, after rent and payroll and plywood and molding compound and a pile of other supplies are paid for, Beaumont often wonders where the money has gone. But he still relishes the challenge of his job. At 56, after 31 years in business, that’s what keeps him showing up at 7:30 a.m., beating his employees to the shop every day.
“My rule is: if you can draw and design it, you can build it,” he says. “I love it when someone tells me, ‘You can’t build that’ or ‘No one would want that.’ These words only encourage me more.”
Blog: Visit Beaumont’s website to see more of his playful work and read more about his process and business.
Article: Read two other articles from out “Great Workshops” series, about the Modernica workshop in Los Angeles, Calif., and Country Workshops in western North Carolina.
Video: Watch interviews with other woodworking greats, including Frank Klausz, Wendell Castle, Toshio Odate and Garry Knox Bennett.
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