Michael Wolk is proud of his roots. He started his career as a furniture maker and designer and is still happy to call into a workshop and pick up a hammer to show what he wants. We asked him about his transition from creating furniture to being responsible for the full interior of a home. It was, he told us, a natural evolution. “I created a dining room table and was asked advice about the chairs to go with it, what should go on the wall behind.” By the time he was invited to join an interior design partnership he was already advising on whole houses.
His furniture has the clean confident lines of the best of mid century designs, something he attributes to being trained in a Bauhaus environment. This is ‘Stryde’ which Michael designed for Loewenstein.
When I say that his designs have the appearance of pieces you wouldn’t hesitate to use, he replies that comfort is a critical element. “Chairs should be comfortable to sit in, tables the right height”. It sounds obvious but how often do you find good looking designs that don’t really work as furniture?
We talk a little about William Morris’ idea of having nothing in your home that is not either useful or beautiful, – Michael’s view is that society compartmentalizes art, craft and other specialties far too much. “Function doesn’t exclude the fine art aspect.” He says, “It’s useful if it makes you happy”.
We are back on a key point for Michael. He is clearly not someone who is willing to accept any sort of pigeonhole.
“I do what is interesting”, he says, “ I don’t believe that each discipline is separate with its own border guard – never felt that way. We do a lot of architecture, mix the skills.” He points out that amongst the various advisers and experts at court, monarchs had their own cabinetmakers. It is clearly a skill he has enormous respect for. And it is a skill that he uses for his clients even when he is buying furniture on their behalf. He likens buying furniture without his experience to a trip to a car mechanic for someone who doesn’t know their way around the internal combustion engine. His clients get the value of his eyes and also, he says his expectations. He tends to buy from familiar, big name, well established companies but adds that some of the Chinese manufacturers, and specifically the ones that have German and Italian specialists in charge of quality control are producing some excellent work. The illustration is his ‘Mr Williams’ chair for Directional.
He clearly enjoys working with manufacturers and tells me of his pleasure at visiting a factory and seeing it filled with furniture that he has designed. “There is a real art in being able to reproduce something well”, he says. “It is at least as exciting as making a one off piece”.
I tell Michael that I notice his work seems to have long vistas, horizons in fact. I wonder if this is an influence of the open spaces of Florida where he now works? The illustration above is from his Dezer project.
He was born and brought up in New York and believes the biggest change moving to the tropics has brought about is the impact on the colour palette he uses. “Where once I used a lot of dark colours from burgundy and brown and olive green”, he says “I now use colours which are more representative of sky and ocean, a sun drenched palette.
There is, he says, also a difference in how we use rooms and the response we want rooms to illicit. “In the North you want to walk into a room and feel warm. Here you want to be near water, to be in a cool, air conditioned space. You use different colors because of the different psychological impact you want them to have.” He tells me that when he first moved to the South he felt guilty if he stayed in all day “It took a while to feel ok about going to the movies during the day.” Does he miss the North? “Yes, but not so much that I want to be there every day.”
He laughs when I ask him to name a favourite project. “Which one of my children do I love the best?” he replies. “The one I’m working on and one I have just finished.”
Michael taught for many years and tells me that when he asked new students to introduce themselves, there were always five or more who couldn’t say much more than their names, if that. “So much of design is telling your story and selling it, convincing people“ he says, convincing me. His advice to new designers is to learn to communicate. “It is not enough to sit in your room and draw. Communicating the concept is critical.” He also talks about the need to develop what he calls “the dialog you have with yourself about the work”. He says “There is no book with answers, the answer is inside you. (You have) got to figure out how to have the conversation with yourself.”
As our illustrations, and Michael’s web site portfolio show, his work is distinguished by its strong clean lines and apparently easy elegance. There may be no book with answers but there is Michael Wolk.