Mid-Century PHOTOS: Courtesy of David Johnson

Mid-century Marvelous

David Johnson of Sidecar Furniture takes us back to a time when furniture was in a delicious groove.

By Brenda Rees 09/01/2011

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There’s an informal saying among designers that creating a piece of furniture is akin to making a box. A simple box? Think about it: Whether it’s a couch, chair, table or bed frame, each piece is like an open cube, either rectangular or square. Boil it down, and any piece of furniture is a really a plain old box in disguise.

While practically anyone can slap together a simple box, it’s the rare creative spirit who can turn that box into a piece of high-end functional art that can satisfy the soul today and decades later. Consider Highland Park furniture designer David Johnson, designer/proprietor of Sidecar Furniture, who’s continuing a Southern California tradition of handcrafting practical objects much as the renowned Arts and Crafts artisans did a century ago. Johnson, however, is drawing on the ideals of a later period — the clean lines of mid-century modernism — and propping them up with 2011 sensibilities. Sidecar’s lines echo those sleek designs and riff on modern masters of the 1950s and ’60s, sometimes giving a nod to the ’70s. Johnson’s low-slung Maria chair, composed of walnut with a cane seat and back, is a tribute to Hans J. Wegner’s classic woven chairs. Johnson’s turntable cabinet practically jumps out of a picture postcard from the 1960s, when every home had a swinging Zenith record player. His simple teak cabinet brings back the Scandinavian 1950s with panel details that would make Kaare Klint — the father of Danish modernism — nod in approval.

“I feel more comfortable around old than new,” says Johnson, 43, from his home studio/workshop. The  California Central Valley native gleans inspiration from varied sources: vintage motorcycles, black-and-white TV programs like The Andy Griffith Show, grand old cars, not to mention the antique furniture he collected and sold in his late teens and early 20s. “I really like a variety of art styles, especially art nouveau, but when I sit down to design, that’s not what comes out of me. My head and hands go completely another different way.”

Setting up shop in Southern California in 2008, Johnson brought with him clients from his early days as a furniture designer in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, but Southland folks are also discovering and embracing his vision. “I met David at a recent Dwell on Design show and fell in love with his stuff,” says Brian Macken of Highland Park, who commissioned Johnson to build a lanky, low-slung bamboo TV console. “It’s the only piece of handmade furniture I have in the house, and not one day goes by without me looking at it and thinking ‘That is so beautiful.’ This piece will be with me for the rest of my life, and hopefully one of my kids will take it with them.”

In addition to annual design shows and Sidecar Furniture’s online photo galleries (sidecarfurniture.com), Johnson’s pieces, which range in price from $400 for a stool to $7,500 for the TV console, are showcased at WhyrHymer gallery in Hollywood. “David takes traditions and turns them on their head,” says owner Brandon Morrison, also a furniture designer. “What I really like is his caning; it’s something that’s not easy to do, and it complements his designs in a contemporary way. It’s just beautiful to look at.”

Indeed, Johnson’s weaving prowess — an homage to mid-century techniques — adds another layer to his furniture pieces, distinguishing them from the work of many other designers. A quick lesson: Very popular in 17th-century England, woven cane furniture was once favored in conservatories and dining rooms of the wealthy. Rattan saw its American heyday in the late 1800s, when it was used in settees, rocking chairs and cabinets. Weaving experienced its last wave in chair design during the 1960s and ’70s. The four traditional weaving patterns include: the Danish cord pattern which uses tightly compressed paper or cane (the outer layer of the rattan palm); the seagrass pattern (popular for baskets); the rush pattern (typically done with cattails, paper rush or Danish cord); and the Shaker tape-and-wood splint, an over/under pattern used on early American and Shaker chairs.

Weaving is a labor-intensive process, says Johnson, who learned the basics from Jim’s Widess’ book The Complete Guide to Chair Caning. “I think the reason why [weaving] appealed to me is that I wanted my [furniture] to be mixed media,” says Johnson. “This gives my work another level that you don’t see every day. It’s another voice.”

In addition to creating stools, chairs and door designs that feature woven elements, Johnson restores damaged woven furniture, sad pieces that all come to him with a story. “We had a full dining room set with 10 chairs from the 1950s, classic woven seats in need of restoration because we were hosting Thanksgiving that year at our house,” says Robert Puertas of Irvine. The chairs were suffering from frazzled and fragmented strands, and damaged and broken backs.

“Most of them you couldn’t sit in. We were going to tell people to not BYO beer but BYO chair,” says Puertas, who met Johnson at a design show.  Johnson came to his house, picked up the patients and, in two weeks, returned them all in fine form. “Honest to goodness, they look practically new,” Puertas says. “He duplicated the pattern and did a beautiful job.”

(This fall, Johnson will be teaching his first-ever Danish cord-weaving class at Pasadena City College as one of its Extended Learning offerings. At press time, the course was tentatively scheduled for Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, Sept. 24 through Oct. 15.)

Johnson’s path to furniture design began at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, where he studied art history before enrolling in the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program on the Mendocino coast. Founded by Swedish furniture-maker James Krenov (who studied under the master woodworker Carl Malmsten), the school, says Johnson, reflects a distinct European influence in its courses, teaching methods and direction —  lessons embodied in Johnson’s work today. “We were instructed to slow everything down, pay attention to every move and detail,” explains Johnson, who can take as long as three months to perfect an intricate TV console. “No shortcuts, no going quick or punching it up. Slow it all down and pay attention to balance, form and proportion as well as color and texture of the wood. Let nothing escape your eye.”After completing the intensive nine-month program, Johnson moved to Santa Cruz and joined a woodworking arts collective where he continued to develop his own style. (“It was an idyllic setting overlooking a graveyard!”) From there, he took on a stint in San Francisco at a cabinet shop (“A great education in dealing with clients, sub-contractors, the practical stuff”) and another art collective, where Sidecar Furniture was eventually born. Along the way, he kept refining and honing his craft, inspired in part by the life work of California woodworker extraordinaire Sam Maloof.

“While Maloof’s designs were — and are — widely copied, I think how he worked and developed his techniques most strike me,” says Johnson. “Maloof had really only a handful of techniques, but it’s how he played with them, enjoyed them and expanded on them — that’s how he was able to develop his own language with such artistry. That’s the Maloof that impresses me, and that’s what I am trying to follow with my art as well.”

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