Richard Jarvis // Jarvis Furniture

I first heard about Richard Jarvis from Tim Grant of WoodReform. Their workbenches were diagonal from each other at 1000 Parker Street when I visited Tim, and he had a lot of good things to say about this new guy’s work.

My ears perked up when Tim said that he used to be an engineer. I’m always interested to see how people’s life experiences shape what they make, and an engineering background sounded promising. I met Richard briefly at the last Culture Crawl and then was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face in one of his infamous lounge chairs at Address Assembly.

I met up with Richard for a studio visit on a sunny afternoon. He greeted me warmly on the loading dock of 1000 Parker Street and led me to the woodworking studio he shares with some of Vancouver’s most impressive makers. He’s switched spots since the first time I met him and now has a cozy little room all to himself. Pieces of wood claimed by his name lean against the walls and a hand-drawn elevation of a chair is pinned up. The thin layer of sawdust coating most surfaces tells me he’s been busy and the hum of power tools in the background gives the notion that he’s not the only one. I’m happy to see some interesting forms taking shape on his workbench.

 

What's on your bench today?

This is a chair prototype for a client. It’s based on a photo of a rattan and bentwood chair, but they want it in walnut. The rattan portions will be upholstered. I’ve started on the legs and the general forms. Eventually, it’ll be a set of six chairs.

 

The original image reminds me of patio chairs I’ve seen in the southern US. I can imagine walnut and upholstery making it feel right at home here in the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, that’s exactly what it is! The design doesn’t really lend itself to a solid wood construction, but I’m figuring it out. That’s the good thing about a prototype – it gives me a chance to figure out how to solve the challenges and work out production issues in a more cost-effective material.

See, I’m using Western Maple right now. Western Maple is fairly inexpensive and easy to work with. It’s also got a consistent, good grain – all around, very little risk using this material. I’ll give this to the client to review and make sure they’re happy with it. If they want changes I can make them easily.

 

How did the process for this chair start?

The client approached me for the order with a photo of a similar chair and the finishes and overall dimensions they were looking for. It’s always important to get a clear sense of the client’s inspiration and the spatial requirements.

From there, I started drawing the design out in pencil. I like to work in pencil because it gives me a chance to work in reference lines and understand the details a little better. I’ve got a full-scale elevation of the chair pinned up on the wall. I also draw a plan view of the seat. Working in full scale helps me get the chair to where I want it to be faster. That’s a trick I learned in my engineering days – sometimes you really just have to see something full size to wrap your head around it. This drawing is also my main point of reference as I’m constructing the chair.

Now I’m in the process of building all of the individual pieces of the chair. On my main workbench, I’ve got part of the seat back. The seat is coming together over in the corner. And over on my other workbench, I’ve got legs and smaller pieces taking shape.

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I’m seeing some lovely curved parts take shape – like these legs. What sort of tools and joinery are you using for this?

The legs start as solid wood and then I shape them down. They’re joined together with a loose tenon joint. There’s a lot of freehand shaping involved with chairs like this because it’s pretty impossible to rig up any tools for organic curvature. That ends up being a test of my skill – that each piece in the final set is smooth and the curves are consistent.

I heard you mention upholstery for this piece, and have seen some of your other lounge chairs with beautiful upholstery. Do you do that yourself as well?

No, I don’t do my own upholstery – there are limits to the things I’ll try. I subcontract out the upholstery, but I do have to have a good level of faith that the upholsterer shares the same vision that I do. I’ve been fortunate that there are some great upholsterers in the area.

 

How long will it take you to make this set of chairs from start to finish?

This set will take 6 weeks – 6 weeks for 6 chairs

 

That sounds like an intimidating schedule, especially considering there’s a seventh prototype chair in there.

Well, making the prototype chair takes about a week and a half, but ultimately saves me time. All of the jigs will be made during prototyping, and it lets me figure out the process for making the chairs. Once that’s all figured out, I’ll move much quicker. For example, I’ll make the legs for all six chairs in two days. Then I just have to make sure I leave enough time for the subcontractors to do upholstery and staining.

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Where did your skills in furniture making begin?

I started doing woodworking as a teenager. My dad was an amateur woodworker, but my grandfather was a very fine cabinetmaker. It was just a hobby for both of them. My dad made bedrooms sets and dining sets for my siblings. I actually have a lot of tools that were my father’s and grandfather’s.

It wasn’t that I grew up watching them and wanted to do it though, it was really this notion that I could do anything. My dad was also into antique cars. He just always saw problems and tried to solve them and figure things out. I don’t think there was ever any real teaching going on in these areas growing up. There was just the sense that you could try anything, and try and fail. And then try again.

 

You mentioned that your background in engineering comes in handy with furniture making. What kind of engineer were you and how did you get started in that field?

I used to be a mechanical engineer in the machine design business. Technically I still am a mechanical engineer – I maintain my license because it’s very hard to get it back if I let it lapse. Before I became an engineer, I was building boats with a company in Ontario. I was doing electrical and mechanical work like installing engines. That’s how I got into engineering. I built boats for four or five years and was actually fortunate enough to buy a boat from that company I worked for several years later. Working in that shop, I never had a hope that I would get to own one of them.

 

So how did you end up with a studio at 1000 Parker?

My wife and I moved out here about two years ago. We were empty nesters and she had a job offer. I looked for work for a couple of months, but then found 1000 Parker Street and heard that a space was opening up. I put my name down right away. I had a workshop in my basement in Ontario as a hobby. I figured I might as well have a go of it – if I were retired this is what I’d be doing anyway.

How has your experience in this space and with this new venture been so far?

It’s been great, it really has. This building is full of so much talent. Everyone here is very highly skilled. They enable me to keep up the emotional momentum. We don’t collaborate but they do inspire me. It’s learning and absorbing through osmosis. This pushes me to do more work and do better work. There is no “good enough” and that’s an awesome mindset, it ups everyone’s game.

I actually got some of my first work through this space, too. I became the “guy making chairs” and so I would get other people referring clients to me. The best project so far was the design commission I did for Matchstick coffee. They were really great to work with and I enjoyed being able to design the chair myself.

 

Why chairs?

I think what I like about chairs is that there are almost infinite, sculptural possibilities. I think of chairs as being sculptural. Other than the ergonomic envelope, pretty much anything goes. I mean, there are some pretty outlandish chairs. You have to start with a comfortable design and work out from there.

I’ve also made some small tables and stools. I did make a big, goofy lamp. It’s at home and it’s not going anywhere.

 

What’s the most important factor of a chair?

It’s a balance of things. People are not all the same size and shape, and chairs are made to fit people. It’s also a bit of structural engineering to figure out which forms and joints can carry the load and how it distributes.

The seat on a lounge chair should be reclined slightly to the back, but there’s a range of angles that you’re safe within. If it’s reclined too far, it’s hard to get out of. If it’s not enough of a recline, then you don’t feel quite comfortable in it. Seat depth angles and backrest angles are always important. Seat heights are typically around 18”. I’ve pushed chair seats down a little bit when you really want a get-down-and-lounge type of chair or a thicker upholstered chair. Sometimes you want a firm chair, but sometimes you just want to sink in.

Wood selection is also pretty important when making a chair, maybe more so than other types of furniture. You can see every side of a chair and you move all the way around it, so it’s important that every part of the wood is presentable. I use a few different local suppliers but prefer places that will let me pick through the stacks to find what I’m looking for.

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What kind of information should a client bring to you for a new project?

Inspiration and goals. In engineering, the first step is to determine the problem so we can find a solution. It’s the same thing with what we’re doing here, so it’s helpful when clients have an idea of what they want to begin with even if it’s just parameters. How much do you want to spend? What kind of finishes and materials do you want? That sort of thing.

When I’m making something for a client I don’t charge for design work, which means I own the design. I charge based on my time and materials.

 

It sounds like you’re already in your dream job, but if you weren’t concerned about getting paid, what would you make all day?

Lounge chairs. That’s really how I started when I first got the shop and had no clients. If there’s a shortcoming for me doing what I’m doing now, it’s that I don’t have time to continue developing my own designs. The ultimate goal is to have clients that see something of mine and ask me to make another one.

All the things that I make for other people make me better at doing what I want to make for myself. I found when I started with chairs that I was designing things that I wanted to make, and that I knew I could make. By doing designs that other people want, I’m forced to learn how to do new things.

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With you background working with the boat company, would you ever take on building a boat?

I would love to.

By yourself?

Yes, I think I would.

 

What big lesson have you learned so far?

You don’t hit the ground running. You have to pay your dues.

 

If someone else was trying to start making chairs, what advice would you give them?

Make what moves you. If you don’t feel passion for it, it’s very difficult to express the enthusiasm that you want others to share. I love talking to people about what I do. If I didn’t feel this way about what I do, I wouldn’t be able to succeed at it.

 

To find out more about Jarvis Furniture or to get in touch with Richard, visit jarvisfurniture.ca.