Liz Dunning is a DesignCrafter on the rise: a woodworker with a fabulous eye, a meticulous technique, and a wide-open, optimistic, humble, can-do, enthusiastic, bubbly energy that’s utterly infectious. Spending time with Liz in her studio (at Alameda Point) or on her blog is just so much fun. We’d imagine working with her would be the same experience (and what more can you ask for in life?)
The day we visited, Liz had laid out a surprise afternoon nosh for us in front of the studio on a sweet little table. Alas, NorCal’s spring weather was doing its changeable act that day so the Pellegrino, delectable strawberries and chocolate covered almonds (with a sprinkling of sea salt, natch) had to be consumed in the studio. And consumed they were, with gusto (maybe a little too much for the sake of our hips? Oh what the hell. Have another.)
At this point in her career (and let’s be clear, Liz hasn’t been doing this for decades, like some of the others we’ve interviewed) she works a lot with others, designing and crafting furniture and home fittings with strong, sleek, graceful lines and extraordinary quality. She’s also been designing her own pieces that incorporate her fascination with design that brings out the best of nature, whether in its raw state, or in its more refined but still authentic form. But as great as her designs are, we also love her journey…not a linear, perfect one…and that’s always more interesting. Read on!
Tell us about your start in woodworking. Well, it actually wasn’t in woodworking….it was in fashion design. (Aha!) My mom was really creative: lots of crafts, dyes and paints fabric, sews….she made our clothes, that kind of thing. I would sketch, mom would make dresses…and so I wanted to be a fashion designer all through high school.
So I went to CCA to get a fashion design degree…Now I knew a lot about sewing but their emphasis was on illustration instead. The teachers were really intense, and I was pretty overwhelmed with their talent, accomplishments and the fact that they were so URBAN (I came from central coastal CA, and grew up on 40 acres and kept horses!) So my self confidence was zero in that department. Then in the last crit freshman year, the teacher was tearing pictures off my board, saying how this is how not to do thing….critiquing my ideas as well. I was so shocked, tears welling up….but actually…I knew in my heart it was actually not a fit.
Jeez. What did you do? So I took a furniture class…the things that people were making floored me…the fact that you could actually make this stuff was so amazing! I decided I had to try taking a class to see what I could make. Had you done woodwork and product design before? Kind of. Dad had a little woodshop. I would sit and watch but I hated it, just watching. Eventually we did get to work on projects together…. as a senior math project, we used the golden mean as the foundation for making a cabinet…that was cool. I think he also gave me this love of industrial design: he was a medical supply salesman and had these great German tools all over the house. I was kind of fascinated with them.
So let’s guess…the vibe in the furniture program was maybe a little different from fashion? Yes! The teacher sold me on the program instead of the other way around. I just felt welcomed by the students and the teachers in the department. (Phew, we were starting to worry for our heroine…) I really loved the whole discipline. I got to learn what good design was, and wasn’t. It trained my eye and helped me determine my aesthetic. And then there’s something about woodworkers that’s just so cool. They like to have fun, whether it’s working or hanging out….it’s all good. But it was super hard work.
And after CCA? How was that? Well school was a little like fantasy land, always exploring, learning….now it was time to actually do. So I worked at Union Studio (with Matt Bear) who taught me so much. And I just love the aesthetic–I still do a ton of work with him.
And this is what Matt says about Liz: I always enjoy it when we have the opportunity to work together! Her enthusiasm for the work is infectious and her diligence, reliability and work ethic are amazing. She’s great to bounce design ideas off of and my projects really benefit from her input. She’s really hit her stride lately both on the design and craft fronts, which is great! (That’s what we thought.)
Then I went to work in a production cabinet shop to really learn how to produce. What was that like? (She throws her head back and laughs). I was the only female. (Oooh. We sense some foreshadowing here….) We listened to 107.7 (The Bone) all day long where one of the features was this girl who’d go around flashing people and then would call in to tell the world about it….anyway… But I learned a ton….a real education. And I did survive a year. (Belly laugh here.) Then I found another small independently owned place…..2 female cabinet makers in Berkeley. Mmm. We would imagine the radio station changed? Oh that too. It was a huge change…really great and I learned there too. But I needed a little more structure so I started working with another woodworker….Bets Sweeney (who has a business called Hanging Stick in Berkeley). She was great: generous, smart, and organized. She was my mentor and gave me faith that I could do this.
But I always wanted to do my own thing. So when a kitchen commission came through, I jumped at the opportunity to do it. And I’ve been working on my own and freelancing with others ever since. I do kitchens, furniture…all the usual.
You seem to use a lot of metal in your work. Yes…I do machining but I don’t weld. I get to collaborate with others on that, which I really love!
How would you characterize your style? Those benches I just made are a surprise to me….I would have said I was a modernist, but I really like the sculptural, natural feel of it. I’m a little shalala in my approach to woodworking. Back to the earth. Not super curvy, nothing ornate.
What’re you reading? I’m reading this book called this book called The Exchange, about a bunch of graffiti artists collective who pair up and exchange and try our different styles. I’ve met great graffiti artists…they’re not hooligans, really they’re artists…and SO in touch with what’s going on in the world. I’m also reading a book about Pierre Chareau’s Glass House. It’s an amazing house that was done in 1927, using industrial materials. It’s about how they combined materials, how they’re using wood and steel so honestly, letting those materials be the way they are. (We see the influence!)
Who would play you in the movie of your life? Oh that’s cruel! I’m so not good at this! (OK…here’s what we think: a young Sandy Bullock. Fearless. Smart. Self-deprecating. Big heart, generally easy going, but also takes no sh*t. And funny. Hey Liz, let us know what you think!)
Inspirations? Oh lots. Friends who are artists, people I collaborate with. I have a friend with an amazing place. It’s not my style: it’s busy with lots of old stuff, found materials, etc. Her place smells like an old book…but I love it.
Also, another inspiration is stories! I love the pod cast The Moth and of course Ira Glass’ This American Life and Fresh Air. I love to hear people’s stories, success, failure, painful or funny stories, it helps me through my life! Also movies, lately I’ve had When Harry Met Sally on my mind (maybe it’s a being-single thing.) I recently saw Julie and Julia and felt totally inspired! Those are/were some hard working ladies! Lost in Translation!! Mad Men!! Oh so many, so much drama!! (Love it.)
And what 5 things define you?
The Alameda Flea Market
Elle Decoration–I’m a little obsessed with that. (Euro edition. Yes, we concur!!)
Do you have any heroes? (Huge smile.) Yep. My grandfather, 89. He was a fighter pilot, artist (comic book artist!) And he’s so hip. He’s really supportive, helped me buy my truck….We’ve gone on road trips together in these enormous Cadillacs. I can’t believe how great he is. He’s really smart. Funny. Fun.
Hey. That rings a bell…