Profile: Forest Dickey

By Regina Connell with Nicole Bemboom.

Perfection has had a bad rap of late. We’re also loving the look of distressed everything—wood, metal, leather—as a backlash or a balance against the perceived emptiness of much overly “perfect” industrial design. We tend to smile fondly at bobbles and wonky joins and imperfections as signs of humanity. And there’s no end to the number of self-help books that tell us to stamp out—lovingly, of course—our inner perfectionists.

Perfection is cold. Imperfection is warm and human.

It’s ironic, though, because the search for perfection is one of the most human of instincts. And while we know of the dark, dark side of perfectionism, that search for perfection is almost downright romantic, optimistic and generous. The difference lies in who you’re doing it for. Is it for you, or something bigger than you?

That’s roughly what was running through my head as I listened to Forest Dickey—designer, furniture maker and restless perfection seeker—talk about his work and his designs, and his relationships with customers. Because Forest is one of those people whose search for perfection takes him far outside of himself.

San Francisco-based Forest (who heads up his own firm, Varian Designs) crafts his three current collections of tables, chairs and benches out of sustainable, recycled, reclaimed and salvaged materials—think Kentucky whiskey tanks and Napa wine barrels—and steel.

He calls his designs contemporary rustic or rustic modern and talks about being inspired by bridges, barns and docks. Looking at his work, we can see it: the marriage of water to land; of romance to precision; of natural beauty to clean composition.

Talk about your start. I did my undergraduate study at the University of Chicago, studying fine art and art history. After college, I went to South Korea and taught English to kids. After getting back from Korea, I enrolled in woodworking classes at the University of Wisconsin (where I’m from).  I was interested in working with wood in a more sculptural sense but discovered the wonderful world of furniture design along the way.

Were you interested in making things as a kid? Were your parents arty?  My mom is an artist and both she and my father encouraged creativity. I grew up making things, drawing and writing. Plus my high school had woodshop (they didn’t call it tech arts in those days).  That was my first introduction to furniture making.

After school? I took classes, workshops, worked for Richard Wrightman in NY for a while (making modern campaign furniture), worked for Gail Fridell in Aspen CO, helping her make one of a kind custom tables and furniture. But I wanted to go to grad school, to focus a bit, so I went to San Diego State to work under Wendy Maruyama. Studying under her was just wonderful: she is a great educator, artist and person.  While in school, I became more interested in the creating a business and career for myself in the field. I started Varian as my final thesis project and have been running it ever since.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

Why? I find a lot of reward and satisfaction in producing functional objects people were comfortable with in their homes. I like it when people respect and use what I make. And from a business perspective, I believe it’s more sustainable. So I created a line and a company and moved up here (the Bay Area) to bring it to life.

Who do you respect, who are your role models? Oh, there’s a long list. Richard Wrightman, he’s been a tremendous source of inspiration and advice. Gail Fredell, and Michael Fortune (particularly for his work in third world countries) are a few. It’s a long list. The theme is that these are people who have found a way to balance art and commerce, and done incredible things over the course of their careers.  Of a younger generation who I think are on the same path, Isaac Arms, Heath Matysek Snyder, Matthias Pliessnig, and Florian Roeper are certainly inspirational.

What are you really trying to achieve? What would you like to be doing more of? I’d like to scale up and produce more, make Varian bigger than myself. I look at Thomas Moser and McGuire and see their ability to keep their craft integrity as they expand. It’s time, it’s their ability to do high quality product over the years. As Steve Jobs said, “keep putting a good product in front of people and they will continue to buy it”.

Not to be negative but do you really think there’s a market? Yes, I do. I think that the 30-40 somethings have grown up with IKEA and while it’s low quality from a craft perspective, it’s brought a lot more attention to design, and there’s increasing familiarity with. And now that they’re older (and making some money), these IKEA graduates need something that’s higher quality and just as high (if not higher) design.

What’s your most popular piece? The Bartizan desk is the most popular piece, and I think that comes back to design. There’s something compelling about the design: it’s a bridge leg design, and for some reason, people respond to that. It touches something in them.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

Speaking of Bartizan… the naming for your products is great.  Broen, Dagda, Eir… I have Scandinavian roots, and lots of the names come from that. There’s a lot of Celtic naming too. And Varian? Where does that come from? Varian… that was my late grandmother’s name.  I wanted to honor her by building something worthy of her name.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

Your influences? A lot comes from growing up in Wisconsin. Frank Lloyd Wright was an influence too.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

But it also comes from my family. My uncle and grandfather had built a good many docks, and I think that seeped into my subconscious.  I never really thought about docks as things of beauty… Permanent docks, and yes they can be.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

But I get inspiration everywhere. There have been a couple of wonderful wood design books that have been very inspirational, one, that is out of print but that you would really, really love is called “The Language of Wood” it is Finnish and has wonderful images of Scandinavian designed objects ranging from axe handles to children’s toys. It spans hundreds of years, including modern and very, very old objects. The second book is called “Wood: New Directions in Design and Architecture” by Naomi Stungo.  Really great book.  Those two books as well as Yves Chouinard’s book “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of A Reluctant Businessman” sent me in my current direction.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

And then there’s Apple. Really? Yes. Their products show us how people can build an extremely strong bond with objects. That’s really interesting and I think pertinent to furniture.  People really fall in love with objects that enrich their lives in some way.

There’s a real sophistication and refinement in your work.  It’s very contemporary but not trendy. I try not to be “fashionable” in my work.  Good design withstands the test of time and is comfortable in a variety of settings.  I think people respond to clean modern lines with weathered, rustic wood material.  I think the mistake some designers make is to just want to display the material… but that’s not real design. Design is the transformation of materials into form. People respond to something that’s been developed, thought-through, designed and then crafted.

Image courtesy of Forest Dickey

What’s your favorite part of your process? Designing is most fun: I really enjoy the prototyping process. But I also like the rush of delivering something to clients that they enjoy. I also really like working with clients. The relationship, the bond is built over time.  There is also a point, somewhere in the middle of building a piece, where it begins to take a final shape… that is a good point for me.  Before getting bogged down in the stress of deadline…

How do you decide what to design? If there’s a gap, I’ll seek to fill it. Sometimes it’ll be client driven sometimes I’ll just think, gee, I’d love to make a chair with arms.

What’s your favorite piece? I love that desk. I’m constantly making it better, and it’s not the same thing every time. Porsche’s been fine-tuning the same designs for over 60 years. As Americans, we expect something to be perfect all the time the first time, and if it’s not, it’s a failure. But the reality is that true, true quality is a process of refinement. People aren’t familiar with that process.

What are you reading? The Orphan Master’s Son, about Korea. I read a lot, maybe 1-2 books a week. Mostly fiction, some sci-fi. I recently re-read Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”  I really love that book; his prose is breathtaking.  I’ve read it three times and each time I discover something new and wonderful.  I get a lot from rereading.  It helps me understand just how perfectly crafted some sentences and passages are… I love that.

And music… what’s on your playlist? Springsteen. I listen to a lot of Bruce.  Again, a guy who has worked and worked and worked over time.  He followed up “Born to Run” his biggest commercial hit, with “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”  I respect his ability to change direction and evolve while maintaining ownership of his material.  Amazing really. There’s a lot of contemporary indie rock, a lot of irish rock. And Dylan.

Who plays you in the movie of your life? God, how do I not sound pretentious? Robert Downey Jr. I love his onscreen persona, I just like him. He’s a versatile person and I hope I am as well.

Genre of film? Sci-fi–dystopian sci-fi. I read a lot of comics, too. I’m a super hero buff.

And 5 objects that define you?

  • A book of some kind
  • Soccer cleats, soccer has always been an important part of my life.
  • Jeans (those Japanese ones made on vintage machines? Nah, I’m not picky.)
  • A chair. I really love chairs. It’s really hard to design chairs. I love Jean Prouve for his design, and Sam Maloof for the comfort, his craft and his success.  We lost him recently and he is missed. The challenge with chairs is that they take so much abuse. Making something strong, comfortable, functional, AND original. That’s a big challenge.




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