Straight Line Designs' Judson Beaumont turns fantasy into witty furniture
From the outside, it would appear that Judson Beaumont’s world of Dali–meets–Dr. Seuss furniture is all about fun. Over his 27-year career, the Vancouver designer has made such famous pieces as a grandfather clock that bends over saucily and wears a wristwatch, a coffee table that lifts one leg to “pee” on the floor, and a tall wooden kids’ cabinet that looks like a beaver has chomped away its midsection. These days, his whimsical custom creations sell all around the world; in the next few months, Beaumont will take his unfettered imagination from Mexico City to Dubai. He’s crafted collections for Disney, and he’s conjured his wonderlands in children’s hospitals and airport waiting rooms.
But when you visit the East Side headquarters of his Straight Line Designs, where all these fantastical creations are born, it quickly becomes clear that they’re the result of a lot of hard work and a serious business approach. In the heart of the labyrinthine 1000 Parker Street heritage studios, a team of half a dozen young woodworkers is meticulously sanding and sawing curvy cabinets and benches in a bright, windowed space. Beaumont admits that he often wakes up at 5 a.m. to come in here, sometimes sketching as soon as he arrives, or experimenting on his machines. It’s obvious that he never stops working, never stops thinking about new designs to push the boundaries: the evidence is in his myriad sketchbooks, where he uses coloured pens to work out ever more impossible-looking creations. And when he travels the world outside of the studio, he’s always searching for inspiration—not just in cartoons, but in art and in architecture by the likes of Frank Gehry.
“To this day, I have no hobbies; I’ve been too darn busy,” says the energetic, still-boyish-faced designer, sitting in his staff lunchroom with his sketchbooks and a vast collection of photos of finished projects spread out before him. “I just threw myself at this 100 percent, and luckily my wife of 26 years was behind it. She’s never said, ‘You can’t do this.’ When I come home, I go to my studio and I’m sketching and always thinking of the next thing.
“I always have 15 things on the go,” the father of two adds. “And if I keep drawing the same thing over and over, that means I have to make it.”
He has to make it—especially if someone says it can’t be done, as has happened many times over the past two-and-a-half decades. “I always say, ‘What if?’ ‘What if a piece of furniture exploded or fractured or melted?’ ” he explains, turning to a photo of a dresser whose drawers separate and blast off the top into shards embedded in the wall.
Beaumont partly credits his ability to look at the world differently to his art-school training. He attended the then–Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and when he graduated in 1985, well, he didn’t want it to end. He spent about six months in the movie industry before realizing he had to try something else. He decided to open a studio to make furniture for a living and work on his sculpture in the off-hours.
Beaumont was quickly able to re-create his art-school surroundings as the very first artist inhabitant of the 1000 Parker Street Studios, after it was converted from a factory in the mid ’80s. “Luckily the building filled up with artists in a matter of a year—and this was with no Internet and no tweets,” he says. “And what was cool about that was it became art school again. You weren’t alone. We had our ideas and you could bounce them off each other.”
Beaumont called his company Straight Line Designs, and essentially that was what he was selling at first: modular, boxy wood furnishings. But today, he seems to relish the fact that the name is ironic. He points to his first viewing of the partly animated 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit as one of the turning points in his design. “I saw it over and over again,” he recalls. “I loved Toontown: these buildings move, they’ve got eyes and they’ve got emotions.” He began to build a name by bringing his own furniture to life: armoires with their “hands” on their hips, and cabinets that would curve to lean playfully back on the floor.
Now he’s sought the world over for his designs, but Beaumont seems loath to get stuck in any style—especially the one that pigeonholes him as just a “children’s furniture designer”. He’s always moving on to the next thing, and encourages buyers of his pieces (which start around $1,500 and go up to about $5,000) to go with him.
People from around the globe see images on his website and often ask for facsimiles. “I don’t necessarily want you to buy what you see there,” he says. “I want you to say, ‘If Jud could make that, what could he make for me?’ It’s just to spark interest and ideas.”
Beaumont reveals with a laugh that his two biggest fan bases are middle-aged men obsessed with fine woodworking and young Japanese women. The latter seek him out at Tokyo trade shows for sketches and autographs, and his popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun has led to a contract with Disney for an exclusive furniture line there aimed at women between the ages of 18 and 25.
Visit Beaumont’s studio these days and you’ll see him and his team working with some surprising materials. He’s recently been experimenting with mountain pine-beetle-damaged wood, throwing chunks of it into a wood tumbler that sands them down and turns them into what look like perfectly smooth river stones. He sets them artfully into striking maple cabinets, benches, and coffee tables. He has also chopped the wood into bricklike pieces for wedgy wall panels and used it to create the bark that wraps around his glowing, colourful Plexiglas Tree Rings lights. But even his most contemporary-looking pieces still have that recognizable Beaumont wit: check out the Ilog iPod dock, which lets you plug high-tech gadgets into a rustic piece of wood.
Another iconic work of the last year or so is Beaumont’s Hollow Chair, a curvy club chair that seems to float on drawn lines. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get rid of, like, 90 percent of the chair and get rid of all the bulk?’ ” Beaumont says. In his workshop, he shows how mind-blowing an engineering feat the project turned out to be: the chair requires more than 607 interlocking wood pieces to hold it together and bear weight before it’s upholstered with leather.
Like so many other visions that emerge from Beaumont’s sketchbook, the chair was a leap of imagination he followed up with hard work and determination. Another is the bench he’s been sketching and working on, piece by carefully built piece, in his studio recently. It’s a little piece of anthropomorphized furniture sitting slumped over at the end of another piece of furniture—a long bench. Enter another wildly whimsical idea that’s excruciatingly difficult to execute in real wood. On one of the tables in the studio, someone is in the midst of trying to craft the curved drawers that will pull out of the sitting cabinet’s torso. As is so often the case, Beaumont has no idea if the bench will ever find a buyer, let alone if it can actually be constructed. But you just know that he’ll persevere.
“We take risks here,” he says seriously, and then breaks into a big grin. “Will I sell it? Will it get in a magazine? Maybe.” Just don’t tell him it can’t be done.