Seeing a person's workspace is like looking inside her head. Judson Beaumont of Straight Line Designs is talking about the insights people gain from visiting artists' studios during the annual East Side Culture Crawl. So what do you glean from his office? Consider the evidence. A corkboard densely collaged with family photos; shelves, just as crammed, with books on–picking two random examples–Mayan monuments and Philippe Starck; buckets of coloured pencils; a glitter-coated hockey stick; and on the sill of a turquoise-framed window, miniatures of furniture–not the usual dollhouse reproductions but the curvy dressers the "Frank Gehry meets Toys R Us" designer (writes Douglas Coupland) is known for. And these days, known globally. On a drawing table is a Swiss newspaper, open to a page showing one of Beaumont's quirky pieces. Someone from Spain just called to do a story because they see his organic lines as akin to Salvador Dali's.
Beyond the office is his 3,700-square-foot workspace at 1000 Parker Street, where he's been since 1985. His staff of eight is currently working on a fire truck wall unit destined for a New Jersey children's hospital and a curvaceous computer desk commissioned by a local couple. Plastic-swathed for shipping is a trio of Daddy Long Legs tables. Up to 2.4 metres tall (he can go higher, he says), like much of his furniture design they answer Beaumont's perennial question, What would happen if”¦?
The tables, and other answers to this question, show up in What's Next? ($35), the book Beaumont has just published. (Stockists of the book include Inform Interiors [50 Water Street], Sophia Books [450 West Hastings Street], and Oscar's Art Books [1533 West Broadway and 2268 West 41st Avenue]. The book showcases 25 years of work documented in words, photos, and sketches. "It's amazing how many people don't sketch," he says. "I'm talking about people who went to art school, design school." In Japan, he says, he drew an entire "town" of furniture on blackboards, but mostly he uses plain old paper–not tidy sketchbooks, but backs of envelopes, ordinary copy paper, anything–to sketch whatever's at hand: "an ink pen, a black marker, a stick in the sand". This morning, he was in his office at 5 a.m. "I might sketch at home till 11 at night."
He has, literally, stacks of ideas: a coffee table that opens up like the pages of a book, another that appears crushed in the middle, a recumbent dresser resting on its "elbows", and one with enormous chunks bitten out of its sides. Straight becomes concave or convex. Traditional height is vastly elongated. In philosophy and style, this is furniture reflected in fun-house mirrors. "I see a lot of furniture that's way too serious," says Beaumont. "Sure, I love solid wood and dovetailed joints, but it's been done."
The book tracks his creative evolution, the cartoonlike face of an early-'90s grandfather clock giving way to the accordion-folded dresser he built in 2002, to more recent designs: a bookcase inspired by a bridge, the Joined at the Hips dresser (picture a vertical, freeform U). "It's not making fun of furniture," says Beaumont. "I'm just trying to push the limits." But while his pieces are a hybrid of the sculpture and woodwork he studied at Emily Carr Institute, they're always fully functional, even one of his newest designs, the Boom dresser, "exploded" so that its upper drawers fly apart. "The idea was you could hang the drawers on the wall," says Beaumont. "They all work. The pieces go together [like a jigsaw]."
Lately, he's shaped exquisite wood pebbles in a machine he made based on a rock tumbler, and crafted a bench of what looks like buttoned black leather. (It's actually medium-density fibreboard.) He's often pegged as a children's designer, but these days that's just one direction he's taking. That said, Beaumont still has an eight-year-old's energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to take risks, and also the occasional naughtiness. Witness the Bad Table on his book's cover, cocking one leg and leaving an aluminum pool behind. "When I first drew it up [10 or 12 years ago], I thought, 'That's just silly.'" But it has found customers locally and on-line. (Beaumont's Web site is www.straightlinedesigns.com/ ) The common denominator among his clients is attitude rather than age.
"I've got to have 10 projects on the go at the same time," says Beaumont. Among them currently is "something for a Japanese company to get kids to organize their clothes", and possible collaboration with a ceramicist. He pulls out more sketches: a vase called Don't Tell Mum with a jagged-edged break right through it (though it's still designed to hold water and flowers); a birdhouse with a roof-top swimming pool. He'd like to do a children's book. He imagines someone seeing his work and saying, "Let him design a car."
"Why is it you're in Grade 1 or 2, you finger-paint," says Beaumont, "and then some teacher says, 'Now you do math and social studies.' Don't you think people play it safe?" he asks.