Ken Richards, fine furniture maker for the past 30 years, approaches each project with the attitude of an artist. “I am not just trying to create beautiful furniture, I want to create works of art,” says Ken. From initial inspiration to delivery of the final product, Ken meticulously completes every detail himself, ensuring the highest quality and the full expression of his design vision. He is a rare breed, working with the finest materials and designing pieces that take incredible technical skill to execute. As Ken states, “I feel very fortunate to do what I do for a living. My work is much more than a job to me, it is my passion.”
I recently talked to Ken about how his work environment, unique materials and creative process contribute to his success as a fine furniture artist. As you read this profile, think about how you might apply the attitude of an artist to your work.
Ken’s studio sits on five acres in Maple Valley, Washington, complete with small pond alive with wild ducks and an assortment of farm animals and pets to keep him company. Windows bring in natural light, and his high-end stereo system and extensive music collection set the creative mood. Situated just a short walk from his home, his studio is the perfect setting to support his work.
Materials and Tools
Ken’s signature building materials are exotic hardwoods. “I have the privilege of working with some of nature’s beauty. The materials I spend my days with are works of art in themselves. I feel I have a responsibility to do justice to these materials.”
Ken stores his extensive collection of exotic hardwoods in the first floor of his shop. Over the years he’s collected hundreds of different species, and some of his favorites include Ceylon Satinwood (Sri Lanka), Ebony (Africa), Padauk (Africa), Narra (Asia), Amboyna Burl (Asia), Cocobolo (Latin America) and Claro Walnut (Western US). With today’s global market, he’s able to access hundreds of species from all over the world. “Many are stunningly beautiful,” he says.
Ken’s hands are his most valuable tool. He works with hand tools to carve and shape wood, transforming it into beautiful furniture. All sanding is done by hand. “I have found that the time carving and shaping, working with my hands, quiet time – this is about as good as it gets.”
Ken also makes most of his own hardware, carving and fabricating to create unique pulls, latches and stops. Every detail is taken into account to create furniture that makes a statement and lasts forever.
These seven principles describe Ken’s creative process:
1. Create personal connections.
Earlier in his career, Ken sold his work through the Northwest Fine Woodworking Gallery, Seattle’s premier studio furniture gallery featuring leading American furniture makers. While he built his business over 10 years with the gallery, he missed having more direct contact with clients.
Now selling his work independently (www.kenrichardsfurniture.com), Ken feels he can better represent his work and build personal connections with potential clients. “Part of what people get when they buy my work is a connection with me and a greater connection with the work they purchase.”
When clients commission a piece from Ken, he works with them to agree on specific design criteria. Then most clients give him creative license to execute the shared vision. With check-ins along the way through shop photos or progress reports, clients are able to stay connected to the process while leaving the tactical decision-making to Ken. The personal connection is even more important for complex projects that take a year or more to complete. Through this process, Ken builds lasting personal relationships with his clients.
2. Find inspiration in whatever moves you.
When starting a project, Ken channels the energy and inspiration he feels from his life into his work. He feeds off of beautiful materials and forms he sees in nature and art. A powerful current runs through him that comes out in his woodworking designs. As Ken says, “I have a deep personal response to things that I see and admire, that is what inspires me.”
3. Approach design as a learned skill.
Ken believes good design skills can be fostered and learned over time. While some may be born with a talent for design, he stays fresh by continually learning and challenging himself. As Ken states, “I always try to complete the best work that I’m capable of at a point in time. The definition of best for me changes over time.”
In developing your own style, it’s beneficial to learn from those you admire, then create something unique that becomes your trademark. “You can pick apart someone’s work element by element and then put it back together as something that is uniquely yours,” says Ken.
4. Create flexible designs.
Ken believes that it’s important to be flexible with design and not be afraid to change course mid-stream as the project comes to life. Earlier in his career, Ken thought it was more professional to create a design and then build it as planned. He noticed that he sometimes felt trapped by his designs. Now, his pieces become more than first imagined by allowing for flexibility in the creative process.
As Ken states, “I have often changed my designs mid-stream which results in better finished products. I don’t commit to anything until I absolutely have to and I adapt the design as it comes to life in front of me. I always try to leave myself some options.”
5. Sleep on it.
It’s rare in our time-crunched world that you come across someone who devotes quality time – up to a year or more on some projects – to create a one-of-a-kind high quality product. When he leaves his shop at the end of the day, Ken knows he may come back the next day and see his work in a new light. This is his “sleep on it” mentality. As he says, “an idea may initially look great and the next morning it doesn’t look as good anymore.” Over time, “sleeping on it” has helped increase the overall quality of his work.
6. Find rewards throughout the process.
While Ken gets deep satisfaction from completing pieces, he finds each step of the process rewarding. Ken believes that the more effort that is required, the higher the satisfaction. “When I look at a finished piece, I see something that represents incredible effort. It makes me proud.”
As Ken says, “the best days are the ones when I never turn on a machine and I spend the day carving, listening to music, and time flies by.” The more challenging days are his design and finish days. “The design days may be somewhat taxing, but the reward comes as the piece takes shape in front of you.” Ken uses a labor-intensive oil and wax finish to bring a softer, deeper glow to his pieces. While not his favorite part of the creative process, he loves how the wood comes to life in the finish work.
7. Make it happen.
Ken’s can-do attitude permeates his life. When he started his business, he didn’t have a practical business plan. He admits, “I just had to go on faith and make it happen.”
In 1991 when his business was just beginning to take off, he was suddenly faced with a daunting challenge that almost put him out of business. His workspace, a barn converted into a woodshop, tragically burnt to the ground. Determined to rise from the ashes, he designed a bigger, more efficient workspace that in the end helped him take his business to the next level. “I never thought I would look back and think things worked out for the best. Now I have a much better shop that supports more complex projects and is a more enjoyable place to work.”
View more of Ken’s work at www.kenrichardsfurniture.com.