Aaron Poritz’s Henry Moore–Inspired Sculptural Wood Furniture is Next Level
Aaron Poritz‘s latest furniture collection — Big Woods, currently on show at Cristina Grajales Gallery in New York City — is both a fond look back at his childhood spent in the forests of Massachusetts, and an evolution of years spent working with, learning about, and appreciating the material for its visual, tactile, and workable qualities. His odyssey began in Nicaragua in 2012, where a chance encounter with an exporter of hurricane-felled trees resulted in the creation of his first range of wooden furniture. Focused on joinery techniques and traditional Danish shapes, and informed by his background in architecture, however, the designer’s initial work is miles apart the Henry Moore-influenced soft curves, organic shapes, and bulbous protrusions of the sculptural designs he’s currently exhibiting.
The shift in visual language came about after cold-calling several NYC galleries, and eventually establishing a professional relationship with veteran design curator Cristina Grajales. Her large Tribeca gallery gave Poritz the space and opportunity to scale up the approach he takes to ceramics — another lifelong fascination—into furniture. Still using clay to sketch shapes in 3D, he scans the maquettes and refines the designs using digital software, before carving the large, vaguely anthropomorphic pieces from wood.
Some of the designs are more akin to body parts: There’s a stool that looks unmistakably like a waving cartoon arm, and a charred sculpture that most people would compare to a head viewed in profile. But others, which also incorporate materials like mirror and travertine, are abstracted further and left purposefully up for interpretation — Poritz admits he enjoys hearing people’s guesses about what they’re supposed to look like. Each item is formed using one type of wood, with the tones of white oak, ash, and hemlock creating variation across the collection. A couple of the designs are carved from a single piece, by a robot with whom Poritz shares his Brooklyn Navy Yard studio. Others are stack-laminated, which required some outside help, but all are painstakingly finished by Poritz’s hand. Three years in the making, he considers these six designs to be the beginning of a much larger exploration into the sculptural potential of wood. Although he doesn’t have specific plans for the results yet, it sounds like his journey is far from over. We recently spoke to him about the death of the hemlock tree, the pros of having a robot as your studiomate, and the eternal beauty and adaptability of wood.
PHOTOS BY NICOLE FRANZEN
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Massachusetts, and I studied architecture in San Francisco, graduating in 2008. I worked as an architect in New York for a few years before starting my own studio, which happened a little bit by accident. I was living and working in South America and took a trip to Nicaragua, where I connected with a guy who had been using hurricane-felled, old-growth trees to export hardwood flooring and lumber. I saw that as an opportunity to start a collection of furniture. I was pretty much unemployed at the time, so I used a three- or four-month period to design my first collection of furniture. My studio organically started and grew from there.
Which materials do you prefer to work with? What qualities do they bring to the designs?
I’ve primarily used wood as my medium for a pretty long time, since 2010 at least. I do work with other materials like stone and metal, and ceramics, but wood is generally the go-to and that definitely ties into where I grew up in Massachusetts. And that certainly ties into this collection that Cristina Grajales is showing right now, which touches on my childhood, my connection to nature and trees, and my awe and inspiration from looking at wood, the varying grain patterns, its workability and its longevity.
Different woods and finishes tie into my interest and excitement for the material itself. I love how you can treat a surface in a different way, and it almost looks like a different material. Some of the pieces I’ve done have a charred finish, which I find to be pretty beautiful. It reveals the hard and soft parts of the wood, since the softer parts disappear when burnt.
Other pieces are sanded super smooth and bleached, and for those I used either white oak or ash, because they begin their life lighter in color and that makes bleaching them a little bit easier. I have some travertine in one of the pieces, which I find goes really beautifully with bleached ash. They almost look like the same material. I also use white oak, and hemlock, which is a wood that’s going to be extinct really soon because there’s a bug or a mite that’s killing all the hemlock trees in Massachusetts, which is really sad. So I like the idea of using this wood before it’s completely gone forever.
Your furniture started out fairly traditional but then became much more sculptural. What was behind this shift?
When I made the first collection of furniture, I was not too far out of architecture school, and so the way that I thought about design and the way I thought about furniture was not as experimental. So those earlier pieces were more related to the intricacies of wood joinery; none of them had any screws or hardware. It was basically all about understanding and working with wood and learning about how it moved and how it can be joined together without any hardware.
I’ve worked with ceramics since I was 10, and this has always been my avenue for exploring more sculptural forms. But once I started showing with Cristina, and realized that she had this new beautiful gallery, it provided me a viable platform to show and sell sculptural works. That’s when I said, okay, this is a great opportunity to take my ceramic explorations, and apply my ideas about sculptures to wood at the scale of furniture.
This recent work has some interesting anthropomorphic qualities. Where did you get the inspiration for the forms?
It’s been almost three years working on this collection. When I first started to make sketches and clay models, they were much more closely related to the human body. Over time they became more and more abstract. Henry Moore is one of my inspirations, for sure. If you look at his sculptures, they’re abstractions, but sometimes they’re also obviously human, like a woman in a pose, or holding a baby.
My pieces are also designed to inspire curiosity. I really like the idea that when someone comes in and says, “Oh, that looks like this,” or “that looks like that.” Sometimes it’s human body parts, sometimes it’s an animal, sometimes it’s a mountain. It’s different for everyone. But more often than not, it’s always something related to the earth or nature.
The Arm Stool is less abstract than the other pieces. It’s clearly a hand or maybe an animal’s arm. Then the base is kind of a forearm, attached in a way that might not exactly be how a human joint would work. But there’s some similarity to the way that a forearm attaches to an arm and hand. I like that piece because it’s made from a single piece of wood. And to me that’s an exciting way of making. The idea of finding a giant tree that fell naturally and working through a subtractive process to reveal this object inside of it. I think it’s really kind of magical.
What does your design process typically involve?
The process is very important to me. I start with sketching and drawing. Sometimes I’ll use charcoal and pencil, and then I’ll move into 3D. I make clay models and they’re anywhere from three to seven inches, and to scale. That’s how I explore the forms initially in 3D. I love working with clay, it’s a really amazing material that’s very forgiving, and quick. It feels like you’re sketching but in 3D for me. So then those models are scanned into the computer, and become digital. Then I can really open up ideas of how I can make the pieces.
In the case of those made from a single piece of wood, I actually use a seven-axis robotic milling machine to assist with, at least initially, some of the shaping and carving before the pieces are finished by hand. Some of the stack-laminated pieces are more hand finished. We’ll use everything from a chainsaw to different grits of grinders to remove material, all the way down to a very fine sandpaper to do the finishing.
What is your studio like?
I actually just moved into a larger studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so it’s a 1,500 square foot space. I set up a robot in there, so it’s just me and the robot. The stack-laminated stuff is not something I can do completely in my own space, I work with another shop next door to me to help with those. But for the pieces that are really sculptural and made from a single piece of wood, my current studio setup allows me to do that completely autonomously and within my own space. So I do sketches, make clay models, and then finally robotically mill and then finish the pieces all in my studio.
What’s coming up next for you?
I see this as the beginning of a collection that I’ll probably work on for a number of years. These pieces are just the first ones. I’ll definitely continue to expand upon it, make new pieces and hopefully get some commissions that, with the influence of a client’s needs, will help to develop new pieces. And I’ll probably find my voice in a different way as I continue. Maybe they’ll become more abstract or less abstract, I’m not sure exactly. But I definitely want to continue to evolve this collection.