The ivory-billed woodpecker is so rare, ornithologists have been known to offer cash rewards to anyone who spots one. Slightly less rare is fine American craftsmanship, which is what you’ll get from Clayton Thompson, woodworker extraordinaire and co-owner with wife Amy of Salt Lake City’s Ivory Bill Furniture. For our third Budweiser Black Crown “Backstage Pass” Q&A, we talked with Thompson about grain, design and life at the forefront of the homegrown revolution.
I spend part of a day drawing, and occasionally I will do custom work. One of my favorite things to do is select lumber. For the rest of the day, I fill my beard with sawdust and make my fingerprints disappear.
MADE MAN: So, how did your passion for woodworking begin?
CLAYTON THOMPSON: The long version or the short version? I worked for a wood worker while I was going to art school. I pretty much carried the saws and moved the furniture, but I never forgot what a great mood he was in all the time. He had a shop at home, so he got to see his kids every day. I wanted that lifestyle. After art school, I worked for a cabinet shop designing and drawing. Then it was just a short leap into my own business.
MM: So you got the lifestyle you wanted after all?
CT: Yeah, I did. I worked at home for a while, but I didn’t get any work done so I had to get a shop downtown.
MM: We love the meaning of your company name, Ivory Bill. How did that come to be?
CT: When my wife and I lived in Maine, I saw a woodpecker, which I thought was an Ivory Bill. I had just read an article about someone who rediscovered the rare bird, and I thought it was a great parallel to handmade furniture. It’s rare, and when you sit in it, it fills you with the same kind of awe.
MM: What is a typical day like for you in the shop?
CT: I spend part of a day drawing, and occasionally I will do custom work. One of my favorite things to do is select lumber. I want to always be very purposeful when making my pieces. I try to match the grain and use an interesting defect where it can be showcased. I like using that uniqueness to my advantage. For the rest of the day, I fill my beard with sawdust and make my fingerprints disappear.
MM: What are some of your techniques for crafting your furniture?
CT: Well, I guess what sets me apart, is that I draw everything by hand. I don’t use a program. I think it gives the pieces a more organic feel because it requires more thought.
MM: Do you have a design philosophy that you work by?
CT: I try to let the wood grain be the primary ornament. Instead of coming up with some sort of gimmicky design, I let the wood do the work. I also like to use the least amount of joints, so it can be as simple as possible but still very strong and comfortable. Never use right angles! Have you ever sat in a Frank Lloyd Wright chair? They are really uncomfortable.
MM: Do you have a favorite piece?
CT: The Arbor chair. It has a very strong silhouette but is extremely comfortable; it cradles your body. But at $3,500, it’s probably my least marketable piece. If I could get people to sit in it, I will sell it. I want it to be iconic like Hans Wegner’s “The Chair”. I think that is an amazing piece of art. The way I look at it, you can either go to IKEA and have it break 10 times and keep replacing it, or save and invest in one piece that will last generations. It’s a different way of making your home, more meaningful and purposefully selected. My favorite clients aren’t ultra wealthy, they are just regular people who love my designs and save their money. Those are my favorite kind of people because I know they will use it and value it.
MM: What does Ivory Bill have in store for the future?
CT: My philosophy is to let things grow at their own pace and my wife’s is to get the word out as soon as possible. Either way, eventually I want the pieces to become household names. I want to continue to produce really challenging works of art. I am also working on organizing a design-off between all of the local craftsmen in Salt Lake. It would be cool for everyone to get together and support each other.
MM: Tell us more about the charities you support, American Forests and Feeding America.
CT: I feel that woodworking is a renewable resource, a positive addition instead of something that simply depletes the environment. And what we love to preach about the most is that tables are for friends and families to spend time with each other. It’s more than just putting food in our mouths, it’s keeping families together. So, we combined the two. American Forests actively replenish the forests to keep our next generations of woodworkers in business, and Feeding America does just that.
MM: Are we seeing a resurgence of American craftsmanship?
CT: I can’t really speak for the rest of America, but in Salt Lake City there is a renaissance of people going out on a limb and starting their own design companies. Amazing metal workers making really challenging and thoughtful pieces, tons of woodworkers, and other really talented craftsmen. So yeah, I do think we are. I also think we are slowly becoming more conscious of what we buy. We have to be consistent in supporting American companies and small businesses.