Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Of Clocks and Claro Walnut


Despite a 30-year career focused largely on high end D.C. residential architecture, Michael Callison belies the image of the frenetic, laced up, buttoned up, urban practitioner. For him, pretense is not an option.

With an admitted “holistic approach to architecture,” the relaxed and circumspect Callison projects a kind of warm, homegrown though confident image, one that resonates both in his residential designs and his custom furniture.

“I’m as concerned about the garden and the furniture as I am about the architecture,” Callison said, which he adds is a kind of philosophy many architects have had over time. Referencing aptly-named “father of landscape architecture” Frederick Law Olmsted, who, Callison said, embodied holistic design, he maintains that everything in the environment is part of the design. “When Olmsted was helping with the Chicago Exposition (Midway Plaisance for the 1893 Colombian Exposition), he was concerned about the color of the boats that were in the pond. So that’s the level of detail that’s always attracted me to residential architecture, and furniture design is just a natural result,” Callison explained.

In the Beginning

With that in mind, Callison’s furniture begins with the design of the home itself. “You don’t just get to a point (with the client) and roll out a portfolio,” he said. “It (furniture) is site specific: The environment that’s being created will speak to a kind of furniture that’s appropriate.” Inherent in the project’s genesis for Callison is to explore the client’s own desires, and then pull everything together. “It also has to be more than reproduction, because what I do is not reproduction,” he said. “It’s about understanding the tradition of the design style well enough to add to it.”

An illustration of the process is a Tudor-style house in Wesley Heights on which Callison has worked over time. Inspired by the English Arts and Crafts style exemplified by British architect Charles Voysey (1869-1951), as well as the work of Scottish architect Charles Rennie MacKintosh (1868-1928), Callison designed a 7’3” grandfather clock which he explained is a “sort of mashing of their styles, where I found places for a little bit of originality.” Where MacKintosh’s work tends to be angular and rigid, Callison elected to create a more sensuous shape for the clock, which he indicated reflects its location in the house. Sustainable in its use of weights and pulleys as opposed to requiring electricity, the clock was a birthday gift from the wife to her husband and complemented – by virtue of its origins – a china hutch Callison had previously designed for the homeowners.

In the Wood

Working with Vermont transplants and master craftsmen Crawford C. Hubbard and P. Fife Hubbard of Hubbard Cabinetmakers in rural Butler, Md., who Callison says really understand the tradition of furniture making, the architect further develops and augments his designs (the clock and china hutch specifically) by choosing appropriate materials. He calls that aspect of the process “really fascinating,” recalling that because English Arts and Crafts furniture was often made of walnut, Fife Hubbard had presented him with something called claro walnut which has a rich northern California history. “The particular claro walnut we used for the clock was instrument grade, which is the top of the top,” Callison said. “When a board looks really good with a lot of nice checkered, wavy grain in it, they’ll set it aside for making fiddles and things like that.”

In his Head

“People become architects for different reasons,” Callison said, speaking to great inspirations. “Mine has been that I really enjoy making things, including making furniture, crafting interior spaces, and designing door hardware.” Crediting his proclivity for furniture design to years of working with interior designers such as Mary Douglas Drysdale, whose dance card includes more than 100 pieces of custom furniture, Callison revealed that in his sophomore year of college an overall aptitude test had placed him “off the charts on the bad side.” However his art aptitude “was also off the charts,” he quipped, “but on the good side.” Architecture seemed like a logical progression of his talent.

Though creating furniture is a great passion, Callison affirms he’s “an architect first.” Noting that furniture “is a small, specific thing,” and he embraces the opportunity to master the precision involved in chair height, for example (the difference between a seat that is 15 inches or 17 inches can mean immeasurable discomfort), he defines architecture as “bigger, involving a site; a neighborhood.” Furniture, however, is faster, he explained. “In architecture, you design something one year and in another it’s done. Furniture is done in six months. Having an opportunity to go back on a smaller scale that you can actually get your hands around is very satisfying to me.”

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