March 17, 2003
A union of contrasts
by Teddi Barron
Chris Martin hadn't slept much for the previous three or four nights,
looking more like a freshman during finals week than an assistant professor
of art and design. He still faced a three-hour night drive to deliver his
work to an exhibit in Minnesota. It didn't seem to faze him, though. He
moved around his workshop-studio with the energy and wonder of a
pre-schooler at DisneyWorld.
"I absolutely love working with my hands. I would shrivel up and go away if
I didn't get to use my hands. That's what drove me to art," he said.
Martin chose furniture as his medium for expression because he likes the
"It's personal and easy to relate to," he said. "And it's important for me
to join my ideas and inspirations with an everyday, usable object. It's much
more of a challenge."
Martin, who heads Iowa State's wood design program, calls himself a
designer-maker. The Custom Furniture Source Book, however, considers
him one of 125 craftsmen who are "North America's finest furniture makers."
It hasn't taken Martin long to land in the upper echelons of American
furniture designers. In 1990, he graduated from Iowa State with the Janice
Peterson Anderson Award, which honors the Design senior exhibiting the
greatest potential. He earned his M.F.A. in furniture design with honors
from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994.
Since then, his distinctive chairs, desks, tables and cabinets have taken
residence in galleries and homes across the country.
One piece -- a club chair of steel and rubber -- is among 23 in The
Furniture Society's juried and invitational traveling exhibit, "The Right
Stuff." Next month, Martin's work will be part of the show, "New Furniture
Part II: Forged/finessed," at Chicago's Function+Art Gallery. His
award-winning work has appeared in more than 20 juried national or
international shows and in 16 additional exhibits in the past four years.
It's currently on display at the Octagon Center in Ames.
Katai chair, 2002: cherry and steel.|
Each piece of Martin's furniture is a union of contrasts. Wood and steel.
Concrete and leather. Samurai and shaker. Classical and organic. Ritual and
commonplace. Fantasy and verity. Art and function.
"Since childhood, I've enjoyed fantasy literature based on the cultures of
the feudal samurai and the medieval knight," Martin said. "I'm intrigued by
their mythologies, and the battle between good and evil."
Before joining the faculty at Iowa State in 1999, Martin made his living as
a cabinet and furniture maker in Aspen, Colo. He also started his own
business as a custom furniture maker. His pieces, which can take up to 200
hours to make, are priced between $525 for a side table to $6,200 for a
Last fall, Martin was commissioned to design 14 pieces -- including a lamp
and light fixture -- for a new "Woodworker's Room" at the Hotel Pattee in
Perry. The room honors owner Roberta Ahmanson's father, who was a hobbyist
"When I designed the pieces, I used simple forms, playing off the idea of
Shaker furniture and the Amana colonies. But the furniture is still very
contemporary," he said.
Martin also supervised the work of the 10 furniture makers, including five
graduates of Iowa State's wood design program, who crafted the pieces. All
the woods used -- white oak, maple, walnut, cherry, raisin maple -- are
native to Iowa, he said.
Martin is a wood collector. He searches scrap heaps at Iowa sawmills for
unique materials, like pieces of reclaimed redwood from old wine vats, and
rejects, like a board of ash adorned with a lightning bolt crack. He has had
that board for more than 10 years, waiting for the "absolute perfect design
Grabbing a board, he said, "This sap wood is amazing. Many look at this wood
and see cracks and blemishes and knots. But those are the beautiful parts.
They tell a story."
The process of transforming scraps of wood and hunks of metal into fine art
is the essence of Martin's work.
"For me, the process of creating is as important, if not more so, than the
finished piece. I have an insatiable appetite for exploring new materials
and techniques," he said.
Foyer table, 2003: Maple, steel and gold foil.|
"Manipulating red hot steel is spell binding. Hand finishing a beautiful
piece of wood is meditative. I'm fascinated by the process."
It's not an easy process to teach, however.
"It's kind of 'teenage angst and power tools' at first," said Martin, who
loves to teach. "I teach them the techniques to work with materials and
tools. They come with their own design sense and it's my job to help them
realize it, help them find their own voices," he said.
Martin said he hopes to further develop his own design voice by studying in
"I have an Asian influence that keeps popping up in my work. It's very
unconscious, which I think is interesting," Martin said.
"Japanese culture is so driven by process; everything is ritual. Maybe
that's why my pieces are so diverse, because I'm fascinated by process. And
that's something I try to instill in students. The process is critical."
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
Copyright © 1995-2003, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.