Keaton Freeman, lead woodworker here at Urban Hardwoods, is our resident renaissance man. He’s our go-to guy for technically difficult pieces, new experiments, and elaborate custom projects. Keaton is a master furniture maker with a fantastic range of skills. We sat down with Keaton at the Urban Hardwoods workshop and asked him about his influences, passion projects, and some of his favorite pieces he’s made at Urban Hardwoods—including a few he envisioned in dreams!
Q: So Keaton, how did you get your start at Urban Hardwoods?
KF: I had lived in Seattle for a year. I’d moved from the East Coast and I knew I wanted to do either jewelry or furniture. That was my goal. My brother had told me about Urban Hardwoods. I walked into the Seattle showroom (the showroom and the workshop were in the same place back then) and I offered to work for free just so I could get back into a woodworking shop. They hired me instead. I started the next day. That was six and a half years ago.
Q: What got you into handcrafted furniture and jewelry?
KF: Growing up I was always making things. I have a very creative family. My mom is a potter. My dad is an engineer. Every home we’ve lived in we’ve either built or remodeled. My grandmother is a seamstress in the costume department at Penn State. My grandfather was a woodcarver and he worked as a set builder in the theater. My other grandmother was a painting professor at Penn State. So I’ve always been immersed in creativity in some way. But it wasn’t till school that I discovered jewelry and furniture making. I went to Virginia Commonwealth University. Furniture making spoke to me right away. In my second year of college I took a metals class with Susie Ganch, which pointed me towards jewelry making. She became a huge influence on me.
Q: What other artists, woodworkers, and designers have influenced you over the years?
KF: Let’s see. When it comes to jewelry, I’m inspired by the work of Andy Cooperman and Sarah Hood. The Argentine chef Francis Mallmann is a big influence of mine—both for his style of cooking and his lifestyle. I seek to live like he lives. As far as contemporary furniture, I really admire Matthias Pliessnig. I love his work. His form. Some of his pieces take a year to make. I love that people can do that. I have a lot of respect for that level of patience and precision.
Q: Do you have some favorite pieces that you’ve built over your years at Urban Hardwoods?
KF: One of my favorite things about working for Urban Hardwoods is the challenge of the custom work we do. It’s a new challenge each time. I like using my brain. When things aren’t laid out for me and it’s not very straightforward I get to find creative solutions to make a piece work.
I’d say my favorite pieces in general have been some of the multifold pieces, especially some of the one-off pieces I’ve done using an unusual piece of salvaged wood. I like the furniture design and craftsmanship challenge of making the most beautiful piece I can with a challenging piece of wood.
Q: Do you have a favorite wood species to work with?
KF: Walnut. I love walnut. Until I started working here it used to be maple, but the walnut we get in the Pacific Northwest is very different than the Eastern walnut. The colors are just beautiful—the reds and purples and grays you get from it. Walnut is also a little forgiving. I like the way the grain behaves. I love the material I get to work with at Urban Hardwoods. When I was in school and other places I’ve worked it was all about the assembly process. Here it’s about designing around a piece of wood and working with what a lot of people would consider “flaws.” We don’t see flaws, we see character. It’s the character and flaws that make a piece special. It’s so much more interesting and satisfying than working with commercial boards.
Q: What are a few of your favorite custom projects you’ve ever worked on?
KF: We recently built a custom security desk for a client of the architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill. It was fun because it involved a very elaborate piecing together of some gorgeous wood. The design called for many pieces of wood and they wanted the grain to continue from piece to piece even though the wood wraps all around the desk. To get this done successfully I had to cut 20+ pieces and lay them all out together and match the grains. It took a lot of time experimenting with combinations. In the end I got the grain to line up really well.
Another cool custom piece was our recent collaboration with Stearns & Foster. We built them a pair of custom bedside tables for their “Curated Craftsmen Giveaway.” I love building casegoods and credenzas. I don’t know where that came from. I think it’s because my grandmother had a credenza and I really liked it. But I also collect records, so it might come from that. I built a series of credenzas specially scaled to fit LPs, with a space designed for the record player and receiver too. So the Stearns & Foster piece was kind of close to that but with drawers instead of shelves for records. Also, the Stearns & Foster piece uses multiple species of wood, which is really tricky to successfully pull off. I think it came out great.
Q: Do you only do custom projects these days, or can we see pieces you’ve built in the showrooms?
KF: Yeah, I do pieces that are in the showrooms. I do pieces like unusual compositions with cedar blocks and multifold tables. One of my favorite things about these kinds of pieces is the process of discovery. With custom pieces, the design is usually set ahead of time. I know what it’s going to look like before I start and I have my approach all planned out. But with these pieces for the showroom, I get to start with a piece of wood and make something beautiful out of it. And I get more feedback. I get to see what the audience thinks of the design. When I’m not working on a piece of custom furniture, I like to grab an interesting piece of wood and get as creative as I can with it. These pieces often end up in the showrooms.
Q: Have you ever had a challenging project keep you up at night?
KF: No, not really. I’ve been kept up at night by projects I’m excited about. For instance, we have a big salvaged stump in the workshop right now. Recently we did a custom project involving faceted blocks and that project stuck in my mind. So I couldn’t sleep the other night because I was thinking, “We can translate that approach into this bigger piece.” I got fired up about it. I’ve also had dreams about pieces. I’ve built pieces that I first saw in dreams.
Q: So, what’s inspiring you this week?
KF: Another big influence of mine is Hofmann Architecture. They take old Airstreams and renovate the interiors with modern designs. Last June I bought a 1964 Avion trailer. It looks identical to an Airstream. I gutted the trailer down to the exterior shell and the frame. Once I gutted it, I realized how much work needed to be done. I worked on it through the summer and then the fall rains came and I didn’t realize how leaky this thing was going to be. It was a battle to get it waterproofed in the rain and dark. So now it’s the fun part. I just finished rebuilding the windows. They’re made out of wood of course. I’m redesigning and rebuilding the entire interior. I love the project. It’s taken me in a lot of directions I never thought I’d go. It’s so challenging. I had no idea I’d be learning about trailer sealants and exhaust fans and stuff. It’s kind of like refurbishing a boat. Tonight I’ll be building some frames for framing out the kitchen. I get to work on my own projects after hours here in the workshop. It’s a great perk of working here.
Q: What else do you make?
KF: Well, pizza. I used to host a pizza night. I’d make the dough and people would bring toppings. We did it every Thursday for three years. I’ve probably made the dough for a 1000 pizzas. I’ve made beer. I’ve made fruit wines and brandy. Kiwi, by the way, makes a real good dry chardonnay. I have more fun cooking than making pizza these days. I’ve been cooking Moroccan lately. I like French cuisines a lot, but not really the pastries as much. I like to cook Mediterranean, and Cuban too.
Q: Any upcoming projects you are excited about?
KF: I like the direction Urban Hardwoods is going with our custom projects. I’m excited to see where it takes us in the workshop. I like that we are always trying new things. The custom projects lead to innovations and new techniques. I can feel it expanding my knowledge and skills. I like that.