From Woodworker's Journal
eZine Issue 3.23
Nathan Stanley: Making Music with Wood and Bars into
Lee Gilchrist - December 03,
Nathan Stanley came back to Minneapolis in the late 1980s, he wasn't
sure what he'd be doing next. He'd originally learned the family
trade from his father, a carpenter, but never intended to be a
woodworker. Then while spending five years in England, he'd worked
as a furniture maker. Since they make a lot of their doors at the
jobsite, he got a good background in joinery. When he returned, in
his early thirties, he worked as a finish carpenter until he got
sick of it. Fortunately, he eventually found clients who encouraged
him to add an extra curve here and there to his woodworking and, as
he puts it, he began to push his luck. To his surprise, they liked
what he did and let him use his imagination ever more. That helped
him develop his aesthetic approach to the craft. And, by the time he
was 35, he decided he could turn his woodwork into something more.
Nathan Stenley and some "really big" cabriolet
"There's an old saying," explained Nathan, "that all the arts
aspire to the condition of music. Whenever I build something, I find
that I put music into it. My raised panels create a tempo and,
whether they are close together or at angles, it all creates
emotion. And the lathe work and carving are like melodies. Just this
morning I came across a quote by Goethe that architecture is frozen
on a swing from The Local
Things really took off when he connected with Minneapolis
restaurateur Kieran Folliard, who wanted to build an upscale Irish
pub and restaurant.
"He thought we could do a lot of damage together," Nathan
laughed, "so I designed and built the back bar; the hand-carved wood
ornaments, and the stained glass for what became the 'The Local' in
Word spread ... Nathan has never advertised ... and today he is
nationally recognized for his room-sized creations ... especially
for his large-scale bars in both trendy Minneapolis restaurants and
the dens of million-dollar homes in that city's western suburbs. He
recently won the People's Choice Award at the Northern Woods
Exhibition Of Fine Woodworking for his "Of Man's First Disobedience"
Fireplace for a private
His interest and appreciation for bars and pubs comes from the
time he spent in the British Isles. He came to see them as
cathedrals ... where you can buy a drink. When you walk into one, he
thinks the space should feel like favorite music and like it's an
old friend. And he often incorporates stained glass in his bars to
accentuate the connection. In his work he's usually given free rein.
A piece may incorporate both cherubs and bats to represent both hope
and joy and crushing despair. He explains the extremes of his work
as imperative elements of the yin and yang and often expresses them
in a musical vocabulary.
"You need the conflict," he explained, "between the loud and bold
music of the piece and the sweetest little voice of a delicate
Having established his reputation, Nathan enjoys a unique
relationship with his clients. Those who request his services should
be (and usually are) prepared to embrace his unique vision for their
project. Not that he doesn't listen to them.
"I ask if they are more Rolling Stones or more Beatles," Nathan
explained, "to get a feel for them. I find out if it's a dark,
masculine room or if it's something light and then try to figure out
what color the woodwork should be. Then I try to get a read on what
kind of artist the customer likes: do they like Frank Lloyd Wright,
or do they like a square box? If they like a square box, they
usually don't like my work."
Carved door for a
When he presents clients with his first designs, they sometimes
hold the rough sketch upside down. And that's OK with Nathan.
"But if they want a more detailed drawing," Nathan explained, "I
warn them that I won't follow it anyway."
Forewarned, most of his clients tell him to take the project
forward. He builds everything in his studio in the garage behind his
house -- wedged between a coffee shop and an apartment building in a
slightly down-in-the-heels South Minneapolis neighborhood. His tools
are simple ... a power saw, miter saw, and a lathe. Plus hand tools
and lots of clamps.
"I've never had a joiner," he noted. "When I built The Local bar
all my tools were Mickey Mouse and I had to clamp everything. I
really don't care about the wood or the equipment. It's what you do
with it. I'd rather have a cheap piece of willow and carve it and
turn it into something beautiful."
Man's First Disobedience" bed
He sands his raised panels by hand, so they won't look perfect
... that's the charm. And another woodworker closely inspecting his
work might notice that sometimes the grains on raised panels don't
quite match. He admits it's occasionally just carelessness on his
part, and sometimes he thinks he might be going too far with his
designs. But his confidence seems to carry him through; he's so
certain that what he does will put music and emotion into his
"If you believe in something, your hands will win the battle,"
explained Nathan. "If I want to carve something and it's part of the
beautiful symphony of the piece, it doesn't matter if I've never
carved it before ... my hands will follow if the mind is strong
Man's First Disobedience"
Nathan is currently working on a raised-panel structure for a
multimillion-dollar home in the affluent suburb of Orono. One of his
unexpected challenges is working around all the wiring and
incorporating it into the piece. But he'll work that out, and the
result will contain both emotion and music.
"I want someone
walking into one of my rooms to feel like they're in a pot of soup
that's swirling around them," Nathan described. "I want them to feel
the way I felt when I first heard Wagner."
You can see more of Nathan's Stanley's work at his website.
to Today's Woodworker Archive
articles from the December 3, 2002 eZine issue