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This article is from Issue 9 of Woodcraft Magazine.
By John English
If Amy Devers came up against a glass ceiling, she’d just reach for a hammer.
There’s a line in armed services ads about getting more done by 9 a.m. than most people do all day. They could be talking about Amy Devers.
In less than a decade, this accomplished furniture designer has earned a master’s degree in fine arts, hosts two DIY Network television shows (“Freeform Furniture” and “DIY to the Rescue”), exhibits her work in select galleries from Michigan to Milan, builds modern furniture, and runs a successful design/fabrication studio. Somewhere in there, she was a teaching assistant and then an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design. The amazing thing is not that she accomplishes so much, but that she does so many things at once and still excels at all of them.
Her energy level isn’t something new. The minute she got done with high school, Amy headed straight for the biggest buzz on planet Earth.
“I grew up in Ypsilanti, Mich. My dad taught at EMU (Eastern Michigan University), but I had wanderlust and headed to New York right after high school. The city was an incredibly eye-opening and exhilarating experience. I didn’t know a soul, so it was a little terrifying, too. We packed everything in our station wagon, and my parents drove me to college and dropped me off.”
Amy was on her way to earning an Associate of Applied Arts degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, on the campus of the State University of New York.
“I studied the business end of fashion in New York, [but] I was much more interested in the projects and assignments of my friends who were in design classes. They were doing fashion design, but they were also working on toys and merchandising displays for stores. I would always get much more involved in their assignments than my own. That was when I figured out that I wanted to pursue something creative — I wanted a three-dimensional palette.
“Even now I doodle, draw and sketch. I have to do that as part of my work. I would say, though, that I use drawing more to share ideas than as a design tool.”
In search of those ideas, she left New York in the mid-’90s to earn a bachelor’s in applied design (with an emphasis on furniture) from San Diego State University. The program she entered was run by celebrated studio furniture artist Wendy Maruyama, a Furniture Society board member.
Her ticket to San Diego was round-trip. After graduation, she returned to the East Coast and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Rhode Island School of Design. Once again, her degree was in furniture design.
“The MFA program was the most intense, enriching experience of my life. It was really hard, and I’m really glad it’s over! I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot technically and artistically.
“I was still in learning mode even a year after graduate school. The program really helped me home in on what it was I wanted to do … and also what I didn’t want to do. I’m a perpetual learner and I threw myself into it with such vigor, I swear I aged 10 years. But I could see doing it again, maybe in 10 years, with a view to teaching.
“Teaching is immensely rewarding. I loved it [in Rhode Island], and it’s what I really love about both shows. No, you don’t have that personal interaction with viewers, so you don’t feel that immediate reward when the lightbulbs go off, but I love furniture and I love communicating that to people. If the show is informative for a large audience, that’s a huge reward for me.
“Live television still gets me nervous. But doing a taped episode of either show no longer does, so that’s progress. Those episodes are somewhat scripted, so that the producers can be sure they cover all the content. They have to condense building an entire piece of furniture into 20 minutes, and they have to set up the problem [introduce the topic], and then recap several times so that anybody just tuning in isn’t completely lost. All of that has to be built into the script, so they set up timing for me — so many minutes for edge-banding, this long for surfacing the wood. I adhere to those parameters, and the rest of it is pretty much off the top of my head.
“Doing each episode is still such a new thing for me. I’m not a seasoned television personality by any means. I’ve only been doing it for a few years, and I’m still improving. It’s bizarre to me that there’s a TV show out there and I’m on it, and I’m amazed when anybody watches it. I’m intensely interested in what is appealing to people about these shows.
“When you see a piece coming together on ‘Freeform Furniture,’ you’re actually seeing that piece being built four, five, maybe seven times in various stages. That’s a lot of extra labor.
“Of course, I have a lot of help. I have three fantastic designers and builders who work with me full-time to help get all the pieces built and ready for the show. Each is phenomenally skilled in her own right and has a beautiful portfolio, and they all were educated in pretty much the same institutions I was. Their names are Emilie Douglas, Jennifer Anderson and Tanya Aguiniga.”
One interesting aspect of the show is that the members of the creative team are all female. Women in test audiences were initially a little intimidated by the tools — they may have been expecting more of a design/makeover show. But at the end of the test episode, nine out of 10 women said they would watch the show again because they were fascinated by the techniques.
“I still don’t think our society really supports women going into the furniture design/build field. It’s a bold choice for somebody to go to school for it, and to commit to doing it for the rest of her life.
“The first time I turned on a table saw, I was about 22 or 23 and it was at San Diego University. They had a great facility there, and they still do. I remember that many of the women in the program had already had some introduction to woodworking, perhaps through their fathers. I was a little shy initially, but only for a heartbeat or two, and then I fell in love with it. The program focused a lot on technique because their philosophy was that you would be a better designer if you understood the labor that went into making things.”
One gets the sense that, if Amy Devers ever came up against a glass ceiling, she’d just reach for a hammer.
“The problems I’ve experienced being female in a male world have actually been quite minor,” she says. “The issue has not been a major deterrent. The head of the department in my undergraduate education was a very skilled female. The same was true in graduate school, where the program was headed up by Rosanne Somerson [2002 recipient of the James Renwick Alliance of Distinguished
Craft Educators award]. These women and others paved the way for me and created academic situations that were essentially free of sexism, even if the numbers were a little skewed … heavy on the male side. So, within the confines of academia, I had no problems. In the real world, there have been lots of little things. At the hardware store, I run into clerks who don’t believe I know what I’m talking about. Or they overlook you at the lumberyard because they think you’re with the guy in front of you. Comments like, ‘What’s your husband going to do with all this wood, Honey?’ ”
“Well, he’s going to watch me turn it into an entertainment center.”
“After graduating,” she laughs, “I was able to load all the tools I owned in the back of a truck, and I managed to pay my bills as a finish carpenter. I worked with a couple of general contractors and then did some things on my own while I was getting a studio together. That’s when I started the freelance furniture design-and-build operation here in Los Angeles.
“The shop where we shoot the furniture show is the shop I go to every day to work. It’s a hybrid of both my own shop and a studio set. My shop, when we started doing ‘Freeform Furniture,’ was not very camera-friendly. The producers moved me into a different space, and they made it more like a set, but we have all the tools and machinery in there. That’s where we design and build and work every day. And of course, that’s where we shoot the show, right on the same table saw where we built the prototype. We shot 21 episodes this year (2005) and we’ll shoot five more before Christmas.
“I’m dying to have some free time in the shop, to just build something completely for myself!”
Amy’s studio pieces are different from what she builds on her shows. She transforms everyday objects into works that make us think about how we live. “Shower Lamp” uses tile, wallpaper, a light sconce, a plumbing faucet and a beautiful sense of humor to startle us into reassessing the roles of familiar fixtures. “Tribute to my Mother in her Cat Glasses” is a wood, laminate and glass cabinet on three legs. The only humor here is in the name; this is a serious and complex work that evokes Krenov, Osgood, Euclid and … well, the ’50s. “Amputated,” a clever conglomeration of wood, chrome and reupholstered automobile seats, says as much about her Michigan roots as it does her experimental nature.
Amy’s work has been exhibited in venues such as the Sol Koffler Gallery, Flor Y Canto, Gallery Naga, the RISD Museum, the Market House Gallery in Providence, University Art Gallery in Mount Pleasant, Mich., and the Society of Arts & Crafts in Boston.
“In the museum and gallery setting,” she says, “I exhibit my more sculptural, conceptual furniture. They come from exploring with materials that everybody is familiar with already, like wallpaper, tile, medicine cabinets, building materials that are so ingrained in our lifestyle that we don’t think twice about them. And I started incorporating them in pieces of furniture that are primarily wall-hung or mounted in some way that allows them to become architectural outgrowths.”
Not everything she does is conceptual to that degree. Many of her pieces flirt with staidness. A gray, upholstered, Ultrasuede and polychromed hard maple chair called “Scotch and Soda” would be at home in almost any living room.
“That’s purely a formal furniture piece,” she says. “I called it that because it’s just a nice club chair that seems like the perfect place for conversation.”
Early on, she was fortunate enough to land a few municipal clients for her design/build studio, which allowed her to create intimate spaces in a public domain.
“I did some large projects for clients like the Pasadena Museum of California Art, but things weren’t so secure that I didn’t keep my options open. The experience I gained in finish carpentry, combined with living in Los Angeles, led me to audition for ‘DIY to the Rescue.’ ”
Amy is intensely interested in the physical properties of materials, and how they go together. That, she says, is a common bond among craftspeople. She acknowledges that many traditional woodworkers might take a little while to get used to a television show that, to a large degree, centers on modern design.
“The show might initially feel a little like trying to listen to your teenage son’s music,” she laughs. “We use a lot of materials other than wood. I think that, when you see somebody using the same equipment you’re familiar with, and using it in a different way and on different materials, it’s just bound to spark ideas. The projects we cover are a good mix. Many are not as advanced as, for example, some pieces by David Marks. Others are not even wood-specific. If you don’t have a fancy woodshop, you can still complete a lot of our projects. If you are lucky enough to have a well-equipped shop, some of our projects are pretty advanced. And it’s not just woodworking. We try to mix media. If you don’t have a welder, for example, we’ll at least cover the basics so you’re comfortable when you go to a local welding shop and have something subbed out.”
Even though Amy’s new show, “Freeform Furniture,” places more demands on her schedule, she seems quite relaxed about it. She travels frequently on location with “DIY To The Rescue,” and says that the production company is very understanding and considerate of her home life with husband, Kristian.
“If they’re going to do a shoot in, for example, Houston, they’ll plan on doing four shows there all in that same block of time. The network will space them out in terms of how they air. They really work with us to keep things a little less manic. I’m newly married and we don’t have children, so now is the best time to travel.”
Four shows in a week is a demanding target, especially when one has to be fresh and creative in each episode.
“Being creative has definitely helped me, but I don’t know if it has necessarily made me more of a marketable commodity. There are two sides to that coin. Some people really appreciate it, while others feel that I spend too much time designing and not enough honing my craft. There is an assumption that I’m a television personality first and a woodworker/designer second. Credibility is not a given.”
That led to a question about others in the field whose work she enjoys.
“I like Norm, even if he sometimes uses a brad nailer where I wouldn’t,” she laughs. “I love David Marks, too. I’m a big fan of the work of Andy Buck and Russell Baldon. Russell is currently on faculty at CCA in Oakland, Calif., and Andy Buck has been teaching at RIT in New York for years. I’ve studied with Jere Osgood, and he’s just phenomenal. I’m a big fan of Sam Maloof’s finishes and his books. He’s inspiring. I hope I can have that much energy. He’s driven.”
And Amy Devers knows all about that.
Nowadays, she’s the one in the driver’s seat.
John English has been building furniture and cabinetry for 25 years. He has written or co-authored four woodworking and how-to books, and published hundreds of shop articles. He publishes Woodezine, an online woodworking magazine.
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