Sometimes our lives head in unexpected directions and this is certainly true of furniture-designer and maker Richard Jarvis, who set up shop as a full-time woodworker in Vancouver’s well known Parker Street Studios three years ago after a lengthy career as a mechanical engineer.
“My wife and I came to Vancouver three years ago for a change of jobs for her,” he says. “And when I didn’t get a great deal of pick-up on job applications, I thought rather than do nothing, rather than be idle, I’d take a chance on starting woodworking as more than just a hobby. I formed a company and started working out some designs in more detail.”
Viewing Jarvis’s creations — chairs, ottomans, bookshelves and lamps made primarily from white oak and black walnut — you would never guess he hadn’t been doing this professionally all his life.
Pieces like his cognac-coloured armchair and ottoman, made from Italian vegetable leather and white oak, with sweeping side rails that become the “major back legs” of the chair, is both entirely modern and original in design.
“That chair is all about arcs and round elements,” Jarvis says. “It was really an exploration of geometry for me. With most of my successful pieces, I’ve arrived at them through exploration — playing with shapes — and using my spare time in the shop to have some fun. I love going to work.”
Jarvis has been making furniture since he was in his late teens, first using his father’s tools, and has had a lifelong interest in design and architecture.
“One of the magazines I first subscribed to when I was a teenager was Architectural Digest,” he says. “So I’ve always been a keen observer of architecture and design, and while I hadn’t designed a lot of furniture and chairs prior to starting this business, I had a pretty keen awareness of it as something that I would like to do and something I thought I could participate in.”
Jarvis says when people first see his furniture, their first thought is often “mid-century modern”, but he has never been particularly focused on this period of design and architecture. The similarity, he says, perhaps comes from a shared design philosophy.
“The original mid-century modern, Scandinavian model designers, focused on reduced orientation, utility, comfort and good craftsmanship. The same sort of things I strive for.”
“When I design a chair,” Jarvis says, “it starts with defining what I want that chair to do. That lays out the ergonomic envelope. The fit and shape of a chair, that’s the most important part of a design for me.”
He says his work as a mechanical engineer definitely comes through in his designs, in the use of empty space and other things. “The 3D geometry, visualizing things in space, but also trying not to overdo it with structural elements, but at the same time retaining enough structure to guarantee strength and longevity.”
Each piece of furniture takes Jarvis around 80 hours to produce. The designer is also a self-taught weaver, producing pieces like his meticulously crafted woven paper cord chair, which he says “is a real Danish throwback”.
The pieces range in price, with most falling between $2,000 and $5,000, and are “designed and built to last a lifetime”.
Longevity, says Jarvis, is all important to him, as are the materials he chooses.
“I don’t really go for exotic woods,” he says, “because there’s a huge problem with a lot of trees, and a lot of vegetation becoming endangered because it’s been overused and because it comes from places where the rainforest have been denuded for farmland. So I don’t use wood that is endangered or becoming rare. I don’t see a need to.”
Jarvis says his furniture also reflects the way people are living in their homes.
He designs his furniture to be viewed from all angles. The back of a chair is just as important as the front.
“Homes are smaller these days,” he says, “and often times, a chair is put between a kitchen or a dining room and living room, and especially if you’re fortunate enough to have a good view over the bay or over the mountains, often times a chair will be placed facing a view or facing a window and it’s back will be exposed. So I design it to be beautiful from all angles.”