Asking furniture designer Christian Woo if he’s the loudest guy at the party is a tad off topic, but his response confirms a hunch. “I’m probably the opposite. That’s interesting—maybe my work represents the strong, silent type? Doesn’t say so much, but…” His voice trails off, and it’s right to interrupt him here. It isn’t that his designs don’t say much. Probably the opposite: it’s that what they say is spoken softly and simply, and sticks.
There are other parallels between superficial observations and the 39-year-old Vancouverite’s design sensibilities to draw. His last name is one letter shy of wood, his medium. He’s fond of filling blanks in his sentences with “and whatnot”, and what knots he finds in his timber he shows off rather than saws off. Also, his manner of dress on this particular day—dark sneakers, dark jeans, dark T-shirt, with a lime-green pencil clipped on the collar—hints of his restrained curiosity for colour, best evidenced by the bisecting bands of colour in his Covert Series, and coloured-top Cluster Table he exhibited at IDSwest this September.
To Woo, who started his namesake business in 2006, details are everything: Forest Stewardship Council–certified black walnut and white ash; wood casework; internal joinery; hand-rubbed matte finishes; strategic pops of powder-coated steel; and integrated finger pulls. The latter, a painfully smart rectangular cut-out for opening drawers, sprung out of a Stanley Park residential project to become the centrepiece of Covert’s storage pieces. “It’s a real subtle design feature, but it’s where a lot of attention and time goes,” he says. “With minimalist design, you’re left with very few details.”
His minimalism has roots in Scandinavian and Japanese design, but Woo would rather reference modern and contemporary West Coast architecture—such as the Ronald Thom and Richard Henriquez homes he’s worked within—as his nearest influence. These custom projects take 75 per cent of his time, but also fuel the growing 25 per cent spent building and expanding his furniture collection.
In Vancouver, Woo’s hand-built body of work sells exclusively through Provide. His relationship with owners Robert Quinnell and David Keeler was forged not long after the two opened their interiors store, and enlisted Woo for one-off projects. But they all saw an opportunity for more, so when Woo’s custom work eased up last winter, he solidified a five-piece collection including two dining tables, a low-profile bed, a modular cluster table, and a cantilevered side table. This is Woo’s kind of collaboration. “I’d rather have more of personal relationship with who I’m working with, than just look for big sales in a bigger environment,” he says.
Mentorship is another relationship important to Woo, from his woodworking grandfather to Working Wood, the eight-month mentoring program coordinated by IDSwest director Jason Heard for which he was selected in 2009. There, Woo met artist and designer Brent Comber. The two became pals, with Comber being an important business mentor. “To succeed at anything, it’s so important to have people have confidence in you,” Woo says. “When those in your industry do, it helps you raise your game.” He’s in the process of paying it forward through a YMCA-sponsored mentorship program.
Woo’s decision to launch his own company was a leap he made alone. Thinking he couldn’t make a career out of woodwork, he applied to the Ontario College of Art and Design’s environmental design program. Two weeks before first term, he decided not to go, and instead rented space in the Woodworkers Co-Op on Parker Street, the same building he owns a workshop in now. “I was certain that I was making the wrong decision. I thought that I was letting people down. That helped me, I think. I became very focused. I was determined and worked hard to make it work.” A entertainment wall console for a movie buff he met through the Eastside Culture Crawl was his first real project. “We’re getting into thousands of dollars here, not hundreds,” he says, laughing, “so it was serious.” And that spiralled into more serious design-build projects.
Unlike many of his peers, Woo does few prototypes, nor is he much of a sketcher. Rather, his designs gestate. “Usually the ideas swim around for a bit, incubate and finally pop out.” He elaborates, “It’s more of an intuitive process. I figure it out in my head, then I just build. If proportions are off, it gets remade, but I’ve been pretty lucky with that.”
Inspired by designs that have endured, like Wegner chairs, Woo wants his work to live in the same category. “Whenever I create something, my intention is to have it fit in seamlessly and not stand out like a sore thumb or overwhelm,” he says. “I’d rather it be there, be subtle, yet strong and timeless.” The perfect minimal.