ARTIST INTERVIEW: Michael Towey of The California Workshop
Company: The California Workshop
Artist: Michael Towey
Michael grew up in the Seattle area and graduated from the design-focused engineering program at Seattle University with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. His early professional years were spent designing products for the aerospace industry while working for Boeing, Puritan-Bennett and Sony. If you have flown on an airplane in the last twenty years, you have undoubtedly encountered some of his work on video displays, emergency oxygen systems (hopefully you have not seen), reading lights and passenger service units. In an unexpected pivot in 1996, he opened a furniture store called Empiric in Los Angeles buying, restoring and selling vintage modern, industrial and institutional furniture.
In 2011 he began a project that came to be called The California Workshop, a small craft workshop/guild in Southern California where he continues to make useful things in search of the beauty that arises with suitability to task. His popular folded fabric lighting line can be found in Room & Board stores nationwide or at ACME in Tokyo and Osaka.
How do you find a balance between practicality and beauty in your creations?
In my view, practicality and beauty coexist and are inseparable. They are nearly synonymous and they appear together. I believe that this is the common central theme of nature, modernism, craft and our work at The California Workshop. Nature favors the pragmatic and efficient. We don’t try to make our work beautiful for the same reasons that Kaare Klint, Buckminster Fuller and The Shakers didn’t try to make their work beautiful.
What criteria do you use to evaluate your own work?
I consider safety, efficacy, sustainability, accessibility, and ease of use to just name a few. And each of these contain so many additional criteria. Sustainability alone includes labor conditions, pollution and toxicity, biodegradability, embodied energy, carbon emissions and so much more. We are constantly evaluating our products based on authentic suitability to task. There is always potential for objective improvement.
Do you see your work as part of an artistic tradition?
The work endeavors to be part of the tradition of Folk Craft as opposed to Artist Crafts. Soetsu Yanagi differentiates them as follows:
“Artist-craftmanship places utility second and tends to pursue beauty for its own sake…. Folk crafts [are] unself-consciously handmade and unsigned for the people and by the people, cheaply and in quantity,..”
I don’t sign my work and we are working to make everything we offer more cheaply and in greater quantities so more people can use them. While artistic traditions tend to elevate the artist, craft traditions elevate our connections to and understanding of community, materials and our shared natures.
Why do you prefer the term Artisan to Artist?
An artists work is an expression of individuality, consciously made and signed and often without utility. While many people think the terms artist and artisan are similar, on closer examination they are more like opposites. I do believe your intentions are generous when you revere me with the title of artist but it is a term better suited to describing what I am not.