ARTIST INTERVIEW: Michael Towey of The California Workshop

Michael Towey grew up in the Northwest and graduated from Seattle University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After spending years in the aerospace industry working for Boeing, Puritan-Bennett and Sony, he opened a furniture store called Empiric in Los Angeles focusing on vintage Modern, industrial and institutional furniture. Years of buying, selling and restoring furniture lead him to start reverse-engineering great Modern designs that were no longer available by the likes of Ed Wormley, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Paul McCobb as well as other great unknown craftsmen of the twentieth-century.

In 2011 he began a project that came to be called The California Workshop, a small craft workshop/guild in Southern California. He is constantly developing and making products for the home and inviting others to build and learn along with him.

We spoke to Michael about his creative journey.

Describe the path that led you to the work you do now. Did you take any big risks to get where you are?
The work I do now is deeply rooted in the values of modernism and craft. As an engineer, the pragmatism, utility, and accessibility of craft and modernism are objective givens. In the corporate world of product engineering and design, there are barriers between the design, fabrication, marketing, use, maintenance and disposal of products that lead to assumptions and a long list of poor choices. I began a move toward better solutions by working for progressively smaller companies and adopting formal design strategies like concurrent engineering. The closer I got to the making process, the more successful my products were.

Today my role as a hands-on maker and craftsman informs the design process in ways that I could not even imagine before. I can’t separate making and designing now. The making informs the design in such a profound way that without it I feel I’m not even in the game. While I’m not making the salary I could command as a product design engineer, I am confident that I’m doing the best work of my career and I encourage everyone to trade their white collar office design job for the humble role of craftsperson.
Did you have any mentors or important creative influences?
My work is inspired by the varied works and teachings of Soetsu Yanagi, Jean Prouve, Michael Thonet, Kaare Klint and Elon Musk. If craft is my religion, these are my patron saints. Each of them has made profound contributions to the world of design throughout their careers and I strive daily to be guided by the values and principals that made their work transcend trends and fashions. You can read more on my blog here.
Why is it important to you to show and share your work to a larger community?
It is important because the very definition of craft by Soetsu Yanagi (a founder of the Japanese craft movement) contains “by the many, for the many”; differentiating it from the “aristocratic arts” that are expensive, by the few and for the few. The connection with community, process and utility are integral to the virtue of craft. Oh, and selling stuff helps to put food on the table.

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