“Design is not just the way something looks. It’s how you experience it,” says renowned furniture maker Michael Puryear. “Most of us have seen furniture that looks very attractive, but when you use it, it doesn’t do what it needs to do.”
Owning a piece of furniture that feels customized to your home and personal needs is something that many people rarely experience, but it’s a feeling that Puryear wants his work to elicit for every client who commissions his work.
Puryear’s style is striking in its elegant simplicity, yet defies categorization. He draws on Scandinavian and Shaker design and African culture, and often uses contrasting woods and curvilinear elements to bring a feeling of lightness to materials like wood and leather.
His career in furniture making began while working as a photographer in New York in the 1970s, when a side business renovating Brooklyn brownstones introduced him to the joys of working with wood. It was the Dan Chair, a 2010 piece on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, that helped cement his reputation on the international stage.
Despite his acclaim, Puryear takes great pride in designing and hand-building each piece—from coffee tables to lounge chairs, benches, desks, and more—in his workshop in Shokan, a quiet town tucked in the Catskill Mountains. “It’s a relationship,” he says of his work with clients. “They’re asking for something very unique and part of my job is to understand what they need and to give the input of my experience to come up with something that works for them.”
For instance, a design for a custom sideboard Puryear was working on for a client first featured a simple set of doors, but in thinking about its everyday use, he modified the design to allow its drawers to open via passthrough. The change also inspired him to incorporate a darker, contrasting tone of wood for the drawers that further highlighted their function.
The studied practice of adapting a piece’s shape, material, and color scheme to its eventual surroundings is rooted in Puryear’s childhood, when his parents would take the family on trips to the Smithsonian. “I became aware from a very young age that the making of things is elemental to Human nature,” Puryear says. “We live in a built world and sometimes people forget that.”