This Designer Is Preserving the Old Ways of Making Furniture

Over three decades of producing ethically made furniture by hand, Heidi Earnshaw has remained committed to the abiding lessons of traditional craftsmanship.

Text—Naomi Skwarna
Photos—Daniel Skwarna

Heidi Earnshaw has spent much of her life in the society of trees. “Each one has its own character,” she says.

Heidi, a designer and maker whose primary material is wood, has come to know the distinct qualities of different trees over a lifetime of producing furniture by hand. What compels her most about wood is its durability.

“We have buildings standing from the 14th century, furniture that we’re still using from the 18th century,” she says, and she strives to match her mindset and methods to these traditions of longevity. “I’m still working the same way we were in the 1970s. And the 1870s.”

“It begins with trees,” Heidi says, articulating both an ethos of design and, to some degree, the life she’s currently creating, encompassed within a verdant half acre located in Ontario’s Ottawa Valley.

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When the Toronto studio that she shared with several other makers went up for sale in 2019, she took it as her cue to pack up in search of greener pastures and more ample, affordable space, something she’d been idly considering for years.

At the age of 50, Heidi moved to the pastoral hamlet of Ferguson’s Falls in Lanark County, just minutes from the Mississippi River in Ontario.

After selling the West End Toronto house that she owned with her sisters, she bought a 200-year-old former inn called the Hollinger Hotel, which had catered to loggers in the 19th century. She began the gruelling process of turning it into both a home and a fully functioning woodworking studio.

“I had the house picked up and moved onto a new foundation,” she tells me, just one of many feats she performed while getting the semi-dilapidated property up to code. “I’m the person from Toronto that moved the house,” she says wryly. “The talk of the town.”

Beating the pandemic by a few months, Heidi has spent the last four years “homesteading,” joined by her dog, Loup, and a pair of 17-year-old cats, Hanni and Frieda, named for her great-aunts.

Throughout this eventful period, she has maintained and evolved her design business, making pieces inspired by Japanese and Scandinavian woodworking, Shaker furniture, and mid-century modernism, all traditionally produced with ethically sourced lumber.

Now, Heidi is moving on from half a century in the city, surrounded by friends, colleagues, culture, and a density you only really notice once you’ve left. Buttressed by nature (including invasive wild parsnip that requires constant mowing) and settled on her new foundation, she is expanding her projects while deepening her relationship with the traditional tools, techniques, and trees that inspire her.

 

Embracing the risk of working by hand
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“I was a Lego fanatic,” says Heidi about her earliest impulse to build. Encouraged by teachers and family, she pursued art throughout her early education. Her love for creating in three dimensions crystallized in her studio classes at the University of Toronto and eventually Sheridan College.

Yet she is a pitiless critic of her own art.

“The truth is, I wasn’t a very good artist,” she tells me. Building wood pieces with a long and functional life offered both an enjoyable alternative and a more reliable career path.

Informed by her fine-art background, Heidi draws her designs by hand, forswearing programs like AutoCAD and SketchUp for the summoning force of pencil on paper. This is not common among furniture designers, she tells me.

“My thought process is within that hand-to-mind [practice],” she explains. “Manual drawing is a way of thinking. I don’t have the skills to draft on a computer, but it also just doesn’t work for me.”

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This method of hand-drafting suits the “old equipment and old ways of making” that define Heidi’s method in the studio.

When you work within traditional craft, every mark made by hand is a gamble, Heidi says, citing David Pye’s writings on “the workmanship of risk.” That is, the craftsperson hazards an uncertain result, based on their own judgment, dexterity, and care.

“There’s something about that — leaving a mark on the wood that’s readable in the finished product,” says Heidi. “We can have these moments, bringing us back to tactile experiences that I think all of us are longing for in some ways. That’s an extension of what the furniture is meant to do. The drawer that runs on wood slides feels different than the one that’s running on mechanical slides.”

A balanced approach to tech and craft
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Although devoted to the purest form of craftsmanship, Heidi uses technology pragmatically, not for its own sake. Her approach is analog but not archaic; she embraces modernity where it suits.

“I use the joints and techniques that have been developed over hundreds of years because we know that they work,” she says. But Heidi will still go to a local shop to cut a template on a CNC router, should she need to.

“Making things by hand is very, very time-consuming. I think of myself as part of the slow movement, but if I can get a job done more efficiently using current technology, then I will.”

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An aspect that Heidi insists upon modernizing is the ecological and ethical footprint of her craft and labour, from the lumber she sources to the chemicals used to finish her pieces.

While she hopes that her work will last forever, she designs and constructs in such a way that it can all go back into the earth — biodegradable oils and waxes, and minimal hardware that’s easy to remove. After a long life inside a home, these pieces can return to where they came from.

In the main studio space, Heidi’s assistant, Tim Steadman, is repairing a machine that’s been giving them some trouble. It’s currently a small operation, just the two of them, with Tim living a six-minute drive up the road. It makes for an intimate and highly collaborative work environment.

“We work in tandem. I don’t take the more fun or challenging parts for myself,” she says. “I want Tim to continue to grow as a maker, which means taking on all aspects of the work.”

In more commercial millwork shops, a lot of the processes that Heidi and Tim do by hand would be automated — digitally rendered designs fed into CNC routers. She likens these commercial machines to a 3D printer in reverse — “reductive rather than additive,” she explains. “It’s a big debate whether that’s still craft.”

Building community in the country
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Heidi is realistic about some of what she’s left behind in the city, socially and culturally. “I miss being a more integrated part of a community,” she says. “I’d always been in a shared studio in Toronto. Having collaborators right in the space where you’re working is really rich.”

But her new home creates a new context for community, too. In her hotel-turned-workshop, Heidi dreams of bringing that collaborative past to her country homestead. This includes the possibility of mini-residencies for young, diverse makers, since space and machinery is often the hardest thing to come by for new woodworkers.

Heidi admits she hasn’t had as much time to immerse herself in nature as she had once hoped, but she is still surrounded by it: the Mississippi River for swimming and skating, acres of farmland and forest, her neighbours’ cows and horses just outside the window.

“The birds, the moon, the river; I’m learning the cycles of everything,” she tells me. “In Toronto, I remember very specifically how the moon would come up in my bedroom window. But there’s something about the space here — there’s an openness that’s very appealing.”

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Almost every morning, she walks Loup around her one little acre, coffee in hand. “You know, just noticing what’s changed.”

Finding that balance between tradition and growth, city and country, will continue to drive Heidi, who just celebrated her 54th birthday. “I’m interested in making things that have the potential for longevity,” she says, referring, it seems, to her approach to design, her way of living, and her chosen medium. After all, she says, “What’s better than trees?”

 

Suggested reading

  1. Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect by Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted, and Barley Roscoe
  2. The Language of Wood: Wood in Finnish Sculpture, Design and Architecture by the Museum of Finnish Architecture
  3. Handcrafted Modern by Leslie Williamson
  4. The Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima
  5. The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture by Howard Pain

Naomi Skwarna is a writer, editor, and artist with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, the Believer, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, the British Journal of Photography, and others. Since 2019, Naomi has been producing slow fashion and soft sculpture under the name Casual Clowne. She lives in Toronto.

Twitter: @awomanskwarned
Instagram: @naomisk

 

Daniel Skwarna is a documentary and editorial photographer. His personal work explores isolated communities, addiction, and mental illness. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Lumen.

www.danielskwarna.com
Instagram: @danielskwarna

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