During the last 25 years, I’ve met dozens of professional woodworkers here in the Ohio River Valley. And – of course – I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of amateur woodworkers as well. And while there are many excellent woodworkers in this region, I honestly think Andy Brownell is at the top of my list.
Andy’s work is technically flawless. He has an innate command of grain patterns, color and line. And while that is impressive in and of itself, that’s not why I am attracted to his work. I see a lot of technically perfect pieces from people who have their Wegner piece, their Nakashima piece, their Maloof piece – all in a row in their portfolio.
Andy’s work has a language of its own. It has roots in mid-century modern. But every piece is also imbued with patterns, textures and geometry from the natural world. And what makes his work even more interesting is that Andy is fascinated by geology, fossils and microbiology.
I know a lot of woodworkers who are inspired by plants, flowers, trees and animals (and it’s clear that Andy is inspired by those at times). But Andy also manages to incorporate plate tectonics, the earth’s crust and issues of deep time into his pieces. And no it’s not weird.
“Yeah. I took a bunch of geology and biology classes,” Andy said. “My degree was evolutionary biology. But I’ve always loved that sort of thing as part of lifelong learning.”
Many of his pieces incorporate what he calls “amorphous holes” – sometimes hundreds of them – that are individually cut and shaped in a piece. The floor lamp shown here has about 50 hours of work just on the amorphous holes. What do they represent? I don’t know. But they remind me of bubbles in a test tube, the Brownian motion of cells or yeast bubbles in bread dough.
And they strongly challenge your perception of what you are seeing. Is the piece the wooden parts? Or is it the negative space in the piece?
Plus, when you see a collection of pieces you begin to wonder if Andy is a sculptor who also likes to build furniture, or if it’s the other way around.
On paper, furniture making is a side gig for Andy. In his day job he is global director of marketing and partnerships at OneSight, a nonprofit that is dedicated to providing eye exams and glasses to people all over the world who need them.
But his furniture-making output is as serious as many professionals. His woodworking training was from Jeff Miller in Chicago. Andy manages to land high-end commission work, which is no small thing in Cincinnati (we are known for our thrift). And he works in materials that most local makers wouldn’t dare use.
Thanks to his long-term relationships with local legend Frank David (who ran Midwest Woodworking in Norwood, Ohio) and now M. Bohlke Corp., Andy has access to extraordinary material. Exotics, yes. But also wood that is just insanely difficult to get and work.
This weekend, I visited his shop to pick through some of his scraps of bog oak. This 4,000-year-old material from Poland has been blackened by its years underground. Andy had enough to build a dining table for a client, a dining table for his family plus some scraps that I’ll use to make a chair. Up until this point in my life, the largest piece of bog oak I’d seen was the size of a loaf of bread.
Also impressive is that Andy’s shop is the size of a one-car garage. His machines are modest – most hobby shops I visit are better equipped. And getting materials in and out of his basement is a technical challenge – up the steps, through the kitchen and into the mudroom. Then to the garage.
But most amazing – honestly – is that so few people know about Andy and his work. I hope this short piece begins to change that.
He is definitely worth following on Instagram. His website is also worth visiting, though the pieces he shows there are on the more conventional side.
— Christopher Schwarz
24 thoughts on “Meet the Maker: Andy Brownell”
That was a very interesting read. I look forward to seeing the bog oak in chair form.
His minds eye is for design, his vision and work are EXTRAORDINARY and BEAUTIFUL!!!
Thanks Dave, I really appreciate that.
And he surfs! No small feat for those of us in the Midwest!
Amazing work, and very different. The floor lamp bubbles remind me of the head of a nice cold Guiness; as close as you can get to a Guiness without getting your eyes wet.
I think my favorite piece is that TV Stand, its like a future-retro vibe.
Thanks Steve, there were around 400+ holes on that lamp, so making the tv stand screen was a bit less difficult. That screen on the TV stand was made out of re-sawn solid Brazilian rosewood. So little margin for error. The legs on the piece have some Vladimir Kagan and Gio Ponti influence in them.
Don’t screw up that chair. If your short a couple of parts, you’re out of luck. No pressure.
Chris should have no trouble finding a replacement piece if needed. But I doubt he will. 🙂
As someone with a background in fine art and geo science, and a love of wood, I can only say (even tho mid-mod isn’t my bag) I now have a hero. WOW!! He has quite the eye for design and also for the execution. Beautiful, beautiful pieces. Thanks so much for sharing, it brightened my day! 🙂
Cynthia, that’s a great combination of passions you have there. Nice to know others are dialed into the same things that influence their design. Thanks for the comment.
Gorgeous pieces! Thanks for sharing.
I’d purely love to see more of the shop! Others of us work out of tiny spaces, and I always learn from other’s space solitions.
Space solution = modest size equipment, all on wheels, and I don’t hoard lumber. I’ll have a video with more footage from inside the shop soon. Thanks for reading!
Beautiful work, Andy, always a fan!
Your style! It’s like a mixture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dali! I could not begin to talk about the visual perceptions I received when moving from one photo to the next, it was like a visual rollercoaster ride into a fantasy of shape, form. and color, entwined in angle, line, and a depiction of free flowing motion captured in a solid shape! And, when I went back, again and again, each time there was a different reaction, like somehow you went in and changed something while I was looking away. A new shape, a different shape, all moving but sitting still. Beautiful work Mr. Brownell.
Thank you very much. Nice to read your reaction too.
I am retired and have made most of my clothes for most of my life. I match the plaid on shirtsleeve plackets in 1/4″ gingham. I am in awe of the doors on the cabinet in the opening photo. Very precise veneer arrangement.
Thanks Esther, that’s book matched German bog oak (with the outside of the tree facing in to the center of the two pieces).
Very cool on so many levels. It’s so nice to see someone take modernism but apply so much craft and personality. I would love to hear / read more about the designs and techniques.
Thanks! Many of my designs or aspects of a particular project are iterative. Or I’ll evolve an idea a bit, like the holes motif. So I’ll try a technique on a smaller piece (a bowl, a lamp screen, panel, etc., and then apply it to a larger project. (btw: this is a visual technique plenty of people use in sculpture, but I haven’t seen applied to furniture as much). So then I applied the holes motif to the teak coffee table I made a few years back, shown on home page of my site. None of that was done with a CNC machine, just a combination of power and and hand tools. And lots of sanding…oh the sanding.
Hope that helps.
Beautiful work! Thanks for bringing this local artisan to our attention. I can really see the organic influences in his style, very inspirational.
I think there’s a great lesson there about allowing our innate curiosities to inform all aspects of our lives. For some people it comes naturally I think but I know others struggle to find that inner voice or design inspiration. People like Andy make it look effortless. Well done and kudos for highlighting an “amateur.”
Amazing, awesome artistry in your woodworking, Andy. You make your Godparents proud and happy to see this wonderful talent you possess as well as the joy you derive from creating these beautiful pieces. The passion for your art is alive and well!
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