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.
— Christopher Schwarz