Interview with Cliff Spencer

Interview with Cliff Spencer | Alabama Sawyer

November 18, 2019

I got the opportunity to sit down and chat with Cliff Spencer about his design influences, how furniture making relates to graphic design, and his dream project.


Who are your biggest design influences? 

Hmmm. Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and another furniture maker named Roy McMakin. Those are three people that I’ve always liked a lot and looked to for inspiration. They’re all very geometric and use hard shapes. I think they call it hard edge painting so you have these very distinct patterns that form, and that’s a style that gives me ideas. Roy McMakin did furniture work with patterns, and taking different pieces of wood and putting them together. A lot of people’s work today, and a lot of furniture makers today create work that references his work. Especially a lot of his patchwork details. But those are three people I think about and look at when I need inspiration.    

Furniture design is very graphic, especially in terms of layout, it conforms to the same principles of printmaking in terms of proportion and line and weight. Let’s say you have a table with a two inch top and one inch legs, it’s not gonna work. It’s not gonna look right. Or if it has four inch legs and a one inch top, it’s also not gonna look right. Just like in graphic design, there’s that weight. Spacing is just as important in furniture making as it is in graphic design. And the wood grain has to sort of express something. If you just throw boards together in any old way, you’ll have a surface. But you won’t have a surface that evokes anything. So we’re always trying to play with the wood grain and see what goes together best. You’re trying to put together something that is evocative, you know? Something that says something, rather than just … boards. 

Can I ask you, do you have a dream project that you’d like to work on, or…

Well, I’m really enjoying what I’m working on now, the Hot N Hot project. Or actually, we’re wrapping it up now. We used one material, hackberry. We fortunately built up a huge supply of hackberry over the last two years. So we had enough material to do all of the work. But I’ve really enjoyed doing all the work for these multiple pieces. So we can play a large part of that scope and so we can make a large contribution to that place. And form an intention in that place. 

So you’re making multiple of the same tables for this place?

It’s the service table, the bar top (or rather just the bar), the trellis above the bar, a big community table, the soffit above another bar, and then a big light beam. All those things are made out of our material, and it’s a great expression of that material. All that choice of construction and grain direction and grain movement is considered in this large range of work. So I’d like to do more of these large projects that use a lot of our materials where we really create an environment. An environment that really expresses where these materials come from and what they can do. 

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me, I really appreciate it!

No problem, and thank you.