Circumstance and StructureThe Furniture Design of John Booth
John Booth, one half of the duo behind the interdisciplinary studio Bookhou, is an artist, architect, and furniture designer based in Toronto. “Really, what I’m interested in is how painting relates to furniture, or how furniture relates to drawing or sculpture,” he says. “My creative practice lies in the nexus between these disciplines.”
Trained as both a painter and an architect, making furniture was something Booth fell into by accident. “I was just interested in how to make a surface according to an idea, and that became furniture.” His creations range from steam-bent tables and wooden staircases to spalted maple bowls and hanging mobiles. He also dabbles in crafting more delicate pieces like darning mushrooms and bell jar lamps. A particularly recognisable design is his low wooden chair, with its distinctive, sloping seat, curved back and sturdy arched legs. Everything he makes exhibits a woody kind of minimalism and a craftsman’s penchant for detail.
“People often ask me, ‘What’s Canadian about your work?’.” Booth laughs. “The assumption is that there’s always some natural element in Canadian craftsmanship. I don’t really think that way, to be honest. When I sit down and draw, I’m thinking about structures. They may look natural and organic, but that’s not really a driving force for me; it’s more of a by-product. I think of how to create structures and patterns, how to change something depending on circumstance.” That being said, wood is a signature component of his work. “The presence of landscape is all around you in Canada. You don’t think about it, but it’s there. It’s kind of a mythology, I guess. We’re a land of wood.”
When asked about his creative process, Booth describes it as “aleatory”. “I think it’s a more suitable word for musicians,” he says. “It refers to repeated structures that evolve into non-repeated structures – doing the same thing over and over again, but finding a way to inject variation into the final result.” His preferred steam-bent method is well-suited to this approach: “It’s about accepting circumstance rather than designing in advance. In many ways, it’s not that different from painting, if you think of abstract painting: it’s making decisions about how the work is going to be while you’re making it. It’s contrary to how a lot of people work. My pieces often end up as one-offs, even though I’m repeating the same process.”
After completing his architecture training, Booth met his partner, Arounna Khounnoraj, while working at an art gallery in Ontario. At the time, Khounnoraj was working in sculpture and segueing into fibre arts. “It seemed we had a lot in common,” Booth smiles. Later, they started the company Bookhou – an amalgamation of their surnames – with the intention to create functional handmade objects. “Arounna makes bags, personal accessories and home accessories; I build furniture, do things with leather, and paint on the side. Now and then, we correspond, making upholsteries or other things. We think with our hands; it’s just where we’re happiest. A lot of our time is spent together.” When I ask how long this collaborative studio has been a part of their lives, he laughs. “I can always tell by the age of my son. He’s 15, so it’s been about 19 years, almost 20.”
Booth also plans to work with different people to bring new levels of materiality into his practice. “I want to take my work to a place where it’s not just me in a project,” he tells me. “I’ve kind of changed my life in the last 12 years, because I got quite ill when my daughter was born. It sounds bad, but it’s a good thing: because I didn’t want to overload myself, it made me decide that I was only going to do the projects I found interesting. It’s funny – when I was in art school, my friends and I were never in a rush to get somewhere. It was a matter of finding it out. I’m 57 now, and I feel like I’m just starting. I’m excited about this next phase of my life.”