Out of the Woodwork

A wabi-sabi-inspired craftsman celebrates the beauty in his materialís imperfections.

BY SARAH C. LANGE  |  PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

In woodworker Guy Landgraf’s kitchen, an orchid positively explodes with white blossoms. To someone without a green thumb, it’s impressive, but he downplays his success with the plant, which requires patient watchfulness and careful pruning or shaping.

These qualities also inform his elegant, one-of-a-kind benches, end tables and other furniture. “I’m really attracted to simple, clean lines and paring the work down to reduce anything unnecessary. Sometimes the wood itself says what it needs to be,” he says, adding that he prefers to create as little waste as possible.

Landgraf, who uses Wisconsin hardwoods exclusively, delights in the natural beauty of walnut, cherry and maple woods, and he favors those that are unique in some way. “Maybe it has a live edge, so it has some bark. If there’s a knotty area or varied grain, it’s more visually dynamic,” he says. “I’m really interested in finding woods that have character (and) then highlighting the imperfections. I’m fascinated by wabi-sabi — recognizing the beauty in imperfection. It takes time to discover it; it takes looking to discover it.”

A trained artist, he no doubt acquired his skills of observation while studying painting at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. “My senior year I started working in the wood shop more,” he says. “The work became more three-dimensional and the paintings sculptural wall hangings, and then that led to straight working with wood.” After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2002, he became a finish carpenter, focusing on cabinetry, crown molding and detailed, intricate work.

“I became more and more interested in the process, and the history and tradition of woodworking,” he says. He explored Japanese, Shaker and Scandinavian techniques and continues to incorporate them into his work today.

One such Japanese practice, kintsugi, enables Landgraf to bring another level of artistry to his projects. He explains that the method involves gluing together a cracked ceramic piece, for example, with a mixture of gold and resin to honor the beauty in the broken or flawed. In his woodwork then, a knot or other imperfection may get subtly decorated with gold.

“I like having one specific area (where) you’ll notice there’s a gold inlay, but then years later maybe someone notices there’s gold (on the underside), because there was a crack in the wood there,” he says. “I like the idea that you can discover more throughout spending time with the work.”

Given his long hours in the workshop in his garage, his two boys have begun to show interest in creating their own projects. “My son Oliver is making a marble tipping table, and he wants to add a spot for his marble in the back. He just kind of did it by himself. I’m really surprised at some of what they come up with,” he says of his sons.

Landgraf himself is looking forward to dabbling in more wood turning using a lathe, perhaps making more sitting chairs with spindle legs. Each project can potentially lead him in a new direction, he says. “I love the process of making things, learning new things and building on that,” he adds.

As for individual pieces, he prefers not to rush them. “It’s a slow process,” he says, acknowledging that he devotes a minimum of 20 hours to every project, big or small. “Each piece takes as long as it needs to.”

To view more of Landgraf’s work, go to guylandgraf.com.

I’m really attracted to simple, clean lines and paring the work down to reduce anything unnecessary.

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