There’s a small piece of wood tacked to the rafter of Louis House’s basement workshop with a handwritten phrase – “You don’t make a living making bad furniture.”
It serves as a reminder that good work is what puts food on the table. And this workshop is how Louis gets fed. He’s a professional woodworker, in that he makes a living selling the things he makes in his workshop. But, he says, he still feels like an apprentice at times, partly because he’s entirely self taught.
The journey from hobby to full-time business began about five or six years ago, when Louis picked up woodworking as a hobby while in university, where he was earning a bachelor’s degree with a major in French and a minor in English. He knew, while still in school, that he didn’t want a job using his degree, but he also knew the value of having a degree, so he kept at it.
A week after graduating, he got a job at a local kitchen cabinet shop, figuring the skills learned in his woodworking hobby could earn him some money. And for a couple of years it did, but he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the cabinetmaking production environment.
It was time to return to school, he figured, and again applied to Memorial University. They accepted his application, he quit his job, and then he realized that, no, he didn’t really want to go back to school. He was, he realized, looking for an excuse to quit his job.
He took some time to plan his next move, living off his savings and spending time in the workshop.
It was at about this time that Louis got curious about wood flags. Not flags painted on wood, but ones made from various pieces of wood, assembled into a flag. He had seen several versions of American flags, but none of Canadian ones. So he set about making the provincial flag of Newfoundland Labrador.
“And that’s really the piece that started the business. Because I think that by maybe a month or two into it I had 100 orders for the Newfoundland flag,” Louis says.
It was accidental, really – he hadn’t intended to start a woodworking business right away, but at the same time, he knew he wanted to work toward being a professional furniture maker. It just happened a little faster than he anticipated. A year later, and he’s a full time woodworker, making flags, cutting boards and furniture.
“I really like the word ‘woodworker’ as opposed to furniture maker or artist or maker or anything like that,” says Louis, “because then the focus is on the material, which, out of all the different material and media that I’ve worked with, is the one that seems to be best suited for me. Thankfully, woodworker encompasses everything I do – the furniture but also the serving boards and smaller pieces. So it all fits nicely into that word.”
Louis talks in the measured cadence of a man whose words are the product of mindful consideration. He is, one gets the impression, a thinker. And he has thought a lot about woodworking. Not just the craft, but the philosophy behind the craft, and how the mindset of the maker is similar to the writer or musician – which he also happens to be.
“The best way I can put it is the woodworker’s sensibility and sensitivity are the same as the poet’s sensibility are the same as the painter’s sensibility, the sculptor’s sensibility – it’s all the same, it’s just the medium that’s different,” he says. “And so you could think of it with the analogy of an instrument and a mouthpiece and the breath moving through it. I really think that what I do is, I’m really just a mouthpiece for the creative spirit, I guess you could call it, that is moving through me into the instrument, which is woodworking and so that produces the sound that it does, which is the pieces that I make.”
Louis has, previously, expressed his creativity through writing, painting and music, but it is in woodworking that he feels best able to express himself. That self expression has a limit, though. Rather than trying to force creativity, or grappling with concepts of original design, Louis is inspired by Leonard Cohen’s observations from his time at a zen buddhist monastery.
“He came to the realization that the less of him there was the happier he was and that’s how I feel about my creative pursuits, is that obviously there is something to be said for originality and voice, but at the same time, it’s really obvious if someone is trying really hard to make something themselves. I guess that can be a good thing, but at the same time if they’re kind of forcing it, it can turn out badly.”
He compares woodworking to poetry, in that a poet who tries forcing a set of words into a poem may write a less pleasing piece than the poet who just lets the words flow.
So while Louis works hard at improving his skills and carefully considers each piece he is going to make before starting, there also comes a time when he gets out of his own way to let the process happen without overthinking it.
“I don’t really sit down and try to come up with a design. As I said before, if you try too hard it rarely turns out right.”
It would be a mistake to confuse his approach with carelessness. There is skill evident in each piece Louis makes, whether it’s a Nakashima-inspired walnut bench, a bookshelf, coffee table, or some other piece of commissioned work.