Melanie Hamilton’s living room is unlike any other. Not because of the room itself, but because of the furniture, much of it made by Melanie in her Wooden Leg Studio shop. She has had her works exhibited at several galleries and showrooms, and trained at both the Centre of Furniture Craftsmanship and Sheridan College’s furniture design program.
She had always liked furniture and design, but while studying and working as a photographer in New Brunswick, it remained just an interest. It wasn’t until she moved to St. John’s with her husband that she started to explore making things. Retelling the story, she can barely get the words out because she’s laughing so much at how old fashioned the story sounds.
“It sounds very 1950s. I got married, I quit my job,” she says. But the move, and her plans, also had a romantic sound to it as well. “I’ve worked and I’ve exhibited and I’ve done the teaching thing and now I’m going to quit and I’m going to move to Newfoundland and I’m going to make art,” she says of her plans to leave her job working with Mount Allison and a well-known photographer in New Brunswick to create photographic art in Newfoundland.
But things didn’t happen that way. “Then I moved here and all I could see were these 7”x17” black and white images that had already been done, and they were beautiful. I felt like I didn’t have anything to say.”
The newlywed couple bought a house in St. John’s, and Melanie began doing small renovating jobs. She was removing walls, building a kitchen island, and making bookcases and other pieces for the home. Nothing was really looking the way she wanted it to, though. Her dissatisfaction with the results of her work led her to attend an intensive three-month course at the Centre for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine.
She sold some of her photography equipment, including a wooden 8×10 Wisner camera and other pieces she wasn’t using anymore, to fund the experience.
While there she worked non-stop, often spending 14 to 16 hours a day in the workshop, either building or designing pieces.
“I immersed myself in it,” she says.
It took a while for her to shed her purist tendencies she picked up at the school. For a time, she would only work with hand tools, using traditional joinery. But there was still something missing. She needed to work on design.
“I’m a design junkie. I love design. Something that is well designed makes sense, and I like things that make sense.”
And she learned where her priorities lay. “Comfort is one of the highest things on my list now,” she says. And that list, when it comes to creating a new piece, has many steps.
Melanie, by her own admission, is not a very good sketch artist. But each piece begins as a sketch in one of her small sketchbooks. With the initial idea down on paper, she moves to her computer, where she creates a 3D drawing to capture proportion and scale. That digital model is then taken to her workshop, where she makes a physical quarter-scale model to evaluate the form and proportion. The model allows her to spot any flaws in the design, while also experimenting with alternate versions of the design. Once satisfied with the model, she makes a full-size mock-up of the piece – especially if it’s a chair – to test the comfort and analyze the scale and proportion of the piece. Once satisfied, she then makes the actual piece. If it happens to be a custom order, she’ll also visit the home to make sure the piece will fit the style of the home and the space it will be in.
“My priorities now are to build work that is unassuming, simple, easy to use, user-friendly, but still retain that handmade quality and respect of the wood that I used to build it,” she says. “I don’t want to make stuff for the sake of making it anymore; I want to make stuff with a very specific purpose or for a specific space because I think that objects have to exist within a space, and if it’s too big or too small then it never really fits that space.”
This article was first published in the fall, 2015 print issue of Home & Cabin.