My excitement for nature is what pushes me to create. I’ve traveled all over North America in pursuit of inspiration, visiting national parks and scenic byways from coast to coast in search of rivers, glacier-fed lakes, and waterfalls to find impressions that will later guide my work. Visits to Athabasca Falls in Alberta, the Snake River in Wyoming, Lake Powell in Nevada, and the rugged coast of Maine’s Acadia National Park are just some of the places that have filled me with inspiration. My impressions from these places are re-discovered in the natural forms of live edge wood, burls, and slabs that remind me of these places and from which I create tables of all sizes as well as wall-hung art pieces. I work exclusively with live edge woods like big leaf maple and claro walnut. These curvy pieces of wood give me an ever-changing pallet of shapes, bumps, and textures with which to play and draw upon the memories of rivers and shorelines I’ve visited. I often visit sawmills to look through dozens of wood slabs before finding one or two that provide sufficient inspiration to create one of my water-inspired tables or wall-hangings. The carefully chosen wood slabs play the part of the land and the water is represented by an aqua colored glass that is manipulated into rivers, lakes, and oceans through a painstaking process of hand-cutting. The blue glass provides the feeling of water and its translucence properties allow you to imagine and explore what lies beneath the surface, with textures created by burls and bark edges. My entire process is done by hand, from flattening the wood, exposing the natural edges, cutting and inlaying the glass. My river tables can best be described as “functional art” and my wall-hangings, while not functional, serve to point the viewer’s mind to the many beautiful places in nature where I’ve found my inspiration.
Greg Klassen was born in Reedley, California and raised as the son of peach farmers. Having later studied woodworking on the rugged north coast of California at the Krenov School and at Capellagården on the island of Öland, Sweden, his love of the water grew tremendously. Greg’s earliest body of work included sculpted wood furniture with organic forms. His 2008 introduction to a local sawyer saw-milling live edge wood slabs changed the course of his work as he found new inspiration in the wood’s most natural and curvaceous forms. Greg’s most recent work, titled “River Collection,” is an on-going series of tables and wall-hangings inspired by water. The unlikely marriage of live edge wood and hand-cut blue glass serves to express Greg’s fascination with rivers, lakes, oceans, and shorelines.
Let’s talk about your creative journey. When did you begin working with wood? How do you source the materials you use? Have you ever worked with other mediums?
I began working with wood back in 2002 when I was finishing my bachelor’s degree. My wife Barb and I were newly married and didn’t have any furniture. I was working at a door manufacturing company at the time as a garbage man and I often recycled wood doors and parts. The company let me take spare parts home and I made the furniture in our house. It was all really simple and crude, but it ignited a love for creating that I didn’t know I had. Early on, I worked exclusively with salvaged materials, then later I started working with finer hardwoods until eventually in 2010 I met a local retired dairy farmer with a barn full of live edge wood slabs that he’d milled himself. I was in love. The natural “live edge” slabs were so beautiful with their shapes and patterns. I started buying slabs from him, one at a time. I found myself drawn to the negative space between two live edges, and soon after created the first River Table, I was pairing that space with hand-cut “river” glass. My work now involves wood, glass and sometimes different metals.
What is your personal connection to nature or ecology? Do you feel like your work brings you closer to the earth and the environment?
I live in the Nooksack River Valley in Northwest Washington state, only a few miles from Canada. I drive past the river everyday and I also have a view of fields, forests, and glaciers from my studio. So I feel very connected to nature where I am. I also recently bought a boat and have begun exploring the San Juan Archipelago, off the coast of Bellingham. The more I explore the beautiful world around me, the more inspired I become. We also do a lot of family road trips in our RV (recently renamed the “Quarantine Machine”) and visit national parks and other epic places in between. My travels and adventures are fuel for my creativity. It’s a beautiful thing to have my lifestyle and my creative work go hand in hand.
What draws you to creating more functional pieces of art? I’m curious—do you use these pieces in your own home?
Our home is full of work I’ve created: prototypes, rocking chairs, benches, tables, cabinets, lighting, art. I love making pieces that we can personally use and enjoy. What good is being a furniture maker if you aren’t going to live with your work?? My work is split pretty evenly between functional (ie. tables) and non-functional (ie. wall-hangings). I started by exclusively making furniture and have drifted into art.
Can you tell us a bit about your partnership with Charity: Water and what they do?
My mission is to inspire people with my art and with the way I treat them. When I learned about Charity: Water, I got excited because I thought it would be a great way to use my work to do something good for others. I set a goal of funding a $10k water project (ie. a well in an impoverished village) and I was able to inspire hundreds of people to join in to reach this goal together. We did it! The whole experience was a reminder that people want to join in on good ideas and that my work is bigger than me, it’s about leveraging my influence to help others.
You have such a specific aesthetic and vision. Have you ever experienced an artist or company trying to imitate your incredible work?
Haha, every day of the week, every week of the month, every month of the year. I’ve had countless woodworkers and hobbyists on every continent trying to imitate my work since I joined Instagram back in 2013. To give you some idea of the scale we’re talking about, search my hashtag #rivertable which I created in 2013 and you get 235,000 results. Imitation and originality are touchy subjects and I think that’s because original innovators are outnumbered by imitators something like a million-to-one. All I can really say is that I like to think my work stands on its own.
What is the most satisfying part of your process?
Creating. I know that sounds so basic, but coaxing something refined, natural and beautiful from a rough wood slab brings me so much life. To be able to take my ideas and then flesh them out into physical objects is a tremendous feeling. I can’t wait to walk down to my studio each morning and start again.