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The Best Modern Wood Sculpture Artists

Look no further for innovative design within this humble material.
Roxanne Robinson Mar 16, 2021
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Of all the materials that make up our modern world, only stone predates wood. This gift from the trees that helped transform man’s daily life continues to fill our natural and unnatural world with beauty. No more is this concept more alive than today’s best wood sculptors.

We owe wood it’s due by considering the magnificent dwellings and boats that helped humanity adapt to and explore the world. However, it may seem the antithesis of eco-friendly in today’s current climate conditions, au contraire. Many of today’s wood sculptors work with naturally felled or reclaimed wood. 

Once formed, wood sequesters carbon dioxide leaving a lower net environmental impact than its steel, concrete, or aluminum counterparts. Furthermore, it improves air quality by moderating humidity to encourage easy breathing while being lightweight and durable. As the following designers can attest, it's also a pretty awesome substance that is soft enough to be worked by hand yet durable and robust enough to take many forms.

According to Nest Casa, the following eight wood sculptors are doing wood justice for the many forms they design and give it.

THE BEST WOOD FURNITURE SCULPTORS

Casey Johnson Studio

Based in America’s wood furniture capital, Casey Johnson has created witty and uber-cool wood creations since 2014. After initially launching as Foxwood Co., he rebranded his work as Casey Johnson Studio in 2019 in Black Mountain, North Carolina, near Asheville. To explain his approach, it’s evident in Johnson’s work that he acknowledges inspiration by form driven by function with each hand-carved creation. (Certainly, no CAD designs to be found here!) This media and design darling is known mainly for his IO Table, Desert Desk, and a new Native Tongue collection of bowls that recall letters and grammatical symbols. His work has led to collaborations with hat designer Nick Fouquet and Interior designer Amy Meier.

Chris Lehrecke

Chris Lehrecke came of age in the New York design community of the 1980s, firmly planted among the contemporary and avant-garde art scene. However, through his skill as a craftsman and visionary, he pursued a different, more restrained aesthetic, indicative of a rational and organic design approach. In fact, so organic that a bare branch often serves as a base of a smooth, sculpted table for a series designed with wife and jeweler Gabriella Kiss.

Since 1997 he has lived in New York’s Hudson Valley with Kiss and their sons, Jack and August. Here a barn and studio serve to collect and dry the felled wood used in much of his pieces. His latest collection, the Weimar collection, marks a departure from this look. Notably, he recalls the architecture of his youth created by his father while at the same time referring to the shapes and colors of the Bauhaus. Indeed, to possess any color other than a natural wood grain is a departure for the wood sculptor and designer. The bright yellow and red-colored chair in the series is bound to become the next icon.

THE BEST WOOD ACCESSORIES SCULPTORS

Julian Watts

Julian Watts has built an impressive reputation as a mast wood sculptor this past decade. While adept at several iterations, sculptures and objects notwithstanding, it’s the wall pieces that have made Watts a sought-after designer. Using traditional wood-carving and furniture-making techniques to explore the space between form and function, Watts brings a sense of wonderment and unique perspective to the medium. Often using pre-existing everyday objects as starting points, the artist explores the functional and cultural aspects of extreme and surreal moments. The result allows for reconsideration of their preconceptions of ordinary, everyday, often banal items. While Watts has displayed around the globe, the breadth of his work’s body is found via Patrick Parrish, the NYC-based gallery known for exhibiting young and emerging artists.

Eleonor Lakelin

For sculptor Eleonor Lakelin, the more decay, the better it is to create her stunning vases and small sculptures from wood. In fact, the London-based artist uses only fallen trees from Britain. She likens her approach to peeling away the bark and layers of wood to discover the organic disarray below the surface. Generally, Lakelin achieves this through carving and sandblasting; skills gained whilst taking up cabinetry in 1995 following educational project work.

Since 2011 she has turned her focus solely to larger-scale hollowed and carved pieces, something she claims she needed to teach herself to do. Her work has been exhibited at the V&A museum, among others, and challenges a new perspective on nature’s complexity. Continuously, her work explores the rhythm of growth, the eroding power of the elements, and time passing. The award-winning sculptor is represented by the Sarah Myerscough Gallery in London.

THE BEST WOOD SCULPTURE SCULPTORS

Nicholas Shurey

Upon leaving his career in architecture in 2018, Nicholas Shurey chose to become a sculptor. Of course, he chose a material for which he developed a fondness for growing up in the countryside of Southwest England. Wood. He especially loved being amongst trees. Next, he spent a year working on a farm and learning to sculpt. The rest, as they say, is history. Based in Copenhagen, ultimately one of the world’s top design spots, Shurey has already made a name for himself, winning a New Makers award.

With an eye towards sustainability and accountability, the sculptor sources reclaimed wood from the city’s supply of felled trees. Shurey is drawn to wood for the organic forms that allow for smooth curves. He insists sculpture should invite touch from its viewer. His work is marked by smooth, curved, and is highly sensual. Most recently, he collaborated with fashion designer Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER, creating the house mascot in wood.

Pablo Reinoso

Born to a French mother and an Argentinian father, Pablo Reinoso is an artist and designer known for dramatic installations. Growing up in Buenos Aires but forming a close bond with his French grandfather, who taught him art, culture, and how to build things, Reinoso made his first sculptures beginning at age 13! (Of course, this followed chairs, bookcases, and go-karts starting at age 6). He won a scholarship to study marble sculpture in Carrara, thus being spared the violence of the Argentine coup d’etat in 1976 that overthrew Isabel Peron.

While his materials range from marble, silk fabrics to steel grids, Reinoso’s most notorious work, the Spaghetti bench, is made from wood. Following a stint in the corporate world as an artistic director, he explored the classic No. 14 Thonet bistro chair and expanded its dimensions. Reinoso elongated the bentwood back, creating a  wood stream off of the chair, made it rest mid-air by bending its back, and disheveled the seat to create a train of wicker.

Subsequently, this work directed the Spaghetti bench, which reimagined the ordinary park bench. For example, once fulfilling the seat’s role, Reinoso has elongated the bench’s slats to become a tree and root-like, reminding the viewer of its original growing and climbing nature. Like the Thonet chair before, the bench displays a wry sense of humor, especially when shown in a standard-setting such as a park. Here the benches fulfill their purpose while letting the true wood nature evolve.

THE BEST WOOD ART SCULPTORS

Courtney Smith

In her chosen material of wood, sculptor Courtney Smith explores furniture and its relationship to the human body. Thus, there is an articulated aspect to her pieces that make them movable. For example, a side table collapses and reveals a secret space on its backside.

These deconstructed and manipulated pieces of furniture can be reconfigured, allowing for new meaning from the viewer.

Smith was raised in Paris in the Seventies and early Eighties but returned to the States to earn a BA in Comparative Literature and Art in 1988. But it was the next decade, or so that defined her body of work. At this time, she lived, studied, and worked in Brazil. By 2004 she met her personal and professional partner Iván Navarro and held studios in Brooklyn and Rio de Janeiro.

Her work has been exhibited in prestigious museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin American. Specifically in New York, esteemed spaces such as PS1-MoMA, Museo del Barrio, the Chelsea Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design highlighted her work. But in 2014, her career changed direction. She and Navarro began creating temporary installation art or calling them“functions” that occur via workshops or in unoccupied buildings or public spaces, whether independent initiatives or commissioned by institutions.

Mathias Bengtsson

To hear that Danish-born, London-based designer once told AD magazine that he was “trying to create an artificial universe where we can grow things as nature would” makes perfect sense. Taking one look at his infamous growth table and much-lauded slice chair make that statement more than accurate. While self-described as a designer, his creations are often more fine art than that of an industrial designer.

Inspired by aerospace technology and made using technologically innovative methods, his creations push the boundaries of what was once thought possible in three-dimensional design made from non-pliable materials. He rose to prominence even before graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1998. According to the Cooper Hewitt Museum, the artist used a  computer to scan the complex structure and digitally slice the image into thin horizontal layers to create his Slice chair.

With limitless imagination, Bengtsson drives the archetypal forms of typical furniture and redefines its boundaries. For example, after the Slice chair, the designer’s most intricate and complex piece is the Growth dining table, whose base resembles an interconnected jumble of tree roots. As the designer told Alistair Robinson for his profile, “My furniture is about challenging your senses: that is its function. Mission accomplished.

Roxanne Robinson
Roxanne Robinson is an award-winning Paris-based American journalist covering luxury and fashion industries with over 25 years of experience. I spent over 18 years at WWD, covering sportswear, accessories and fine jewelry. My career witnessed the shift from print media to the digital age. I gained expert knowledge of the design world, wholesale and retail markets as well as the marketing that supports them. I met endless creatives and business people who create luxury from inception to POS with the consumer. My work has appeared in Forbes.com, BoF, The Hollywood Reporter, CRFashionbook.com, The Jewelry Journal as well in-house publications and websites at Bally, Pomellato, Au Depart and Editorialist.com among others.
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