Mark Tan is a great furniture maker. I met him at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, CO last year (2019). He had invited me to teach a 5 day box-making class. He ran the shop there and was in charge of woodworking programing for Anderson Ranch. My experience there was amazing, and that's because Mark did a fantastic job. The shop was in perfect running order, and he and his assistants where there to help whenever I needed it. He has a mature and beautiful aesthetic. I asked a series of questions, and I'll let his answers speak for themselves. Mark has left Anderson Ranch, and begins the MFA program in furniture design at Virginia Commonwealth later this year, assuming that we are not genuinely at the end times. If you are on Instagram, give Mark a follow. He's @nintando.
Oh, I bet Mark didn't know this, but he and I have something in common. As I teenager, I also spent time making street ramps and halfpipes for skating. His love for woodworking started when he was 16, because of skating. I think I was a bit younger, but I am 100% certain that Mark was and still is a much better skater than I ever was.
What got you started woodworking?
Skateboarding. Skateboarding got me started in woodworking. When I was 16, I had found an obsession with it. Everything about the lifestyle, from DIY obstacles down to the physical board itself, all of its details were brought to my attention: the curves, the layers, the material, etc. I found this exploration of creativity to be limitless. My friends and I would look through the magazines and watch all the VHS videos and dreamt about the possibility of making our own ramps, boxes, and rails. We got around to achieving our goal of making these objects. The woodshop classes in high school is where I spent most of my time which eventually lead to me pursing Furniture Design in the Crafts & Design Program at Sheridan College.
What are the 3 most important things you’ve learned in woodworking?
Why woodworking? What does it give you that other activities and crafts don’t?
Woodworking gives you an opportunity of discovery throughout the entire design and building process. When you start sketching ideas, you discover that maybe you want to build something else and generate new ideas. When you start making scale models, you discover that maybe your proportions are off. When you start making a full scale mock up, you might discover that maybe the seat height is too high or too low. When you start milling rough lumber, you discover the patterns in wood grain. This sense of discovery during the entire process is what other activities don’t give you. The satisfaction of completing a piece with a malleable material is fascinating in the sense that all of those questions are almost never asked or noticed from the general public.
What’s something everyone should know?
When an opportunity arrives, just say yes. Leave all of the doubts behind you. If you ever get a chance to visit a craft school for a workshop on a scholarship, residency, etc., just say yes. These are life changing experiences that will advance your artwork and may lead to new opportunities.
Why do you make the specific things that you make?
The things I make is a creative form of self expression. I intend to design products that are understandable and long lasting while being thorough down to the last detail. The work I produce has to satisfy not only function, but also aesthetics. My ambition is to create work that brings joy to those who appreciate it, and I strive to reach simplicity, form and function. The objects I make have become very clean-lined and minimal, and consist of monochromatic tones.
Who has had the greatest impact on your woodworking?
This is a hard question to answer. During my time at Anderson Ranch, I was able to work alongside some of the best in the business. When I was programming workshops, I had one goal in mind: cater to everyone. Woodworking has multiple ways to approach your ideas, techniques, and execution, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see multiple approaches to fine woodworking, and broad experience of the craft generally.
Have you incorporated lessons learned in other parts of your life in your woodworking?
Definitely! Don't be shy! I’ve seen some woodworkers get nervous or embarrassed to work in front of others. Just go out there and do it. Ask questions and learn from your mistakes, because the possibilities in woodworking are unlimited.
What’s one thing you’d teach another woodworker to help them improve their skills, understanding or design?
The craziest thing about making work is that you can say what if? What if I do this? I think I could do this! And you could go do it. You can take something that was pure thought and turn it into a reality. Making art is a matter of putting ideas into action and turning them into reality. I’ve sat through many demos of the same idea but taught with a different execution. Interact with all of them, and you will discover what works best for you and start to develop your own voice.
I love furniture design, and smart techniques. This blog is about both.