A Woodworker’s Inspirational Tale of Growth

Artisan John Rousseau shares life lessons taught to him by wood.

John Rousseau (Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
John Rousseau (Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)

Handcrafted furniture is ingrained with the creativity, wisdom, and devotion of the artisan who makes it. It exudes a vitality, a spirit, that fills the heart and home. John Rousseau, one of British Columbia’s most talented bespoke furniture-makers, describes for us the depth of his craft — how he dances along the line between chaos and perfect form as he creates, how wood itself has taught him profound life lessons, how he is part of a worldwide renaissance of artisanship.

“Being a craftsman is all about being in a constant state of fine-tuning and improving yourself, your environment, your products, and your mind frame,” he says. “I integrate my craftsmanship into every facet of my life so that wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, it’s always creative, dynamic. It’s always an expression of not only who I am now, but who I’m trying to become.”

Rousseau has also been a jazz musician for decades. People often ask him about how he writes songs, “What comes first — the lyrics or music?” But artistic creation isn’t such a linear process, he says. The music flows forth in a way Rousseau can’t quite describe, and so too does his creativity in woodworking.

He might take a piece of wood, for example, and see a table top emerge as he works on it. Then it’s obvious to him that it needs a steel, white powder-coated base. “Sometimes it’s the exact opposite,” he says. “You have an idea for a base. You crank a base out and then you just build a top for it.”

“You could liken it to a manic creative frenzy where you never know what’s going to come out, and you couldn’t explain it to somebody before you did it. It just happens,” he says.

(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)

Both when he’s making music and when he’s making furniture, Rousseau stays perfectly within the moment. He feels the notes and weaves them together as they emerge from his instrument. In making furniture, he creates a harmony between the various materials he works with, whether it’s wood, leather, stone, or steel.

“If you’re not improvisational in nature, I would not recommend the crafts because you’re constantly dancing with disaster,” he says. “I find that some of my best work is when I was just walking along that knife edge between disaster and greatness. It is in that chaos that you find your best work.”

Some of my best work is when I was just walking along that knife edge between disaster and greatness. –John Rousseau

Craftsmanship that goes through struggle, perseverance, and then victory, has soul and strength. An artisan’s hand adds to the furniture his inward essence and fortitude, something a machine-made piece cannot offer. A machine doesn’t question, nor does it enlighten. It just coldly replicates without personality or uniqueness.

“I think a happy human is a human that can take a step back at the end of the day and look at something that they have accomplished that’s beautiful. Craftsmanship is the epitome of that,” Rousseau says.

An advocate for craftsmanship, Rousseau also speaks out against problems in the woodworking industry. He describes a “disgusting” reality in North America’s wood industry: the best flitches of wood are sold to foreign markets, where the best cuts are removed. The remainder is turned into particle board and sold back to North America as sheet goods or cheap furniture. Then, five to ten years later, that mass-produced, poor quality furniture ends up in landfills.

“We can do better than that,” he says. “We can process our own wood here and build beautiful, lasting pieces of furniture here, and keep our jobs here. That’s the tip of our spear in my shop.”

John Rousseau's booth at the 2018 Luxury Home & Design Show hosted by Taste of Life magazine in Vancouver's BC Place, June 21–24, 2018. (Carsten Arnold Photography)
John Rousseau’s booth at the 2018 Luxury Home & Design Show hosted by Taste of Life magazine in Vancouver’s BC Place, June 21–24, 2018. (Carsten Arnold Photography)

Rousseau saw reflected in the Luxury Home & Design Show’s mission his hope for the future of handmade craftsmanship, and so he participated as an exhibitor. The show — hosted by our sister media, Taste of Life in June  brought together in Vancouver artisans from all over the world who are dedicated to perfection despite all challenges, who are willing to linger over fine details in a fast-paced and mechanized world.

The artisanal renaissance has already begun.

“Somehow when you’re on a path, you find other people that are on the same path,” Rousseau says. “My clients have moved past the phase in life where they are settling for second-best objects. The objects that they want to interface with are fine objects… shaped by hand, designed by somebody thoughtfully, and have an heirloom character to them.”

A natural choice

Rousseau grew up in the mountains of British Columbia — the “Lotus Land, the land of fairies and gnomes,” Rousseau says jokingly. His father was a cabinetmaker, and it seemed Rousseau’s life was already carved out for him.

“Woodworking never really seemed like a choice,” he says. His first job, at the age of 9, was making bird-feeders. “It’s just in my blood,” he says. Living surrounded by forest also made wood a natural medium for him.

But in his 20s, Rousseau found himself working in hospitality and feeling unfulfilled. “There wasn’t really much to show for it at the end of the day besides a pocket full of cash,” he says. He decided to return to working with his hands, and spent the next eight years setting stone and mason tiles in high-end bathrooms.

One day, a client who knew Rousseau had a background in woodworking asked if he would build her a dining room table. Rousseau said, “Absolutely, I’d love to. I’ve been dying to do some woodworking.” That’s all it took — he started laying away cash from each tile job, tucking it away in an enveloped with the words “woodworking machinery” written on it.

“I just remember that old feeling, that very primal feeling that was hardwired into me that I had to get back to it,” he says. After gradually building up his shop with the essential machinery, he transitioned to woodworking full-time seven years ago.

Perfect aim

Rousseau says one of the biggest challenges has been to avoid being swept up in the frantic pace of the consumer market. It’s not easy helping pioneer a return to handcrafting, even though it is clear to Rousseau that many people now want this mode of production instead of the fast, factory approach.

Archery helps Rousseau calm his mind, and thus stay focused on his goals. Throughout his day, when he has some down-time — such as when he’s waiting for the glue on some boards to dry — he’ll shoot a few arrows.

“Archery is just such an amazing metaphor for life,” he says. “You hit what you aim at.”

Archery is just such an amazing metaphor for life. You hit what you aim at. –John Rousseau

It also teaches discipline and continued work toward a goal, he says, because if you stop practicing for even a month or so you’ll find it becomes a lot harder to hit the mark. Craftsmanship is the same, he says. Daily repetition gives you the strength and form to consistently create beautiful furniture.

Listening to the wood

Rousseau has come to know wood intimately — he’s learned what makes it pliable, its obstinancies, how to cater to its moods. “Wood is alive,” he says. “People have this idea that a medium is static. Wood is very dynamic. It’s constantly moving and changing shape, and it does whatever it wants.”

He says every type of wood has a different sound or resonance when you cut it, shape it, or knock on it with your knuckles.

Wood is very dynamic. It’s constantly moving and changing shape, and it does whatever it wants. –John Rousseau

“As a woodworker, you are just along for the ride,” he says. “You can stack the odds in your favour by using well-seasoned, properly dried woods, but there are certain situations where you can do absolutely everything right and the wood still has an agenda of its own.”

Rousseau acutely listens to the material he’s working with. “Wood is a very humbling instructor… very much a mentor,” he says. “I do what the wood lets me do. If I cut into a piece of wood and it takes off on me, I don’t use that piece of wood for this project.”

(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)

Marble acts the same way, as do other materials, he says. Marble cuts beautifully and brilliantly, unless you cut it at the wrong degree or hit a vein. “[Then] it just disintegrates,” he says. “You have to listen to the medium.”

How he works with his materials applies to other areas of his life as well. Rousseau has realized that, just as he can’t force his will on wood, he can’t force people to act a certain way. If there’s a conflict, he’ll step back and see how the situation unfolds.

Fluid creativity is needed to harmonize his vision with his clients’ while also listening to the material. “If you listen too hard to any one of those frequencies, you miss out on what’s happening on the other channels.”

The ultimate sling chair

The design process behind Rousseau’s new flagship product — a leather sling chair that he displayed at the Luxury Home & Design Show — included a month of research.

Each hide stretches at a different rate. He had to consider how the chair would change two, three, four, years down the road. He looked at all the stresses — the shifting weight of a person wiggling around in it, how the pressure on the material would change if the person seated in it put his legs up on a footrest.

“When you start thinking about all that goes into the design of a chair, it’s probably one of the most complex things that humans have designed,” he says.

Rousseau says this intense focus on one product has paid off. The sling chair is a redesign of a classic piece “with tweaks in all the right places,” he says. “When we put New Zealand sheep skin on it, you feel as though you’re sitting in a cloud,” he says.

(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)

Most of Rousseau’s work is bespoke, he loves creating one-of-a-kind pieces, but this sling chair is an exception. “I don’t want just one person experiencing this,” he says. “I want a mass of people to get behind this product and really get a sense of how comfortable something like this can be.”

With some humour, but also truth, Rousseau says he wants this chair to be the new La-Z-Boy — a handcrafted product that becomes ubiquitous, a symbol of the renaissance in craftsmanship Rousseau and the Luxury Home & Design Show are helping create.

(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)
(Photo courtesy of John Rousseau)