House + Home Q+A

Furniture designer Jeff Porter makes wood do ‘what it’s not supposed to do’

Updated: 2013-09-01T01:41:28Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

After more than 30 years as an antiques restorer, Jeff Porter decided to try his hand at contemporary furniture design. He had the skills, and exposure to a broad range of styles, from years running Cheap Antiques with his parents. When they retired, Porter and his wife, Vivian, opened Furniture Solutions, doing antiques restoration and furniture design at 1240 Swift Ave. in North Kansas City.

What spurred you to develop your own designs?

When my parents retired, we could see the writing on the wall. In the 1980s and ’90s, Cheap Antiques (which opened in the East Bottoms and moved several times), would import antiques from Europe and we did real well. Then the market changed — the younger generation wasn’t buying antiques. So Vivian and I changed the name and have a new vision.

I understand you are self-taught.

I’ve been doing restoration since I was 19, and I’m still doing it at Furniture Solutions. I can take anything and put it back together, but it was getting boring.

How did you start?

For my first piece, this anvil-shaped side table, I wanted to make my version of a modern table. I used baltic birch and covered it with black satin paint thinned to a matte finish. Over the past two years, I’ve designed 74 pieces, including chairs, lamps, dining tables, wall reliefs and an egg-shaped wardrobe.

The tech generation likes neat things, so I’m trying to make something totally different to appeal to them. Now, I have people I’ve worked with in restoration coming down to see the next new thing.

How would you describe your design signature?

I like to stress wood, to turn and twist it until it almost breaks. I like to get it to do what it’s not supposed to do. That’s fun.

For this tree branch wall relief, I stressed 45 leaves. For each, I took two pieces of veneer, put them in boiling water and let them partially dry. Then I glued the two sides together and put them in a jig to get the curved shape. After they dried, I sanded, stained and finished them before attaching them to the branch.

What inspires you?

My main inspiration is my environment. Driving home one day, I saw an American flag blowing in the wind and thought, “I wonder if I could make a piece of wood do that?” I created a furling wall relief titled “In the Wind.”

An early coffee table I designed called “The Viking” was inspired by the ribbon candy that my grandmother in Leawood always had. It has an oval glass top that rests on a ribbon-like base of painted baltic birch. I used a dinner plate to determine the diameter of the curves. I’ve also read a lot of structural engineering books, and I’ve seen thousands of pieces of furniture. I like art deco.

Now I’m starting to get into exotic woods: red heart, purple heart, padauk. Padauk is $16.99 a board foot. For the coffee table I call “Vertigo,” I used 150 pieces of purple heart, black walnut, white birch and mahogany.

Some of your designs are pretty wild.

This “Off Kilter” dresser has different-sized drawers that I’ve placed in a stairstep design, alternating white birch and African ribbon mahogany. One of my earliest designs was a pair of “Spider Chairs” with multiple curving legs like a spider. Those recently sold.

And this chaise has an unusual shape.

It’s called “Infinity,” and it was partly inspired by the breast cancer emblem. It started out as a vertical piece, and I was going to put glass shelves in the loops, but when I turned it sideways, I re-envisioned it as a chaise. A cat could sleep underneath. I want my work to be interesting from all angles.

I think it’s a bit narrow though. Never make a chair off a thin man. The curves really pushed my upholsterer. It took us a week to figure out the pleats.

And who chooses the upholstery?

Vivian picks out the upholstery. You never want a man choosing upholstery. I used to fight with her over furniture, and I found out after being married for 25 years that if your wife is happy, you’re happy. Sometimes old school is the best way to handle it.

Contact

Contact Jeff Porter at Furniture Solutions, 816-471-0092 or go to KCFurnitureSolutions.com/

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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