When Sonoma-based furniture maker Michael Palace took a job as a contractor in the 1980s, he had no idea that this would lead him to discover a new medium for making art.
At the time, Palace was working as an artist in Arizona, where he created hyperrealistic paintings from photographs he took on desert hikes. He turned to home building as a means to make more money, which in turn led him to carpentry and discovering the joys of creating three-dimensional art out of wood.
Palace eventually moved to the Bay Area and later to Sonoma, where he honed his craft as a woodworker and furniture maker. He now creates fine art furniture and cabinets in his roadside studio on Arnold Drive, just outside downtown Sonoma.
When people ask Palace how long it takes him to build a piece of furniture, he jokingly tells them, “About 30 years.” While it might take him only a couple of days to build a cabinet or a chair, it is the decades of continuous practice of his craft that enable him to create furniture that are structurally sound and visually stunning.
Palace’s muse is leftover wood on construction sites. “People treat wood like it’s garbage,” he said. He collects the discarded lumber and then creates furniture from it. He likes to “resurrect (fallen) trees into art,” he said. Over the years, he’s collected not only lumber but a library of books on the history of furniture design and joinery.
Palace sources wood primarily from the town of Sonoma and the surrounding areas, which provide him an ample supply of fallen walnut, maple and eucalyptus trees. He rarely uses wood from remote areas or from vulnerable regions, like the rainforests in the tropics. These sustainable practices allow the furniture maker to sleep well at night.
The grains, textures and hues of the wood provide the “color” for Palace’s furniture pieces. He creates contrast in each piece by using woods in a variety of colors, from the ruddy red of the eucalyptus to the honey tones of the maple. He then carves wood overlays into what he calls “erosion patterns.”
Palace likes to play with form, too. He bends table- and chair legs into rounded shapes, which, while not perfectly straight, are perfectly balanced. He finds inspiration for these shapes in a variety of places, from animal legs to his daughter’s feet, when she was a teenaged ballerina dancing on pointe.
The Sonoma artist occasionally uses his painting skills when creating furniture. One desk, entitled Fragile As a Forest, has been adorned with hyperrealistic butterflies that look as though they just landed on the wood. Another cabinet has trees on its doors that appear to be reflected in glass.
Palace’s love for trees stems from his childhood years in Washington, when his family went on numerous camping trips in the woods and brought along books to study the plants and animals around them.
His goal now is to create furniture pieces that are so sustainable that they will last the same amount of time it takes for a tree to reach its full growth, which he estimates to be about 100 to 200 years. Meticulous joinery allows him to create furniture that stand the test of time as it allows the wood to expand and contract with the seasons and changing temperatures. Nails and screws, on the other hand, are more likely to cause splits and breakage, he said.
Palace attempts to capture and emphasize the living essence of the trees in each piece of furniture he creates by using raw edges and highlighting the different grains. “I really want people to value and treasure our environment,” he said. He doesn’t like to conceal any flaws, like cracks or holes in the wood. “Nature isn’t perfect,” he added.
For more information about Michael Palace’s furniture, visit michaelpalacedesign.com