Designers of the Year Photo Credit: Carlo Ricci

Furniture Designer of the Year 2013: Brent Comber

Sculptor, furniture designer and artist Brent Comber defies categorization with his holistic and inspiring approach to wood.

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In furniture design, just when you think that every confluence of form, medium and detail has been done, you come across a designer whose work is so authentic that you can’t imagine that it hasn’t always been there. At its highest level, furniture design is more akin to music or art, a singular expression of the creator’s imagination—that you can also rest a coffee cup and a few magazines on. Such is the wonderful grey area that Brent Comber practices in.

Brent Comber bench

These days it’s getting harder to classify Comber’s work. It’s sold in furniture stores but also in art galleries. He shows at Art Basel in Miami and he helps design restaurants in cities from New York to Tokyo. His sculptures welcome the repeated placing of hands upon them. In fact, when this year’s panel of esteemed judges regarded Comber’s body of work, the only wrinkle they could come up with was how to classify the handcrafted wonders that emerge from his North Vancouver studio: are they the spiritual offspring of Gustav Stickley or Donald Judd?

Brent Comber stool

The inability to pigeonhole his work doesn’t bother Comber at all. “For the longest time, we resisted labelling the work as ‘benches’ or ‘tables,'” he says. “We were content for their size and shape to dictate their functionality.” And while the work has artistic chops, the creator remains the down-to-earth fourth-generation North Vancouverite who leads a team of self-described problem-solvers that includes a chef, a musician and an artist, all united in their love of working with wood. Their output ranges from glowing wooden spheres (“Shattered Sphere”), and a stool crafted from narrow tree trunks that would otherwise be considered waste (“Alder Cube”), to the perfect arch of a bench (“Saddle”).
Brent Comber table
Comber’s career in woodworking grew out of his work as a garden designer. His clients needed functional pieces in their yards, and he responded. Since then the work has grown and matured to such a degree that it’s dangerously close to becoming iconic while still being produced. “Comber-esque” has joined the design lexicon to describe a piece that uses wood in an organic way that’s simultaneously modern in form and traditional in material. And sincere flattery abounds—not everything you see these days that’s Comber-esque is his.

But even as familiarity grows with his work, Comber makes sure that it evolves. He recently started introducing some paint to the wood, imparting the look of hand-built ceramics while still never losing track of the gist of the material. The one constant is his quest to unlock the soul he sees within each piece of raw timber he touches—”honouring the material,” as he describes it. “Everyone understands the language of wood,” he says. And when it’s expressed by Comber, he’s right. wl

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