Inside the Studio with Famed Furniture Maker Jared Rusten

After rooting around a box in the back of his workshop, Jared Rusten pulls out an ordinary-looking block of honey-colored wood. He carefully shaves off a few curly strips and says, “smell that.” The wood gives off an intense citrusy, minty, crisp scent.

“It’s called Port Orford cedar. It’s this resinous soft wood that grows in northern California and southern Oregon,” he says. “You’ve never smelled any wood like it.”

Rusten is one of San Francisco’s touted furniture makers-woodworkers-designers. Jared Rusten is best known for his California Series of tables and desks that are perfectly shaped silhouettes of the state. His work is fastidious, precise, and has a deceptively spare aesthetic.

However, what is most obvious about Rusten’s designs is that he is in love with wood. The distinguishing aspect of all of his creations – from desks to chairs to tables to credenzas – is that wood is king. Each board has its own personality, which he says needs to be highlighted.

Rusten uses Port Orford cedar to make small light boxes; when turned on, they permeate the surrounding area with the wood’s intoxicating smell. Other favorites are maple and walnut, especially a California native species of walnut called Claro.

Rusten describes the personalities of each type of wood by personifying them as archetypal females. Maple he imagines as a tall, gorgeous, Type A blonde, which he typically uses for the base structure of his furniture. “She is like the CEO of a company who is super effective, super smart, and super tough,” he says. “Don’t cross her, because she also has a brittleness to her.”

Whereas walnut is a relaxed and curvy brunette, which he uses for the seats and backs of chairs that someone would have more contact with. “I like Claro walnut because it has that same vibe of softness, but it’s like the crazy brunette who is really well traveled and well read, but is also snarky and crude,” he says. “It just has such a vibrant color palette, you see purples and blues.” 

Rusten started his love affair with wood growing up in San Jose building derby cars and skateboard ramps out of his parent’s garage. He eventually developed a deeper appreciation for the material and began checking out woodworking books from the library and pouring over different species at the lumberyard. He went onto study woodworking at Cerritos College and learned more about his heroes – George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, and James Krenov – who are the grandfathers of woodworking’s Arts and Crafts movement.

After school and apprenticeships, Rusten opened up his Bay Area woodshop in 2003. He has since exhibited at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, Pasadena Museum of California Art, Los Angeles Design Center, Design Within Reach, and in various galleries. 

While Rusten loves building tables and credenzas, chairs seem to be his real passion. In his studio, which is next to his workshop, he points to his Palo Alto Low Chair. Its structure is made of maple and the seat and back feature two pieces of contoured walnut. Rather than four legs, the chair is on a rounded stand. “Try it out,” he says. The chair is startlingly comfortable.

For Rusten, there’s something gratifying about figuring out how to make an object comfortable, beautiful, and flawless. “I obsess on details,” he says. “It’s the same kind of satisfaction as sweeping the floor.” And, no two pieces are the same as he is constantly refining his method. He can have dozens of designs for leg shapes, as well as new ideas of how to showcase the wood’s structure and grain. The main idea, he says, is to advance the craft of woodworking.

“Wood can be a little bit limiting in terms of self expression,” he says. “A person might not be touched by a chair in the same way that they’re touched by a song or a movie. But that’s my goal.” 

To see more of Rusten’s work, go to his website.

 All photos by Karen Cline