Throw a spanner in the works, and even the smoothest-running machinery will come to a stop. Most of the time you can diagnose the problem, make a quick repair and get back to business with minimal delay.
But when the spanner takes the form of a pandemic, not so much. You can moan and groan, lament lost income and opportunities, retreat into a funk. But if you’re lucky, you may reach a point where you recognize yourself as weirdly liberated from the everyday grind and be open to new directions.
This is how I found Australian woodworker Bern Chandley when we spoke at the end of September. Ordinarily a prolific and highly focused designer-builder of contemporary chairs, Bern, based in Melbourne, has spent much of his time over the past few months laboring over a single piece of furniture: a small settee in blackwood. “I’ve had very limited time in the workshop this year,” he says. With schools closed, he has been helping his wife, Alice, home-school their 9-year-old son, Flannery. Since March, Bern has had just two or three short days a week to work in the shop; a curfew has kept him from staying into the night.
The settee is a commission, the form and joinery – Nakashima meets Wegner, with staked legs (both curved and tapered), steam-bent spindles, a hand-scooped seat and stretchers that swoop up to support the arms – a new paradigm in the Chandley repertoire. There are more jigs than usual, as well as more machines, including a PantoRouter. There’s not a single right angle. Even though he’s getting paid well for the piece, the pay won’t cover the investment required to puzzle out the making. “But because it’s a new design,” he reasons, “it’s going to give me a whole lot of other chairs.” The sculptural piece of seating will become a mainstay of his build-to-order portfolio, so he’s putting in the work to make all of the processes readily repeatable. “I want them all down pat,” he says, because efficient production is important to how he makes his living.
Family & Starting Out
In July Bern turned 50. “Aging has never been something that has particularly preoccupied my thoughts,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I’ve always felt birthdays were a good excuse to draw in close the ones you love and that the warmth of their returned love is a reflection of the happiness I’ve achieved in life. I don’t care how old I am each time I feel it, just that I’m feeling it. It is life affirming.
“Today as I turn 50, in this time of physical isolation, I count myself incredibly lucky to spend the day on remote learning with my son Flann Brian Chandley, Grandson to Brian Frederick Chandley, my beautiful Dad, who we lost just a little more th[a]n 6 months ago today. Every time I think of him I’m flooded with longing to see him and speak with him. We miss him an enormous amount. He was and is, along with Mum, my greatest inspiration to be as good a person as I can be. As I look at my son, as he looks at me, as we talk to each other I’m aware of how lucky I am to have had such brilliant role models. Dad’s in my thoughts daily but I feel him especially close today.”
You can chart how important Bern’s family is to him in his voice. Nothing in our conversation makes him more animated than the stories he tells about family members, each anecdote filled with detail and color. Most of his ancestors came to Australia from Ireland. Some arrived against their will, he notes, referring to the British practice of exporting convicts to penal colonies in the late 18th century. Others came as farmers looking for opportunity. Farming remained central to the family for generations. Bern’s father, Brian, was one of nine children born on a farm near the port city of Geelong (pronounced “Ja-long”) in the state of Victoria, about 50 miles southwest of the capital, Melbourne.
The family lost the farm during the Great Depression and had to move into Geelong to look for employment. His paternal grandfather, Bill Chandley, went to work at a factory. Bern has fond memories of Bill, who was “already quite on in years” by the time Bern came along. Bill had one leg that was longer than the other, due to a bout of polio he suffered as a child. The family didn’t own a car, so he got around by bus. “He knew all the bus drivers in Geelong by their first name. He rode on a bus with a little airline bag and his rollie (handrolled) cigarettes. He was a very warm, lovely fellow,” Bern remembers, then adds in the kind of detail especially important to a child: ‘My nana’ – her name was Nellie – made a sponge cake for everyone’s birthday.”
Bern’s mother was a nurse-midwife, his dad a diesel mechanic fitter and turner. “You call them engineers over there,” he offers, “like toolmaking – working with heavy machinery.” Geelong being a port town, many businesses were involved with shipping.
In 1986, at the age of 16, Bern left school to start an apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner. “I’m from a big working-class family,” he says. “I’ve got a million cousins who are all tradesmen. I’m one of four kids; my older brother was the first in our extended family to go to university.”
It was meant to be a four-year apprenticeship, with time alternating between coursework at trade school and work for a boss who ran a house framing business. At school Bern studied building methodology – stairs, joinery techniques and traditional handwork with dovetails and mortise and tenons – not because there was a market for that kind of work (there wasn’t), but because the curriculum hadn’t been updated in years, for which he gives thanks. On the job, they framed houses; Bern has vivid memories of building pitched roofs in eucalyptus, “big, tall, straight-grain trees used in construction.” The roofs would then be topped with weatherproof corrugated steel. That way of roofing is long gone, he says; these days builders simply install trusses.
Bern finished his apprenticeship early, at the age of 19. Typically an apprentice would stay on with the boss who’d sponsored the training, but these two didn’t get along. “He was a bit of a hammer thrower,” Bern says – “a good carpenter, but always the most hated person on the site. The day I finished my apprenticeship, I quit-slash-he fired me. We had a big fight on the site.”
After a few more carpentry jobs he was ready to leave Geelong. His older sister was training to be a nurse in Melbourne, so he moved there. For two years he worked as a hospital orderly, an experience he found fascinating. “I was suddenly confronted with life and death. I was still a silly young bloke. I had to come to terms with people dying on a regular basis…and form an understanding of it…. Nurses are amazing. They’ve just got to carry on, no matter what.” He worked in the emergency room. “You’re on the front line,” he says. “There are some horrific injuries. People were thrashing around, semi-conscious, and you had to hold them down.” Part of his job was to help the nurses wrap cadavers in plastic and take them to the mortuary. “It knocked the immaturity out of me, which I’m very thankful for.”
In his 20s he did some traveling around Europe. On his return, he found his way into building sets for television, theater and American movies that were being filmed in Melbourne. Each gig lasted almost a year. One of these productions was set in the Second World War; when the crew couldn’t find a specific piece of period-authentic furniture, they brought him a picture and he figured out how to make it. “I was just knocking the [props] out, out of MDF and pine,” he says; the painters on the set “were magicians” who made the stuff look like it was built of mahogany.
“The thing with set building is, it’s very good for problem solving. The designers are notorious for giving you the easy measurements” while leaving the challenging stuff involved in curves and angles for the set builders to work out. “Depending on the job, there could be nary a right angle. ‘Star Wars’ had the most curves and angles. That’s space ships for you!” He points out that this was before CNC routers, so you couldn’t just pop what values you had into a computer. “You had to work it out yourself. You had to be very inventive.”
He’d always had an interest in furniture, so Bern filled the time between jobs with furniture commissions, taking on “anything and everything” – tables, cabinets, built-ins, carpentry jobs. He realized that making furniture was what he really wanted to do and started his own business, getting work by word of mouth. Without a shop, he built things in his backyard, or in the client’s. “I got it done,” he says. He persevered and learned from his mistakes.
Between 2005 and 2016 he shared space in group shops, a good way to build up a business when you don’t have the capital to tool up on your own. Needless to say, it could be trying; people had different priorities and interests. The others were building furniture part-time, whereas he was running a business. Eventually he concluded he needed a space of his own.
He got to know his wife, Alice Byrne, as a friend in 2006. It was summer, and Bern was in Paris. Alice happened to be there, too; her boyfriend, Alan, had been awarded a traveling scholarship. An oil painter, she’d been in Paris seven years before as the scholarship’s inaugural winner. She and Bern spent some time together visiting galleries. “I was smitten,” he says, “in the sense of ‘I’ve really got to meet a girl like Alice.’” After about a week, Bern went on his way, not knowing whether he’d ever see her again.
But shortly after he got home to Melbourne, Alice’s brother George called with news that Alice was back. Alan wasn’t with her; he had returned to Sydney. Soon after, Bern and Alice went on a first date, a pub meal and dancing – with George. They’ve been together ever since, and were married in 2009.
Alice put her painting aside when she got pregnant, concerned about the health risks of solvents. After Flannery was born, in 2011, Bern was the family’s main breadwinner. Alice went back to work outside the home part-time when Flann was 2; she manages an art supply shop that does both retail and wholesale work, along with specialty painting services such as framing and stretching canvas. Although she still has a studio space, she has largely put that work aside while raising Flann.
The Move to Chairs
Like many of us, Bern started out in bespoke (custom) work. In retrospect, he sees custom work as “a bit of a trap you can fall into. That’s the best way to burn yourself; if you haven’t built something before, you’re not ever going to get paid enough to sort out all the preliminary stuff before you make it. But it’s the best way to learn a lot.”
He stuck with custom work until about 2010, building tables, cabinets, whatever a client might want, while working part-time for a fellow woodworker, Alastair Boell, who had a school, the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Alastair was eager to have Bern teach, but Bern had always hated public speaking. “It kind of terrified me.” So he gave it a try. He’s glad he did. When Alastair invited Peter Galbert to teach a class on North American Windsor chairs, Bern assisted and found himself smitten with the joinery. Pete, Bern says, is “egoless. Very comprehending, very inventive as a maker… a very inspiring teacher.” In fact, so inspiring “that from that moment all I wanted to do was make chairs.”
Pete encouraged Bern to visit the States and teach at his school in New Hampshire. In 2019 they made it happen; he taught a chair of his own design that he calls the “No. 14 Chair” – “after Thonet,” he laughs, “because I’m shit at naming things.”
He still makes other forms when he’s really keen on a particular piece, but chairs have become his livelihood. Here we return to the topic of efficiency. “You have to have your own product,” he believes; that way, you’ve got the jigs and processes in place. People order one (or 14!) of that thing “and you can just go straight to work, without thinking” – at least, in principle. He admits “that’s easier said than done.”
He now teaches chairmaking classes at his shop in Thomastown, an industrial area on the northern outskirts of Melbourne. With block walls and a concrete floor, it’s around 2,000 square feet in a gray brick building surrounded by old factories. Teaching has changed the nature of his business, injecting a welcome bit of variety. He keeps classes small, with no more than four students at a time, so that people with different skill levels can all keep up, and he tries to design each class so that students at any level of experience can get something from it.
Teaching has also proved a stabilizing influence in economic terms. “It’s more lucrative than general chairmaking,” he says. “It can afford you that little bit of extra time.” He’s come to regard a few teaching gigs through the year as “economic pillars” around which he can schedule the rest of his work and hopes the higher income from teaching will allow him more time to develop new designs. In Bern’s view, a good chair design combines durability, structural integrity and comfort. “I love designing chairs. Developing them is the most fun you can possibly have.”
— Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work” and “Kitchen Think”
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.
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