David Osborne comes from a family of engineers and amateur tinkerers. And you might say his passion for design is in his DNA, though he is the only Osborne who is a furniture maker. After graduating from the venerable North Bennet Street School in Boston, he immersed himself in furniture making and restoration, gaining experience initially in the Federal style and then moving on to a wider variety of styles and influences. We caught up with the master craftsman in his Ossining workshop for a chat about some of his recent projects and what inspires him.
Q: What drives your work?
A: I’ve always liked to explore with my hands and with my mind. School was the fuse, and later, working with antiques, I found the furniture had stories to tell.
Q: What can you tell us about your process?
A: One of the things I like best about beginning a project is selecting the unfinished lumber. I work with two specialty wood suppliers. I look for color, consistency, and grain figure. Over the years, after looking at thousands and thousands of boards and milling and shaping them, I recognize wood best suited to the job. I take pride in using materials that are consistent with traditional furniture making. These are ingredients that may not be noticeable to the client, but would be spotted a mile away by the trained eye.
Q: What woods are people gravitating toward now?
A: Walnut is very popular, and it’s well-suited to minimalist modern pieces. But I’ve also been getting requests for furniture made from lighter woods.
David in his workspace
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Q: What are people looking for today?
A: Tastes have changed for sure, and most people who are looking for quality furniture today want to move away from the styles of their parents. Midcentury modern has been the predominant influence in recent years, and I am doing a lot of minimalist pieces that focus on the basic material as opposed to ornamentation.
I still have the client who will be looking for chairs that are hand-carved and hand-painted, but in general, designers will approach me to design furniture that addresses a particular space or offers a solution to a certain need.
Q: How do you create most of your pieces?
A: I have a bandsaw, a joiner, a table saw, and a surface planer that I use for the bulk of the process. Then I turn to two hand planes and a set of chisels for finishing.
Q: Where do you go for inspiration?
A: Earlier in my career I spent a lot of time visiting museums and galleries and developing a sizable reference library. Recently, I got married and moved to the picturesque Hudson Valley. Being here has provided a new perspective and a passionate desire to express that in my work. I love visiting local historical landmarks and gardens and analyzing the juxtaposition of function and beauty.
Q: Is there a particular period of furniture making that speaks to you?
A: Initially, I was drawn to Federal-style furniture for its elegant lines and the precise demands for inlays. I also was drawn to the beauty of tiger maple and curly maple. As time has gone by, I see that the draw is more fundamental. I get a commission; I’m excited about it. I work on it, finish it, and it’s completed. There’s a joy in that. Then it starts all over again. It’s the challenge.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My current project is an office desk and cabinets made with a mix of stained walnut and multicolored high-gloss lacquer. It will have a modern, sleek look.
Q: Any recent projects you’ve been sorry to see go out the door?
A: Not really sorry but happy it turned out so well—a crescent-shaped desk of tiger maple that I gave to my brother as a retirement gift. I also made a corner cabinet with circular glass to go with it. My brother loves them!