City: San Francisco, California

Passion: Woodwork

Website: www.jrusten.com

The first time we met Jared was one afternoon when we were scoping a location for our Shine event. Jared walked out of his wood shop, and with a big smile and excitement, told us stories of some of the furniture pieces in his gallery. Jared is not your ordinary wood maker. In fact, Jared is an artist, an innovator and a man with a vision. Known for having created the famous California tables, Jared builds pieces for the next four generations. He may be the next Eames, but for now we know him as the haute couturier of wood, the creator of the famous California table series an involved mentor and the host with the most.

ON PASSION

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I’ve always had a drive to make things. As a kid, I probably had more fun building the skateboard ramp than skating it. I really like old things. It’s funny because San Jose, where I grew up, was once a huge agricultural hub before it became the Silicon Valley. I’ve always felt a connection with the past, and things and activities that seem honest and enduring.

As a teenager, I discovered woodworking shows on PBS, and began watching them every Sunday afternoon. Then I started going to lumberyards and bought myself a single saw, a chisel, and a few clamps. There’s a great hardwood showroom in San Jose called Southern Lumber, and I would spend hours in there, marveling over the colors and the iridescent grain in some of the species.

I just fell in love with wood as a creative medium.

I make this comparison often: I look at wood like a gemstone, like when you extract a diamond from the earth. It’s just a dirty, crystalline nugget, and it’s full value is only reached when a skillful master has carefully cut it and polished it. It’s only then that it will reflect the greatest light.

Before woodworking, I was playing in bands and doing creative things that were a little more performative. And sometimes I miss connecting with people in a way that’s more obvious and accessible. I mean, it’s difficult for something like a chair to evoke the same kind of feeling that a movie, or a beautiful piece of music might inspire, but that’s what I’m going for; to make objects that are compelling enough that there is some connection, something communicated and felt.

ON MASTERY

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If you have passion for something, you need to be a nerd about it, it needs to consume you. In the early years, I couldn’t get enough. 40 hours a week is not going to cut it.

ON TRANSITION

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At one time I thought I might want to be a historian. I’d watch a Ken Burns documentary and the idea of being one of those talking heads, the people who are total authorities on some specific, niche topic, really appealed to me. But I wasn’t cut out for the world of academia. I was too antsy. I needed to be active and creative, and if I wasn’t totally captivated or engaged with something, I could not will my attention to focus.

I still thought I needed a degree in something, so I decided a design program would give me skills to fall back on if my entrepreneurial ideas didn’t work out. While at school, I had some friends working tech sales jobs and they convinced me to join them. So while I took classes at night, I got a good taste of the corporate world; training seminars, meetings, office politics, and I was making what was a ton of money to me at that time. After just a year, I knew I couldn’t endure any more of the corporate world, or the seemingly meaningless hoops that the design degree was demanding of me.

Eventually I realized that, more than the degree, I just wanted to learn more woodworking skills. I visited schools all over the west coast, and found Cerritos College, a community college on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, with a huge and vibrant woodworking program.

In LA, I talked my way into an ‘associate’ membership with a guild of professional woodworkers. I’d only completed a few humble projects up to that point, so I guess my enthusiasm and tenacity was enough for them to let me hang around and come to meetings. At the time, I was taking any crappy job that would afford me the time to take classes and build pieces in my little one-car garage workshop. I worked in cabinet shops lifting boxes and sheets of plywood all day, and finally when I was brave and desperate enough, I quit my steady job and cobbled together a weekly schedule assisting various guild members in their workshops.

Ultimately, I took more and more days of the week to work in my own little shop and prepare pieces to enter in woodworking exhibitions and contests. And while working for others (William Stranger in particular), I was given the opportunity to take projects through every stage of construction, from conception to delivery, and was allowed to see how the business side of things worked. So I had a growing confidence, and when there was an opportunity to move back to San Jose in 2003, I took the chance with the goal of opening my own woodworking studio there.

ON FAILURE

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Failure is part of the recipe for success. It is only through failure that you know how to edit and refine and come to an ideal. A failure is a rough draft. The design process is really painful. When I’m deep into the process of designing a new piece, I have alternating nights of joy and pain. It can be really hard, and defeating, and sad.

I think the value of my experience has only been earned through failure. Even the most intelligent, well-educated furniture-design MFA who comes to me as an assistant lacks the years of learning ‘what NOT to do’. That’s part of putting in your ‘10,000 hours,’ learning the hard way what does and doesn’t work, and why.

ON FEAR

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Being too self aware and analytical can sometimes be a handicap. Failure is a blessing because it helps you learn what not to do, but you have to be careful that it does not scare you into not trying. I joke that the most important thing you need is an irrational optimism. You just have to maintain that kind of naive expectation that everything will work out, even when evidence suggests the opposite. I’m always trying to re-ignite the same kind of pure intent and expectation I had in my early 20’s.

I suppose I also believe in the ideas of projecting and manifesting. Last August I was preparing for an exhibition. I was trying to finish a new rocking chair design that I intended to be the highlight of the show. I only had a month to get it done and I knew it’d take 16 hours a day of perfect focus and execution to do it. I’d heard that Barbara Streisand would be attending the show as a hostess, and even though I don’t have a particularly strong connection with her, I just fixated on this vision of her coming into the opening night party and being completely captivated with my chair. I imagined her sitting in it while photographers snapped photos of her awed reaction. Basically, I had this expectation that I’d be carried around on the shoulders of all the other exhibitors because my chair was just so awesome. And while this vision was interrupted by the occasional panic attack, I also held to this idea and imagined what that pride would feel like. In reality, Barbara Streisand never showed up and I wasn’t feted or cheered by everyone, but the rocking chair got done! It turned out better than expected, was really well-received, and sold right away.

ON MONEY

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My relationship with money is complicated because I am constantly balancing money and lifestyle. If I hire more people, I’ll make more money, but the quality of work will go down. And I do enjoy working in the shop by myself. It’s a difficult balance between making more money versus the luxury of being alone. I didn’t chose to be a woodworker so I could delegate the craft to someone else and have to manage a bunch of divergent personalities, skill levels, and expectations. But honestly, I’m still learning how to navigate that territory. You can only be a starving artist for so long before you get sick of it and feel ready to make some concessions. However my definition of success is still, ‘Are my client interactions good? Have I offered the best work that I can do?’ That’s what is going to haunt me at night. I mean, an overdue bill will haunt you, too, so there has to be a balance.

If money was my priority, I would certainly have chosen a different career. My aspiration is really only to be able to make enough to sustain myself while advancing the craft and contributing to the field of design. And maybe shop at Whole Foods without hesitation, and the occasional vacation.

ON SELF-LOVE

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I am pretty hard on myself. My therapy is to spend time alone in the workshop. If I am in the middle of a really big project with a lot of steps, sometimes I just need to take a few hours to build a new jig, or shelf, or some other quick little immediate project that makes me feel successful and gratified.

Other than that, I try to surround myself with positivity. Even if that means listening to a cheesy self-help book while I work, or podcasts that are inspiring. I can definitely be very self-critical so it’s important to expose myself to things that will spin my perspective.

ON INSPIRATION

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Wood inspires me. When I have a particularly interesting batch of wood, I feel bound to honor it. Love is the other inspiration. Love for clients who will receive the piece I am making and love for future generations who will enjoy it. I always tell my assistants that we are building not just for the client, but for the great-great-grandchildren who will inherit it, and maybe even some distant museum curator that will judge it.

My other main inspiration is seeing something that could be better. Mediocrity is really depressing to me and spurs me to action. For many things, I believe the adage that says, ‘Good is the enemy of great.’

ON SUPPORT

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I’m really lucky to have a network of very supportive teachers, clients, and loved ones. I’m still in frequent contact with the woodworkers I trained with in LA, and they’ve been very generous over the years to answer questions and give advice. I also have an amazing girlfriend, Emily, who is a constant source of advice and clarity, is a partner in managing our gallery space, and despite my frustrating pickiness, enjoys making sure I’m well fed with healthy, delicious meals.

The only reason I’m still in business is because in the midst of the economic downturn, when many jobs cancelled, I had a number of clients, good friends, and family who gave me work even when they were probably feeling the pinch themselves. I have one client who sent me a substantial check when I was really struggling with the simple directive: ‘You know my place, make me something cool.’

ADVICE TO THE COMMUNITY

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If you want to keep your craft or your art totally pure, keep it as a hobby. If I didn’t need to pay the rent with my work, I could spend as long as I wanted on a project, enjoy pure expression with no deadlines or expectation, and then when I deemed it complete, I could give it to a friend or family member. My advice regarding making a career out of your passion: don’t do it, unless you CAN’T not do it.

You put a lot on the line when you go into business for yourself; you risk money, reputation, and maybe most important, your own sense of pride. There are definitely days when I miss the security of a 9-5 job and a set amount deposited in the bank every other week. But if you know you won’t be happy otherwise, and are ready for the sink-or-swim intensity of entrepreneurship, go for it.

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