It’s with great sadness that I learned that Wayne Muma passed away suddenly just before this article went to print. I asked Konrad Sauer, a friend of Wayne’s and fellow Canadian artisan to share his thoughts:
“He was a deep thinker. He took time to ponder everything—how he wanted to experience the world, and how his work and efforts would impact the world.”
“He rarely compromised. Wayne was most at home outside, in the woods, and in his shop making things. He had a farmer’s approach to problem solving, but the execution was always done to the very best of his abilities—permanent solutions, not temporary fixes. He was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge and came alive when he found a kindred spirit to talk about the outdoors, canoeing, woodworking, farming, the land, the planet and all things that grow.”
The Organic Furniture of Wayne Muma
Wayne Muma, an Ontario-based furniture maker, couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t building things.
Growing up, Wayne spent time with his dad building projects large and small, including a couple of wooden boats. Boatbuilding later came to play an important role in his design aesthetic. Imagine furniture that reflects the beauty of the Northern forests and the grace of a canoe sliding across still waters.
His goal was always to build furniture that’s functional, sturdy and aesthetically beautiful. Muma worked for a time with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks at their weekend tool events in Canada. This accelerated his mastery of hand tool skills by teaching techniques to woodworkers at shows. The process of breaking a task down to teach it helped him to deepen his own skills.
Learning from Masters
Early forays into furniture building included reproducing furniture he admired. Each build offered lessons in how to execute solid joinery, but more importantly slowly developing an aesthetic sense.
Muma took inspiration from iconic furniture designs and made his own interpretations with an eye sensitive to proportions, while showcasing the natural beauty of local timbers. Many of his early designs are his versions of Shaker pieces or furniture forms by Nakashima or James Krenov.
I pressed Wayne to point to the big lessons he gained during his time of building reproductions, and he admitted that his early designs tended to have a heavy feel. He was trying to build designs that had a graceful organic character. He paid attention to that while he worked through a Shaker or Krenov piece and it helped him gain a feel for proportions and begin to move his designs towards a more graceful and lighter stance.
Back to the Water
Muma saw a real connection with his eye for curves and the graceful lines of a canoe. Many good furniture designers have some sort of connection with boat building and he’s no exception, having built several boats and spent this winter building a traditional wooden strip canoe. Boats are all about curves and blending them together to make something both functional and beautiful.
It’s difficult to put into words, but he shared that his boatbuilding spilled over into his furniture. That can be as simple as this seat shape on a stool that reflects the bow end on a canoe.
Some of Muma’s most successful ideas came from designing strictly for himself. A case in point is this three-legged stool that was showcased at the 2019 Toronto Interior Design Show. It began as a need for some practical shop seating at his workbench. He wanted something highly functional that he could grab quickly and pull to any workstation. The three-cornered seat makes for comfortable seating from several seating positions.
Another source of growth and inspiration involved a bit of courage and pluck. Muma wondered if his work was good enough to be accepted into the Toronto Interior Design Show (IDS), one of the premier design showcases for makers in North America. Not only did he question whether his work was good enough to hang with designers working at a high level, but more importantly, would the opportunity to interact with other designers help him grow as a builder and designer?
The answer to both was yes and he acknowledged that the opportunity to share ideas and thoughts with other designers has been positive. One idea, a challenge actually, came from another designer. It’s the thought that figured wood can be a crutch. Dramatic visual surfaces can make a bold statement that’s not always backed up by the underlying form. If a design cannot stand by itself without the help of any bling, it’s far short of where it should be.
If you work that backward it means the bare bones of a design should be solid, it should be able to stand by itself in black and white. In fact, a way to gauge a design is literally by looking at it in a black and-white image where the eye isn’t distracted. There’s nothing wrong with figured wood, but it should compliment a form, not upstage it.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine #246.