In July 1969, two months after Robert Erickson graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in English, he filled his army surplus backpack with clothes and a single woodworking tool–a spokeshave–and hitchhiked to California. He’d heard that a half decade of political and social turmoil had spawned a revival of the American crafts movement in the San Francisco area. And despite the fresh ink on his crisp diploma, he wanted to be a furniture maker.
Ten miles north of San Francisco, in an isolated compound of owner-built houses and workshops on Mt. Tamalpais’s wooded western slope, Erickson found two woodworkers who taught him the basics and gave him direction. A year later, now toting a skilsaw and two bar clamps, in addition to the well-used spokeshave, he moved to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Except for the occasional year away, this is where he’s stayed.
At first, it was a practical decision that turned Erickson toward chairmaking. He didn’t have to buy big, expensive pieces of wood or the large machinery necessary for jointing and planing the wide boards of bureaus and tables. Chairs were easy to haul around in the back of a car, or to ship in makeshift cartons. They didn’t take up much room in the small shop Erickson built in 1973. And he discovered that when he made chairs, people bought them.
But it was the design challenges that captured Erickson’s fancy. The sitter imposes endless stresses on the chair, which, in turn, imposes its own stresses on the sitter. Could he make a sturdy chair that was also comfortable? And original? And good-looking? Since designing his first chair in 1970, Erickson’s exploration of these questions has grown from a fancy to a passion.
About 15 years ago, Erickson hired a neighbor to help him in the workshop. Now he works alongside three other craftsmen. Two of them are superb woodworkers who can make a chair from start to finish. The third is a skilled finisher who sands and oils the work.
Each year, the shop turns out about 75 pieces, mostly chairs, of course. But Erickson also enjoys designing and making every other kind furniture, from desks to tables to beds. Though he designs new pieces every year, he continues to enjoy making and refining those designs that are in his portfolio.
Robert Erickson is married to Liese Greensfelder, a science writer. Their son, Tor, works on building projects and began in 2002 to design and build furniture in the Erickson woodshop.