Michael Fortune will receive one of furniture-making’s highest honors later this year when the Furniture Society recognizes him for a career that began, he says, with a wrong turn.
Fortune, who will receive the society’s Award of Distinction in June, was studying graphic arts in Toronto in the mid 1970s when one day a professor asked him to deliver a package to a colleague on an unfamiliar campus.
“I pulled into the wrong parking lot,” he recalls “and stumbled into the wrong building, and found myself in a brand-new woodworking shop.”
Amazed, Fortune blurted out, “What do you do here?” The instructor’s reply took an entire afternoon and persuaded Fortune to join the school’s fledgling furniture-design program. That led to study abroad and, in turn, to nearly three decades of designing and making smart, elegant studio furniture.
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For a complete list of articles and gallery items by Michael Fortune, visit his profile page on FineWoodworking.com.
Fortune, a frequent contributor to Fine Woodworking, said his pieces are contemporary but open to historical influences. His Number One Chair (photo above), a signature piece, includes elements of work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Hans Wegner and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, among others, he says.
As a designer, he said he is equally concerned with creating pieces that can be built efficiently. Fortune first designed the Number One chair in 1979 and has since made more than 300 of them using a set of 38 separate workshop jigs. He has also developed a step-by-step manual for building the piece.
Fan Coffee Table by Michael Fortune. Click image for larger view.
That marriage of individual design and production-oriented methods is a hallmark of Fortune’s work, said Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, chairman of the Furniture Society’s award selection committee.
“Michael is all about taking what is difficult and trying to make it simple and make it accessible,” Gomez-Ibanez said. He added that Fortune was also being recognized for his contributions to furniture-making in other countries, where he has served as a consultant to governments seeking to foster their furniture industries.
"Michael has started small-scale furniture production projects in Central America and promoted the fabrication and export of furniture in areas that have traditionally only exported their raw lumber," Gomez-Ibanez said. "For over 20 years he has worked to transfer the creativity and design talents of studio furniture makers to industrial applications."
He also teaches occasionally and, each year, employs an intern or two in his shop. Fortune said he does so because he wants to help young furniture makers gain the practical skills of planning and efficiently combining machine and hand skills, experience that he gained early in his career because established furniture-makers allowed him to train in their shops.
“In addition to creating a wonderful body of work with his own designs, at every step of his career he has been helpful to - and aware of promoting - the field as a whole,” Gomez-Ibanez said.
Upholstered Chairs by Michael Fortune. Click image for larger view.
In 1993, Fortune became the first woodworker ever to receive the prestigious Prix Saidye Bronfman, Canada's highest award in the crafts. He recently completed a commission for Canada’s governor general for a dining table and eight chairs. His work is also featured in permanant collections including the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the Royal Ontario Museum.
Reflecting on his career, Fortune chuckles at how differently things could have turned out. “If I’d gone in the right door,” he says. “I might have wound up in, God forbid, ceramics.”
Steve Scott is an associate editor at Fine Woodworking magazine.
Photos: Michael Fortune unless otherwise noted; Michael Cullen (top)
Posted: March 13, 2007