Click the link at right to listen to a narrated slideshow detailing Michael Fortune's Clever Chair.
In his shop outside Toronto, Michael Fortune designs and builds some of the finest furniture being made today. Working with two or three assistants, he builds custom furniture for a small group of clients, filling their houses with an array of pieces. His designs, full of compound curves, hand-worked surfaces and often veneered with exotic woods, seem to admit no technical limitations. The pieces command high prices, but even so, to make a living producing this sort of work, Fortune has developed a systematic approach to building furniture that combines hand and machine work and the use of an extensive array of shop-made jigs. The first time a particular piece is built, designing and building the jigs requires a costly investment of time; but future orders for the same piece are far more profitable. Fortune's chairs, including his trademark Number One Chair, are among his most impressive designs, and in the accompanying slide show he sketches out some of the steps involved in designing and making one.
Fortune's reputation has been built on the custom work that issues from his shop and sells across North America. But there is a far different facet of his career as a designer. Every couple of years, under the aegis of government or independent agencies, he travels to developing countries, where he designs furniture to be made by semi-skilled workers using locally available materials and machinery. And the products he designs there, often to be sold locally as well, must be profitable when priced at as little as one one-hundredth of the amount that his custom-built pieces command in Canada.
Fortune studied commercial furniture design at Ontario's Sheridan College in the early 1970s, and afterward worked as an intern in the shop of master craftsman Alan Peters in Devon, England. Working for Peters was an experience that Fortune credits with giving him an understanding of what sort of commitment and drive is required of an independent furniture maker. In 2007, five years after Alan Peters received the Award of Distinction from the Furniture Society, Fortune became the 14th person to receive the honor, which acknowledges lifetime achievement in the field.
Audio slideshow produced by Jonathan Binzen