We meet Michael Ferguson, a personable and humorous chap, at his studio in Höheschonhausen — a recent move from his shop on Oderberger Straße, and a space he is still getting accustomed to. Contrary to what we had assumed, Not a Wooden Spoon, the name of his company, is not a reference to Magritte’s pipe, but was chosen as a name back when Michael would feature wooden spoons in place of knobs for his cabinet doors. It is also a British custom where a wooden spoon is the award usually given to an individual or team which has come last in a competition.
It is quite clear that Michael is passionate about his practice and his preferred material, each piece retaining a part of Berlin’s history that inspires him to create his one-of-a kind marvels. He started working with floorboards, through a chance encounter with an untrained farmer in Australia 18 years ago, and has been working with this historically resonant material in Berlin for the last six years. He makes sturdy, lasting furniture one can hop onto and dance on — in fact he would love it if you did. After all, they are all made from old floors!
Your work reflects a playful attitude towards design, whether it be in your mix of colors
or the scale of the pieces…
That is quite an important part of what I do. I am untrained, which tends to be positive, because I am not constrained by my training. I worked for many years with a cabinet maker, and with him I learned how to construct proper furniture. It wasn’t until I found a farmer in Australia, who made his own furniture that I began working with another type of aesthetic. He made beautiful, playful pieces from floor boards, and I was immediately charmed by his way — and the material. That sparked new possibilities in my mind and inspired my own way of making things. When I saw his shop full of furniture made of floorboards, I was inspired, asked for a job, worked with him for 2 years, then started to make my own. That was 18 years ago (looking pensive)… I forget how old I am.
How do floorboards differ from one country to the next?
Well they don’t differ that much. The material is mostly pine, so that, in itself, is not that different. Here in Berlin, a lot of them are painted, whereas in England or Australia they are usually varnished. Here they must have been exposed at some point and then painted. What I find very often is that there are many layers and colors, such as white and blue, but when I start sanding, I often discover the ox blood color, which is quite common here.
I buy a lot of floorboards now from an architectural salvage place. For a while he would call me when he received a batch of different colors, knowing that’s what I was after. The colors are more of a lucky happenstance.
When I saw his shop full of furniture made of floorboards, I was inspired, asked for a job, worked with him for 2 years, then started to make my own
How do you go about piecing the different element for your furniture together?
I often don’t start out with a set plan. I start with the main structure of a piece and then think of the best way to juxtapose the floorboards. I pick out the colors that I feel correspond together. I either let them [the boards] remain uneven or cut them to match up. The decisions are made as I go. The main difference between making something for someone versus making something for myself, like these (the cabinets behind him) were made for my small flat a couple of years ago. They had to serve two purposes, be a storage space and stairs to my bunk bed, because I didn’t have the space for both. When I am building for myself, I can be more playful because there aren’t any constraints.
Do your clients often allow for playfulness or freedom?
The perfect ones do… but they are not all perfect… There is one commission that I am hoping will come true. This guy is doing the interior design for a new startup company. He’s a musician and he’s been commissioned because he’s an artist. He visited me here, and said that they wanted really playful things. If I do get the commission, the idea is for them to have a creative and playful environment to work from. The pieces I will make, will make people think slightly differently by playing with scale and detail. I would have free rein, which is ideal!
Have you built something recently that didn’t have a function, that was pure art?
Well, I make furniture so there is always a certain function. I like to make tables a lot and they are the best use of the floorboards. I did start making these wall hanging things (pointing at a mosaic collage made from painted wood off cuts). That is pure artwork. I mean there is no other function then pure enjoyment. Those are made with six years worth of off cut. I don’t have a lot of waste. I even have off cuts from those little pieces that I keep, and even they are beautiful. I mean, I can’t throw them away.
I often don’t start out with a set plan. I start with the main structure of a piece and then think of the best way to juxtapose the floorboards. I pick out the colors that I feel correspond together
I don’t have a lot of waste. I even have off cuts from those little pieces that I keep, and even they are beautiful. I mean, I can’t throw them away
Back to the floorboards. We found it very interesting what you’re saying on your website, that “each individual floorboard is evocative of the private and personal story of Berlin’s political history”. Do you ever feel in any way that the floorboards are haunted by their past stories?
It’s an interesting question. Haunted, no, but these for example (pointing to some floorboards) they all came from an Invalidenstraße studio. The boards were painted white and on top there are pollock-style splatters from all of the artists. I am not sure what to do with those yet, but I will definitely keep that element. They characterize a certain point in time and it is evocative of the history. That’s also what people that buy from me like. I don’t always know the history behind all of them unfortunately, but I do know that they all come from a nook in Berlin.
So, when you mix them together, you create a collage of history in a way…
Sometimes, you are right, and I do mix them together but I also don’t. A whole piece can be made with boards from only one address. There is extra resonance depending on where they come from. For example, the narrower boards are usually post-Second World War so you know that the originals were either burnt for fuel or destroyed at some point. Everything has it’s own story in my pieces.
Going back to the question about the difference between the floorboards according to their country, well… the resonance of their history is definitely unique here in Berlin.
What is the ideal future story for you work?
The ideal is for my pieces to be used. They are not precious — that simple. They are ready to be danced on if you want. I hope that people use them, live with them and in 20 years time… they will have held on to them. I really detest this idea of precious furniture that requires one to only look but not touch. I detest coasters, fragile furniture and going to a shop with a sign saying:”Don’t touch!”. In my shop it said:” Please touch!”. You want to touch! You feel free to use my pieces however you want. I mean they are floorboards… guaranteed you can put you feet on them.
They are ready to be danced on if you want. I hope that people use them, live with them and in 20 years time… they will have held on to them
Would you ever think of working with somebody else?
I do occasionally when the workload is too much, but I do love to work alone. I wouldn’t work with someone permanently, I’m too selfish or something (haha). I’m just used to working that way and never having to ask: “is it okay to do this?”. I can’t do that. Last year I made stands for an exhibition and then I was following someone else’s input, and that is fine because that was the agreement. When it’s my own, I don’t really need someone because, again, there is no set plan, and every piece is different, so it would be hard to give instructions. Sometimes I just stare at my boards for a whole day before I get an idea, and that would be quite boring for someone else…
What would be a dream project?
Well the one I just mentioned about the interior space for the office. My type of work, the raw and rough, juxtaposes really nicely with high tech looking stuff, like mac computers. For a space like that, I would design pieces that would bring joy to the people working in the space, and that would be quite different from normal office furniture. My notion of a dream project does change all the time, and it also depends on what material I find.
My notion of a dream project does change all the time, and it also depends on what material I find
When you first started with the farmer, was it the first time that you worked with refurbishing old materials?
With the cabinet maker, he used cheap materials such as MDF, plywood, laminate. Hard to handle stuff. Heavy and sharp. With the farmer, I think that it was the patina of old wood that was so seductive, also the shapes that he made. He had such an eye to make each individual thing look like a painting.
What I try and do is make it well, and then incorporate the aesthetic aspect. The fact that it’s old materials which has paint on it or whatever, adds a richness. It is also a nice philosophy that a tree didn’t need to be cut in order for me to make something. Obviously, it was cut at some point… but not for me.
When you buy something from Ikea, you don’t know where the materials come from, who made it, or where. I can tell you the whole story behind each piece. Everything comes from Berlin, and all the money earned is spent back in Berlin. Honestly, it’s not always about the recycling aspect for me, but it is an important part of it.
Is there anything that you fall back on to get inspired?
I wish there was (laughing). I moved into this workshop in December and had a few commissions. After that I felt kind of blocked for a bit. A week ago, a friend contacted me about a space where I could have an exhibition for a month or two. That relit the fuse. The hardest is to do something completely open. It was easier when I had my shop because I felt more exposed and wanted to have something new to show when people were coming in. I got used to that, and the compliments (haha), but now there’s nothing that is public, it all sits here.
One thing I used to do in Australia was go swimming in the surf. I’d come back and be ready to do anything. But in Berlin there is no surf… I can get inspired by a commission, or by every little piece of wood I have in my studio. Like today, I was playing with these thin off cuts, and just to lay the different colors out sometimes inspires me.
I can get inspired by a commission, or by every little piece of wood I have in my studio
Do you sometimes see too many opportunites and end up feeling overwhelmed?
Yes of course, there are so many possible combinations!
(As music is playing in the background) Is there one piece of music that could say define your practice?
No, not one piece, that is impossible. The music I chose depends on what I’m doing. I am a big fan of ska music, so when I’m moving and sanding that is what I put on. I like having random music playing, I can’t be so deliberate in my choices.