John Butler

Hands of Steel

by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel

John Butler

I started designing and fabricating furniture because I was simply too poor to afford what I wanted,” laughs John Butler, sculptor, furniture designer and maker, and one of the principals of Artworks Studio, LLC. “I had started exploring the proportions and scale of furniture in my more conceptual artworks,” he continues, “but I quickly realized that the responses I was receiving were as much for the furniture itself as for the concepts that enclosed it.”

Butler received a degree in fine arts, with a concentration in sculpture, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I have always thought of the relationships between sculpture and functional art as existing in a grey area,” he explains. “I am constantly exploring my belief that since everyone uses furniture, how can it be redefined?”

This exploration has led Butler to focus on a core group of materials that he uses to design and fabricate unique furnishings by hand. Using mild steel, wood, vinyl, leather and glass, Butler allows each individual work to evolve during its fabrication process. “I started the Scorpion Chair simply by tacking the three legs into a tripod,” Butler remarks.  “That let to a better understanding of how it might function. And what steps I needed to take, and how I needed to develop the design, to make it something that was both useful and beautiful.”

As a trained sculptor, Butler often allows his understanding of the materials to define the limits of each piece. “My knowledge of ergonomics comes predominantly from my observations of the human body,” he explains. ‘When I began focusing on furniture I researched the standard information, such as table, chair and desk heights, and then I worked from there. When I am working on a particularly complex piece, such as a lounge, I often trace contours and then refine the framework from there.”

What highlights Butler’s furniture is its relationship to nature. “I consider my work more fun than humorous,” he explains. “I want people to enjoy the aesthetics of the piece as much as they are comfortable using it.” This approach has led Butler to create an ongoing series of works that acknowledge the natural world, including the Scorpion, Mantis and Cicada chairs.  At the same time, he also considers the roles and experiences of everyday life with the Precipice chair, the quirkily entitled Voyeurism loveseat, and the Motorcycle and Rock-and-Roll lounges.

“Often,” Butler says thoughtfully, “one piece simply leads to the next. Each work perpetuates the next, and I am often amazed at how an innovation in one work can be easily adapted to the next.”

Unlike commercial design and manufacturing, Butler approaches each work as an artist.  “I rarely conceive of the full piece, and I seldom work from sketches,” he remarks.  “I have an initial idea, I build on it, and I allow the space for a work to evolve.” This approach means that every decision, like every piece, is unique. “I bend everything by hand,” he smiles, “which means that I am automatically creating the space for variation, which I like. It isn’t that I won’t make a set of identical objects—and when I am commissioned to, I do—but when I am in the studio developing new works, I like the relationships that skill coupled with chance create.”

Currently, he is completing a major commission for a local client, and continuing to create unique pieces in the studio. “I feel like I am a part of a very supportive creative community in Birmingham,” Butler pauses, “and I’ve been very fortunate to have had the reactions to my work that I have received.” He never expected that his love of the functional and the sculptural would have created his professional opportunities. “In the back of my mind I always thought it would be great to be a working artist. With the support I have had, I suppose I should have known it would become my business.”

Now, as his unique works become more complex, and as he continues to develop his design and fabrication skills, he remembers one aspect of his studio practice that keeps him designing new pieces and working in the studio every day.

“It’s pretty simple when you get right down to it. I love furniture.” One can only believe that people will love furniture by John Butler, too.

One Response to “John Butler”

  1. teresita Hayden says:

    I acquired a large chalk ware geisha sculpture from a garage sale with JB initials on right lower area of the panel. I would like to know if you make sculpture similar to that. thanks.

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