PROVIDE CONVERSATIONS: BRENT COMBER
You really can’t discuss furniture and design in the Pacific Northwest without looking at the influence of artist and designer Brent Comber. His work is always rooted in storytelling, whether it’s a series that draws its inspiration from the sense-memory of an axe splitting wood, or another from the influence of shifting tides in the intertidal zone. And despite his successes in his field, he’s also never stopped creating new works – most recently a large-format installation down in Seattle, and in June, he’ll be unveiling a new sculptural installation at the West Vancouver Community Centre.
We’re honoured to feature his latest series, Cording, which was launched in our new Provide Design Gallery.
We spoke with Comber about the new series, his deep history on the west coast and his ongoing relationship with sustainable design.
You’re so well known for many of your iconic pieces like T-Cup, Alder Cubes and more, but art and installations have also become such a huge part of your work as an artist and designer.
With public sculpture, I was excited about it, some years ago. And then I was trying to avoid it after that, because the projects I was awarded was through municipalities and districts, and I didn’t fully understand the bureaucracy involved. So I actually I stepped away from it for a while.
I thought that maybe other people were better suited to it. But then I was asked to get involved in a few more of them, and I was quite clear from the outset how I wanted to see things unfold. And it’s been quite good now. I don’t want to be decorative in the sculptural aspect of my business, and I don’t say that sort of haphazardly and I don’t want to cast aspersions on other artists. But for me story is so important, and it has to be the right venue that I can create a good story, and have people be immersed in it. And so [my latest project in] Seattle was one of those projects.
And consequently that’s why I wanted to start working with David at Provide, because I saw him on Instagram, making this space as a gallery, and I thought, wow, isn’t that fantastic. I liked Provide’s outlook and what they’ve contributed to the design community for years and years. Of course, loved Robert. He always wanted to work with me, and we just couldn’t do it because of the scale that I work at, and of course the constraints of his store. So when David had this gallery going on, I just I sent him a like, and he reached out and said, ‘Hey Brent, what are you up to? Maybe we can work together?’
I’d actually just made my first Cording sculpture in my studio. He came over [to see it], and now we have two versions of that sculpture, in his space.
You note that story is important to you – can you tell us about the story behind Cording is?
Well, the project in Seattle is called Connection, and it looks like a giant portion of a tree root system. Some strands are over 80 feet long. The main part of it is woven above a bar that people can sit at and look up into it. The bar is roughly 16-foot diameter and the swirling bunch of roots above it are filled with lights. It’s quite magical, and so I wanted to carry on that story of connection: I wanted people to be immersed within the root structure and to feel a connection to something larger than themselves. Being a bar, and during Covid times, and the crazy things going on the news that I was seeing going on down south—I thought, wouldn’t it be great if people could start connecting to themselves again, to other people, to the community.
I don’t like to recreate nature too closely, because you can’t top Mother Nature, no matter what you do. And so, rather than using roots and trying to recreate a root system, I took the idea of the craft of spruce root cording. If you imagine a traditional birch bark canoe, those birch bark panels are woven together with spruce root cording. It’s actually a section of the tree roots: they would take a root roughly the size of your thumb, peel off the rough husk on the outside, and then you take your thumbnails and start splitting the roots lengthwise. And it actually splits beautifully, the whole length of the root. And not only is it used for canoes, but if the roots are split fine enough, and the artist or the artisan is skilled enough, they can make beautiful baskets or hats.
So, Connection is an example of spruce root cording. So on one end of the sculpture it’s round and there are three roots. They range from 12 to 16 inches. And then, if you look up, you can see where that round root has been split in half. And then eventually above the bar, it was quartered and then filled with lights.
I think the project’s beautiful and I would love people to go down and see it, of course. But I wasn’t really finished with the story yet. So I was thinking, how can I do something like this again but on a smaller, more personal level. And so the idea of Cording—I thought, why don’t we try it but put it on a vertical surface this time? Cords, layered on top of each other, embedded with a different light source—it’s a neon LED light, on a dimmer, so it can be a very subtle and glowing. And I think it’s really magical. Anybody who’s ever seen it has really fallen in love with it, consequently it’s been a huge hit for David and I’m very happy for him. He even says he has to clean the front of his window from nose prints against the window!
And the big sculpture in his gallery is called Setting Seed, to honour and to shine a light on David and I starting to work together.
What material are you working with for the series?
It’s made out of yellow cedar—it’s many, many thin layers that we laminate together. With a special finish, it’s almost ivory-like. It’s hard to tell that it’s even what it is.
You referred to never outdoing Mother Nature, and I know sustainability has long been a part of you work—can you talk about how it continues to be a part of what you do?
Well, it actually was infused in my work, even before I began working because I didn’t want to have to go into a lumberyard or a wholesaler or to buy lumber off a shelf, that I knew was cut according to some specification that was desirable. I almost felt the wood was, I wouldn’t say boring, but I just thought, what happened to the rest of the tree? Where did all the rest of it go? And, even in the early days, even before I started making furniture and sculpture, I bought an old house—this tells you how long ago it was, because it for $104,900. But it was an old shipyard house, where the Versatile Pacific shipyard workers down at the bottom of Lower Lonsdale, they were housed in these little matchbox houses along 3rd Street.
I wanted to add a sundeck with a room below it, but I didn’t want to go to a lumberyard. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could find wood of the era. Those houses were built back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And it just happened at the same time, they were renovating the shipyards, which now has Joey’s restaurant and a skating rink and all kinds of things down there.
But when I bought the house, they were just starting to take apart some of the old buildings. So I was buying lumber from the buildings that were coming down, and reusing it in my house.
So that’s kind of how I used to think about wood in those days, and that carried on through my practice. I didn’t like throwing out sawdust and compostable materials, so I found a business that was making compost into soil. They do a wonderful job, and they’re local, and we still send it to them. So it always was there, even before I knew what I was going to be doing.
When you created the Alder Cubes series 20 years ago, you had to be the first person to make something out of what would have been considered trash wood.
Again, that was based on story, and back then I wasn’t even pretending that I knew how to build furniture. I wouldn’t even classify my stuff as furniture, really. Some of it is more furniture-like now, but it’s more sculptural pieces. But to get to get me started and thinking about functional work, I had to think about story first. Alder was a natural fit to talk about the story of the forest, a beautiful dynamic complex ecosystem in and of itself. It’s very hard to talk about that with a singular species like cedar or Douglas fir.
So it came to me one night when I was sketching by the fire. And the fire was flickering against the log ends next to the fireplace and I started noticing the shadows between the log ends. And although I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to talk about the forest, I thought, that’s it. It’s the spaces between the trees. That’s the beauty of the forest—that’s how we understand and experience the forest. The flickering of lights. It even feels like it’s a low-pressure system, it feels cooler in there. The sounds are different, you have to watch where you’re walking. The echoes.
And so alder is called a pioneer species or a mother tree or a nurse tree. It’s a tree that blows in when the forest has been disturbed, so typically when you see a roadway—and this is where I still collect alder, on the sea to sky highway up to Whistler—right on the edges of the road you see all kinds of alder trees. Because in nature’s view, you are disrupting the natural rhythms of the forest by putting a road in there. So alder comes in, it sets itself, it starts growing quickly.
And that’s its purpose, to give itself up back into the soil. So it has a short lifespan. And it’s amazing. It’s a general practice now for the highways crew, they just cut the alder and lay it flat on the ground, because once it’s laying on the ground, it decomposes very quickly. It’s the only tree west of the Rockies that puts nitrogen back into the soil. So it was just a natural fit for me to use alder for the Alder Cubes.
So what else are you working on these days?
We’re working with an architect on a home in West Vancouver. It’s this sculpture that we’re suspending in the ceiling above the kitchen living area. At 60 feet long it’s an amazing big space, it’s a very complex sculpture, and so we’re working on that.
We have a big project down in the Denver Airport, where we’re producing 156 tables for their space. And I’m still doing sculpture. I have something really fun on in June. It’s an open house in the West Van Community Centre on the 29th of June. They’re previewing two massive sculptures called Creatures that we put in last Fall. I’m still collecting these “creatures”: I have one on the back of my shop that’s over 15,000 pounds and it’s massive. I’m trying to get it sent over to Paris, actually. I don’t want to sort of give it away because it is really very alien, out of this world. But it’s about community and unstructured play and just getting to know your neighbour again.
Contact Provide for more information on our collections by Brent Comber.