Studio Visit : Silvia Song

October 17 2014

The morning I met Silvia Song in her Bay Area garage-turned-woodshop was uncharacteristically sunny, but all the warmth seemed to radiate from Song herself. She acknowledged an outstretched hand with a quick hug and instructed me to duck under the garage door buttressed by a standard 2×4.

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Her shop is small, high ceilings and clever storage designed by Song herself make the limited space feel deceptively large. On the open shelves that line two of the walls sit tools and prototypes arranged in vignettes that seem neither under considered nor overly wrought. It is within this intersection that Song’s work lives, carefully considered and skillfully crafted, yet lacking the pretensions that relegate many finely crafted objects to that high, unreachable shelf. After walking me through the months-long process of creating her traditional double dovetailed butcher blocks, she notes that they won’t truly be finished until they are worn smooth by use.

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Her keen sense of design was honed in her years of working as an Architect. It was only in the past year that she devoted herself to woodworking full time, “I don’t think that was a big jump. It felt natural – I didn’t go into this wondering if I would like it or not.” Born in Brazil and raised in Los Angeles, Song considers her attraction to handcraft a family trait.

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“My dad used to work in my Uncle’s woodshop. My Uncle was an industrial designer – he designed and made toys. My dad was the youngest of ten children, and his brother with the toy business was the oldest, so there was a huge age gap. So my dad worked for him for a long time and learning all sorts of things about wood. Their father built the original concrete or ceramic sewage system in Korea. Growing up, my dad worked as a textile engineer and we would work in his shop. Making things was always the family business.”

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A small plastic giraffe sits on a stump of wood on a shelf in the shop, a token left by Song’s own daughter. I ask if Song sees any interest in handcraft from her daughter, and she explains that she is still years away from letting her daughter around all these sharp objects.

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Noticing her shelf of books, each covered in a thin layer of the ubiquitous saw dust, I ask Song about her design influences. She rattles off an impressive list of architects, Eichler, Zumthor, Fuller, before wandering over to the shelf and selecting a volume on the life’s work of fellow Angeleno, Isamu Noguchi. “I secretly wish I could speak Japanese. I’m really influenced by japanese designers. All of my tools are super traditional, and are forged by a Japanese blacksmith.” She has a small queue of chisel heads she has yet to carve handles for, but her shelves are already lined with her tools as artful as the objects she makes with them.

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Curious about a small blue block I spot on the shelves, Song runs to grab a sample of the series of indigo-dyed bowls that she recently produced in collaboration with a local textile artist. As she unwraps the craft paper package, she explains to me the process of fermentation and preparation that goes into traditional Indigo dying. Three bowls emerge from the layers of brown kraft paper, each a variation on a rich, midnight blue. She grabs one and holds it right up to her nose, “real indigo is really smelly, you can still smell it on the un-oiled bowls”.

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After spending some time with her, it occurs to me that what I find most enviable about Silvia is that perfect balance between Japanese craftsmanship and Californian nonchalance. It was just over a year ago that Song began woodworking full time, not with a leap of faith, but a confidant step. Counting myself as one among many thousands of Instagram fans, I bear witness to her consistently impressive images that are just as well considered as her pieces. Her bowls and vessels are carried in some of the best home-goods shops across the nation. Despite the near constant turning of new pieces on her lathe, her shop is always remarkably clean and welcoming. She is charmingly aware of this persona, lamenting with a laugh the piles of laundry waiting for her just inside the house, an admission that somehow makes me admire her all the more.

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