orking with wood is a life-long passion for George Kuipers. Born in Holland, he was always “banging around with hammers” as a child. His father ran a farm, and as he grew up George had a choice: work on the farm, or do something else. He was no good at milking cows, he says, so the choice was an easy one. At the age of about 15, he began to work evenings and weekends at the local carpenter’s shop.
George’s fascination with wood was enhanced by his schooling. He apprenticed at a technical school, on the job four days a week and in class one day. He trained in both woodworking and architectural design, and also took fine art courses in Amsterdam. After finishing his schooling, he worked a couple of years for an architect. At the age of 23, George made the decision to come to Canada.
He landed in Toronto, and started work at an architect’s office as an architectural technician or draftsman. Since he couldn’t speak, read, or write English, the job didn’t last very long! He soon landed a job with a construction company as an office estimator. Then he struck out on his own – and he’s remained independent ever since, for over 25 years.
Living in Toronto, George had to rent space for his workshop and office. In 1996 he moved to the property between Fergus and Belwood where he presently lives. In its country setting, and with its large workshop close to the house, the property was just what he was looking for. Born on a farm, he wanted to “get back to where he came from”. Besides, he says, here nobody can increase his rent. His wife was not so enthusiastic; George jokes that it took ten years to convince her to move out of the city!
George now does mainly commercial work. At the moment, he’s finishing the interior of a bagel shop, but he’s more often to be found creating furnishings for churches. He still builds furniture, but seldom develops his own designs any more. When asked why, he remarks that in the present economic and cultural climate there’s little call for them. Creating a design is a labour-intensive process, and George feels that nobody has time to wait nowadays. Clients may take half a year to make up their minds about what they want, but then they want it immediately; they don’t have the patience to wait the other half-year that it would take to actually construct the design.
As he talks about working with wood, George’s voice grows enthusiastic. He uses cherry and oak for ecclesiastical furnishings. And “just about anything” for furniture: maple, cherry, exotics. Does he have a favourite? George says he prefers native Canadian woods; in fact, he no longer works with most exotics because he has become allergic to the dust. Tropical woods are toxic; many are used in making medicines. Mahogany and zebrawood in particular make him ill.
Anyone familiar with George’s elegant, almost spare, perfectly constructed creations in wood will be able to guess at his personal heroes in the world of design. Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh tops the list; George glows when he talks about Mackintosh chairs. The American Frank Lloyd Wright comes a close second. George recounts his visit to Wright’s Oak Park house and studio and how much he enjoyed the whole ambiance. Shaker design and the Bauhaus are further sources of inspiration.
George wants his designs to look architectural. Like Wright, he wished to create an entire coherent environment with his built-in cabinetry and furniture. Most people, he laments, no longer live with design; they just want a decorative piece here and there. Whether or not a piece fits into its environment doesn’t matter. If people like it, they want it.
George emphasises that he designs for himself. He doesn’t want to make anything that he himself doesn’t like. If someone else likes one of his pieces that’s a bonus.
George sold furniture of his own design through galleries for a while, in Toronto and Oakville. In his view, the cut taken by the galleries was prohibitive, so that he was making nothing for his time or on materials, which tend to be costly. His handiwork can still be seen at Kaolin Designs in Toronto, which is run by a potter and a sculptor. George builds the furniture designed by the sculptor.
He has also returned to another early interest, “to keep his sanity” as he puts it. He recently attended a course on watercolour painting at Sheridan College, and has taken drawing classes with Eva McCauley. Next on the agenda is a course on making monoprints.
George is his own harshest critic, regularly holding bonfires of drawings and paintings that fail to meet his exacting standards. He refuses to sell his graphic work, giving away pieces to those who enjoy them. George also maintains that he doesn’t want to exhibit his paintings, drawings, or sculpture, that that work is all done strictly for his own enjoyment: “The pleasure is in the doing, not the keeping.”
by O Domjan, Autumn 2000
Shaker design and the Bauhaus are further sources of inspiration.
George continues to design and build his elegant furniture for homes and corporate clients, as well as liturgical furniture in his workshop on the Orangeville Road. Quality, craftsmanship and attention to detail are combined with originality. Some examples can be viewed on his website www.kuipers.ca