From his youngest years, Nick Clark remembers that he always wanted to build things. Through his years growing up in the United Kingdom and after settling into a new life in the United States, Clark worked hard to develop his craft in woodworking with high-end furniture, kitchens and cabinetry.
This summer, the Philomath-based businessman and artist earned national recognition with an honorable mention award in the 2021 Veneer Tech Craftsman’s Challenge. Clark’s honor came in the marquetry category for a Jewish Torah cabinet called “Aron,” which he created for a client.
His journey professionally, artistically and geographically has been a long one but something that happened in the 1990s while living in California served as one of those moments that completed the picture.
Clark had been able to make a living in his chosen profession but then his life changed when he ran across information in a woodworking magazine about a program at the College of the Redwoods. The man who created and led the fine woodworking program at the small northern California school happened to be one of Clark’s idols.
“I had been following this guy from way back when I was teenager in the U.K., a guy called James Krenov — he was originally from Sweden,” said Clark, who operates his business, Touch Design, out of a workshop at 2651 Main St., in Philomath. “He was very influential in the arts and crafts movement back in the ’30s and ’40s. I knew he taught in London, Stockholm, maybe Paris … and I knew he came over to the U.S.”
Clark wasn’t sure where Krenov had landed but had heard he was on the West Coast somewhere. Then while on a visit to Mendocino, California, he picked up the magazine.
“I finally got to meet this guy who had been one of my heroes since I was teenager,” Clark said. “I ended up going to that school for a year and then they invited three students to come back for a second year and I was fortunate enough to be one of those. So I did two years there and that really just elevated my work to a different level — execution, design, proportion, everything. It put the icing on the cake so to speak.”
Clark’s early years
Clark, 56, grew up in Sheffield, historically an industrial center in the United Kingdom for steel manufacturing. At age 16, he embarked on a formal five-year apprenticeship with a small construction company.
“There were three of us in the workshop that made everything that went out on site,” he said. “But it was pretty high-end stuff. We did a lot of work for banks, museums and they built a church, that was one of my final apprentice pieces …”
Clark ended up staying with the company for another two years beyond the apprenticeship and then got the itch to find something bigger.
“I thought I was ‘Billy Big Boots’ — well, I’m going to go down to London and see if the streets are paved with gold,” he laughed.
After 18 months in a city that was “too busy,” Clark returned to his hometown.
“That’s when I started working for myself when I came back and I was doing all sorts of little projects — kitchens and cabinets, furniture. Furniture’s been my passion.”
In 1991, Clark, who was then in his mid-20s, moved to the United States and settled in Berkeley, California — “which was quite a cultural shock coming from the tiny little village I grew up in.”
“I set up a little workshop in the garage of the house I was renting … and really that’s when I started working on my own here,” he said. “I just did any work that came through the door and it slowly got better and better and better.”
Clark’s path then crossed with Krenov and his College of the Redwoods program. After a few years there, he headed back to Berkeley and started a small company with another student.
“We were working for interior designers, architects, private individuals like that down in the Bay Area and we did some really nice high-end work,” he said. “We did a big winery, big banquet table and chairs, some pretty cool stuff.”
After seven or eight years, he and his then-wife had a first child and wanted to get out of the city. They relocated to Oregon and settled in Ashland, a spot that was great for his work for several years.
“There was an influx of money coming up from California then, so there were a lot of people wanting work done and I was doing the same thing again,” he said. “Started designing high-end kitchens and cabinetry and was still doing all of my furniture as well.”
Clark had developed a good list of repeat clients, which included those from the Bay Area and still periodically wanted him to make a piece. He even had a client on the East Coast that commissioned Clark to do some work.
“I was down in Ashland for about 12 years and loved it down there and then the economy tanked,” he said. “It was just like somebody turning off a light switch down in Ashland because it’s so isolated.”
The ‘Aron’ project
Clark needed a fresh start and he didn’t want to return to a big city. The Corvallis area appealed to him and seemed perfect, especially since he got a lot of his materials from nearby Eugene but also with a central location.
“I moved here seven, eight years ago and fortunately found this place and I’ve been here ever since,” he said. “I’m slowly getting to know the local community … working from there.”
That’s how he ended up doing the “Aron” cabinet.
“I did a kitchen for one of the members of the Jewish community over there,” Clark said, “and they said, ‘would you be interested in this?’ And I said ‘absolutely, that’s the kind of stuff I like to do.’”
The clients had been discussing and debating the project for the previous 18 months, Clark said, through a committee that had been formed. Clark took the committee’s plans, made some changes and got approval to move forward with his concept.
Based on the brief that he was provided, Clark said the cabinet “had to hold two Torah scrolls that they have, which when the doors were opened, had to be illuminated because apparently they open it during the service. Above that was what they call the eternal light, which stays on 24/7, so that was the light behind the stained glass.”
The piece also included storage space that the group wanted and accompanying pieces included a lectern and candlelight stands.
The Veneer Tech Craftsman’s Challenge was the first competition that Clark had entered in several years. He used to become involved in those events while living and working in the Bay Area and won a couple of national awards. But those opportunities, which can be time-consuming, went on the back burner after the move to Ashland.
“In the last couple of years, my kids are a little older, my oldest is in college, so I’ve got a bit more time on my end,” he said. “So I started looking around at those kinds of things and a friend of mine emailed it to me and said, ‘hey, what about this?’ That’s the first one I’ve done in a long time.”
Marquetry in simple terms is defined as decorative inlaid work of wood, ivory, metal and other materials used in furniture and flooring. Said Clark, “What you’re doing is you’re making a picture out of little different pieces of colored wood. There’s quite a few techniques for doing it.”
Coincidentally, Greg Zall, of Sonoma, California, won the competition’s architectural woodworking category.
“Greg, he was the guy who taught me how to do it,” Clark said about learning the art of marquetry. “He’s a really talented guy.”
Clark said the “Aron” project took about two months to complete in its entirety, including two weeks alone on the two doors with an intricate depiction of a tree.
According to a story published by the Woodworking Network, Ciaran McGill of Ireland won the marquetry category with a piece that makes a statement about worldwide addiction to cellphones. Called simply “Cell Cabinet,” the piece features a photo-realistic veneer marquetry portrait of a woman holding a cellphone.
Two honorable mentions were awarded with one to Clark and the other to Michael Kiss, of Duncan, British Columbia, Canada, for his “Octopus Table.”
Clark said he actually didn’t put a lot of time into researching the craftsman’s challenge and sent in the maximum number of five photos allowed.
“I can do better than this,” he said. “Next year, we’ll give it a better shot.”
As for the business end of things, Clark’s Touch Design has been busy during the pandemic. Usually, his slow months run from about Thanksgiving until around tax time but in 2020, he had one of his best years of the past decade.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of people as to why that is,” he said. “I think everybody’s at home and they say, ‘hey, that coffee table sucks, let’s get a new one.’ Or, ‘let’s get a new kitchen.’”
Clark focuses on higher-end products for his clients and while that work supports his business, he’s also able to expand on his artistic talents. In between a kitchen project or some other substantial job that pays the bills, he has time to “create something just out of my head.”
“I do drawings, I do little art pieces that you can put on your mantlepiece and stuff like that, a few little things like earrings and jewelry,” he said. “So yes, it’s been a very deep passion of mine since I was a little kid.”
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