During his first few weeks living in Japan, local furniture designer Michael Yates spent a lot of time laughing. The cultural differences between laid back Central Texas and the traditional Japanese city of Kyoto are vast, and for the then Texas A&M electrical engineering student, nearly everything was an adventure. Luckily for Austinites, Yates took more from his trip to Japan than just memories. He found among Kyoto's dense architecture and ancient temples the inspiration for his unique, Japanese-inspired custom furniture that he designs and builds here in Austin.
It was the summer of 2000, and Michael Yates found himself on a Texas A&M study abroad trip for the company Suncall in Kyoto. He was the only non-Japanese worker at the firm. Armed with some Japanese language courses and his own adventurous spirit, nothing could quite prepare him for living and working among his Japanese engineering counterparts day and night (all the young men from the company stayed together in one dormitory).
Along with all the cultural adventures, it was in Japan that Yates also came face to face with stunning beauty. He took trips every weekend to ancient temples in and around Kyoto, which can either be squished next to McDonald's in the city or set in idyllic sceneries on the outskirts of town. It was in these temples that Yates first discovered the logic, deliberateness, and consistency of Japanese building processes. Three temples in particular especially moved him and began what would be a lifetime journey of respect and reverence for Japanese architecture.
Horyu-ji, a temple in Nara just outside of Kyoto, is the oldest wooden structure in the world, and the first time he was able to experience in person an early example of a nail-free structure and the strength and precision of Japanese joinery techniques. Also in Nara is Todai-ji, which is the largest wooden structure in the world, and another breathtaking example of Japanese nail-free joinery. Kiyomizu-dera, in Kyoto, is famous for a large veranda that projects out over a hill. Here visitors have the opportunity to look underneath the temple's veranda and see the substructure: the timbers, frames and cross bracing---all done without nails.
"I imagine everyone thinks that these structures are beautiful, but the sacredness of the process and attention to detail resonated with me in a way that nothing had before. I've since learned in practice what I saw evidence of in the temples—that completely focusing on where you are will get you the best product at the end. Every step of the process is precious."
You might assume that coming back from his work abroad in Japan is the impetus that begins his career as a Japanese-inspired furniture designer, but his story isn't that simple. After Japan, Yates found himself at a great high paying job with a company car and lots of job security, but he wasn't completely satisfied with an electrical engineering path. So in 2003 he did what any sane person would do: quit his job to pursue the chance life of a modern furniture designer. As he puts it, after he quit his job he didn't have a car and had moved out of his apartment, but he was now pursuing his passion—and he hadn't felt better in a long time.
His first commissioned woodworking job in October of 2003 consisted of Yates having to construct 20 document displays for Texas A&M University. And while he had never worked on such a project before, he jumped in headfirst.
"Before I had ever made even one thing professionally, I had signed myself up to make 20 things professionally."
As with any craft, the process is sparked from an idea and begins with a sketch, whether from the client's ideas or his own. First on paper, and later, if the project's complexity warrants it, on computer. If the project is to be a custom piece, he takes special note of the client's space: what will be nearby the project, what other furniture materials are in the space, etc. Planning is where his engineer past comes in handy:
"It makes for more efficient work if I consider every single detail before I do anything, and that's what any woodworker would tell you, that's not unique to me or Japan. Preparation makes for such a more efficient process. It's all about finding problems before they happen."
"I like smooth transitions, and by smooth I mean deliberate. Every interaction is considered with equal weight. From the corner in the back that no one is going to see to the top of the table, it's all the same. It's all about the fine craftsmanship idea of there being no backside or bad side to anything."
Yates uses a mix of both Japanese tools and western tools, citing a lot of his own experimentation as research. His favorite Eastern tools: Japanese saws, planes and chisels. Japanese saws and planes make the cut by a pulling motion rather than a pushing motion, which Yates claims provides more control. In his opinion, Japanese chisels tend to be better because of their layering of soft and hard steel, making them both hard and durable. And while he certainly uses his share of Western tools, he appreciates Japanese tool making as an art in itself, stemming from their long traditions of steel making in their Samurai swords.
So why is Michael Yates here, making wood furniture in Austin, Texas? His drive and passion and willingness to teach himself things he doesn't know, as well as the unique combination of natural talent with his hands and the influences of Japanese culture create an unbeatable combination that fits perfectly with the level of appreciation that Austin has for quality, handmade wood furniture. In the five years since Yates has been in the woodworking business, he has worked on projects varying from beds to kitchen cabinets to exterior porches. And perhaps the biggest testament to Yates' talent is the fact that he never really has to advertise—his clients find him through word of mouth. He contributes his success to his view on creating custom products:
"I hope that my work isn't lumped in with the rest of the consumer process. It's not about going out and spending money and getting a thing. It should be more than that. "
Customers purchasing anything crafted by Yates certainly won't get just a 'thing'. With his background in Japanese woodworking, years of experience, skill and talent, owners of a Michael Yates hand built piece of furniture get a stunningly beautiful and lifelong-lasting masterpiece. You can learn more about Yates on his website.