“I don’t want to waste the waste”
When Fine-Arts graduate and furniture maker Tom Baker isn’t restoring furniture at Auckland’s European vintage and industrial antique shop The Vitrine, he’s using his hook knife to practice his motto: “I don’t want to waste the waste”, and hand whittling elegant salad servers out of “Fran’s deck” and other repositories of beautiful timber otherwise headed for the landfill.
SSS – What’s the motivation? You say you “don’t want to waste the waste”, can you elaborate?
I was studying fine arts and just happened to fall into a building job. We we did renovations and we were just pulling out huge lengths of old Rimu and Kauri and Matai, all these gorgeous New Zealand timbers that were going straight to the skip, pretty much destined for the landfill. I just thought it was so strange that I would go and spend $150, you know, heaps of money on material to make something, or I could just use this stuff that was more beautiful than what I could buy, that had so much character and it was eliminating a problem. My boss loved it because I was taking stuff out of the skip and taking it home.
But I’ve always been making furniture from fine arts. That’s what I was always interested in. My hands are taking a serious toll but I’m studying pottery as well, so I’m hoping the clay will have the opposite effect after a hard day’s work.
SSS – Have you started selling them?
Oh… no, I’ve just given them away. I do want to make money out of it obviously, so I can do it full time but at the moment, I guess it’s like I’m turning it from a hobby into something… and I’m probably too much of – I wouldn’t say a perfectionist, because I like imperfection – but I like things right. I don’t want to start making something that’ll fall apart. I’ve been making various things for about five years, which I suppose is quite a while, but I’ve never been able to stick to any one thing. I’ve gone from surfboards to spoons. I’m just trying to find my groove.
SSS – Do you think there’s a resurgence of hand crafts in New Zealand? Is what you’re doing indicative of something bigger?
Potentially: It’s hard to say because the friends I’m surrounded by – there’s a bunch of us who go to pottery together, and it’s us, and a room full of fifty year old women. So, I like to think that yes, crafts, and the desire for hand-made things is there but it’s hard to tell. There’s a lot of people out there that don’t care about that kind of stuff, sounds a bit preachy, but don’t realise the necessity of it. It is important that we stay tactile, and make things, and don’t let everything be made for us. Because then we have no choice.. in what is made. People don’t even consider it. We live in a machine world.
But I do like to think there is a resurgence in a way. A lot of our friends are making clothing, we’re all makers! But then, we all met in university and we all studied design or art, and then I think about other people I went to university with, especially fine arts, and fifty percent of them are working in New World. So, I don’t know.
I am a consumer though. I guess that’s how spoons came about because I needed a spoon. I don’t like going to Briscoes or The Warehouse, in fact I can’t remember the last time I stepped in either one of those places. Just the smell, and the light, and so many things that are going to end up in the landfill within a few years, some things only six months… and that’s WASTE WASTE. That can’t ever be used for anything.
SSS – Where does the disdain for waste come from?
I don’t know. I don’t know why I find it so disgusting, it just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s always been there, my family were pretty resourceful. When I was younger I was never really given toys, I was given a saw horse to sit on and pretend it was a real horse, I was never given plastic toys, it was always wooden blocks that my dad would make for me, I loved making blocks. Or I’d just be in the bush building a hut. I guess the little things like that probably build up. We had a tree we’d all go and meet at; it’d be like, I’ll meet you at the willow tree. But that was the good old days… “back in the day!!” hahahaha (erupts with laughter, the irony of his youth, not lost on him).
But I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint anywhere… waste? I think building was a pretty big one, just the amount of stuff that got pulled out of a house, and it used to always get me that we were just on one job and in one neighbourhood, and there would be ten other jobs in the same neighbourhood, pulling out just as much stuff. And then 150 other jobs in the same town, and you know, it just gets bigger and bigger. And that’s only in New Zealand. Think of America and China and Australia and… it’s just incomprehensible.
Kwela for example, that’s from a jungle in Sumatra, and that’s destroying a Tigers habitat. I don’t understand how that’s legal in the first place, it just boggles my mind that there’s all this incredibly valuable timber… and Kauri, it’s going to go extinct within two lifetimes I think.
SSS – Were the protests in the South Island rainforests in 2000 something that your generation was conscious of?
Not really. I was probably always aware of it, but have only recently become really conscious and looked into it a bit deeper. A friend and I did a little project together with ‘whole house re-use’ down in Christchurch, re-using the waste down there, and they were posting videos all the time of waste and stuff, and they posted a little short black & white silent film of what was going on in forestry back in the day and how much timber they were pulling down and milling, it was a sickening sight. You just imagine Christchurch, but all logs ready to be sent overseas, as logs, back to England.
SSS – How much has fine arts influenced the woodwork that you’ve been doing since you graduated?
What I took from Uni was the study of people really. Like psychology, and how we interpret things and how people are unconscious in their day to day actions. I guess that’s a little bit. But I think what’s really influenced my work is the people I hang around with. I think seeing what everybody else does influences me more than anything, the aesthetic they come up with, I’m always in awe of that, I’m not copying it, but I definitely take things away from it. I’m the only one that studied fine arts out of us so I like to look to my friends for design inspiration.
SSS – You also didn’t study furniture design or Industrial Design, but that’s the way that it’s gone.
No, my technician told me not to drop out of fine arts. I was going to in my second year, and go into Industrial Design and he said “Why? Why do you want to go and do that?”, and I said “Because I want to make furniture”, and he was like “That would be a ridiculous idea because you’re going to end up making mass produced furniture that you’re probably not going to enjoy, because you’ll be using machines to make it”. It’s a really big generalisation about Industrial Design but… it’s generally the case; it’s ‘Industrial’ design.
And he said “You can stay and do fine arts and do whatever you want. So if you want to make furniture, make furniture.” I was a bit sceptical about what he was saying, but now I actually understand that fine arts has let me look at things from a completely different perspective, and it’s so hard to describe, because it’s built into me, and there’s no other way I can look at it, I can’t step back and say this is what happened. Somewhere along the line they managed to tweak a little screw in my brain… “You can just look at that that way if we just do a little quarter inch turn”, it’s a completely different thing. My Dad doesn’t understand why I went to Uni to study art, he really can’t quite get his head around it.
SSS – So why spoons?
Just because I needed a spoon. And I love whittling. They’re fun to make, it’s a meditation, because it’s a long process, and… I don’t watch TV. So rather than watching television I’ll sit down here, listen to some music and, whittle, and I don’t necessarily have to concentrate on each stroke, I can think about something else.
It’s funny, I think nowadays, people don’t take time out anymore. When was the last time you sat there, just literally sat there, you didn’t sit there for thirty seconds to a minute and then pulled out your phone, you just sat there? You didn’t even have a coffee in your hand, you weren’t doing anything, you were just.. sitting. And think of how often people used to do that. In the evening that’s what you’d do, sit. You’d work until you couldn’t work anymore, until it was too dark, then you’d either sit down and do something like whittle a spoon or do a bit of sewing or pickle your onions.. you know – hahahahaha.
SSS – You’ve said a few times you needed a spoon. What did you need a spoon for?
Cooking. I have things that I’ve made that I cook with, little spatulas, things to mix with. These spoons are the first spoons that I’ve put a bit more effort into, and that was for you – Charlotte – because I figured you like cooking and food, and you needed something a bit more special than a pair of servers from Briscoes. (Tom made his first spoons in this style for Charlotte’s birthday) The next thing that I’m gonna make will be measuring spoons. It’s at that point where I don’t just want to make for the sake of making, I’d rather make things that can become someone else’s. I’d like it if rather than people having to go and get a bunch of plastic measuring cups, there was another option there. It might be a little bit more expensive, but I mean; money vs conscience, I would rather conscience. And they’ll last you longer.
They’re to be used, there’s no doubt about that, they’re not precious, you know, it was a piece of decking, this is Fran’s deck. It’s Kwela. Good natural oil in it, beautiful timber. I took a good forty metres, but I don’t like to just take, I’ll go and give them a pair of spoons, or make them something in thanks.
But I don’t pay, and that’s why when you asked me if I’d sold anything yet, I don’t think I’ve had the urgency to sell it because I haven’t paid for anything. It’s just me… it’s time, it’s just time.
And what else would I do? I’d rather be spending my time doing this than watching TV I guess.
For me they seem like pretty obvious ideas. Waste is free, make something from it. Waste shouldn’t make sense, we’ve become comfortable with it eh, it’s really odd. We’ve become so comfortable. It actually genuinely makes me sick when I throw something in the bin. I feel like I just shat on the earth a little bit.
SSS – You stated getting access to wood from building sites, now that you work at The Vitrine do you draw from the people you used to work for, have you found other sources or have you got enough of a stockpile?
I realised that our skip bin wasn’t the only skip bin. So now I’ve just acquired a keen eye for dumpster diving. You find all sorts of great things in them.
SSS – Have you ever dumpster dived at Nosh?
No, I’d love to do that though. Did you hear they made it legal in France?
Tom dreams of opening a collaborative space with designers and potters and other craft artists where he can emulate the scene that used to inspire him while watching glass blowers in Whangarei in favour of eating ice cream with the family. Watch this space. harvested.co.nz
Photography: Aaron McLean