Populist Modern

Populist Modern

For 10 years, Scott McGlasson was the well-kept secret of Twin Cities architects. But with the economy in the tank and larger projects in decline, the contemporary woodworker turned to another kind of design lover: the general public.

It’s a frosty October morning in Minneapolis, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of locals from clogging the ever-popular Mill City Farmers’ Market. This upscale bazaar features a weekly assortment of farm-direct eggs, single-source honeys, organic pumpkins and squash, even a smattering of jewelry by local makers. A newcomer to the market, I let my nose guide me to the artisan cheese I want to sample. I stop to coo over two chickens. And when I reach the farthest corner, I encounter a scene so beautiful it triggers an involuntary response. I see ranks of turned plates and live-edge bowls, attended by a woodworker wearing a sporty skullcap and a fashionable green parka. Without thinking, I drag my grubby fingers across Scott McGlasson’s lustrous walnut scotch tray.

It’s surprising to encounter such elegance at a farmers’ market, even a fancy market like this. The crowded setting can put off other craftspeople, such as Thomas Oliphant, a Minneapolis furniture maker and a friend of McGlasson. “That’s a sweaty retail experience there,” Oliphant observes dryly. Many artists wouldn’t stoop to hawk­ing their wares in such gritty environments. “But Scott doesn’t have an ego because he’s never been in the hothouse of an arts school,” Oliphant says.

It’s true: The farmers’ market was never a problem for the 45-year-old McGlasson; it was a revelation.

McGlasson began making furniture
full-time in 1998. Architects kept him busy; they usually hired him to build sleek, modern cabinetry and furniture for high-end residential projects. Designers admired McGlasson’s lacquered tables and chairs. Clients adored the stylish vanities and drawers crafted from birch, steel, and glass. But in 2008, the meltdown of Lehman Brothers hit and “nothing happened for me,” explains McGlasson. “The emails stopped. The phone didn’t ring for three months.” He started rethinking his business strategy.

Here’s where McGlasson got lucky: He had finally saved up enough money
to purchase his first lathe a few months before the economy tanked. Plus, he shares a sprawling St. Paul workspace with five other woodworkers, some with bright ideas. Studio-mate Duff Thury first suggested the farmers’ market. “So 
I decided to come up with a big line of stuff,” says McGlasson. He started logging long hours at his new lathe, crafting affordable tabletop items like plates and bowls, along with some funky turned stools, all stamped with McGlasson’s irreverent label: Woodsport.

In November, I visited McGlasson
 in his studio – surprisingly immaculate for a woodshop – as he prepared for his second year at Chicago’s One of a Kind Show. The only work-in-progress on display was an attractive A-line cabinet, specially sized for sheet music and 
commissioned by a Minneapolis-based pianist. More prominent was the cartful of boards – lots of ash, a few precious strips
 of maple and cherry.

McGlasson was at work replenishing 
his cash-and-carry stock, busily crafting an assortment of small plates – one of ash with a slender strip of walnut, another yellow birch harvested from the northernmost woods of Minnesota. In between plates, McGlasson multitasks, working on his turned bowls – 
imagine a smooth basin carved from a chunky piece of raw wood.

He discovered woodworking relatively late in life. After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1991 with a degree in English, McGlasson defaulted to a teaching career, where he specialized in working with troubled students. A perk of his job with Minneapolis Public Schools was the free evening classes at the local community college. McGlasson took his first woodworking course in 1996.

At the time, his motivations were primarily aesthetic, rather than just personal enrichment. He might have lacked a formal arts education, but McGlasson always had 
a certain flair. As a child, he would create careful arrangements of Led Zeppelin posters above his bed. As an adult, he started coveting furnishings designed by Le Corbusier, Herman Miller, and Charles Eames. “I didn’t have much money, but there were certain pieces I wanted,” McGlasson remembers. Thanks to his woodworking classes, he could craft his own contemporary pieces such as the Rustic Modern
 credenza, now a signature piece in the Wood­sport portfolio.

The credenza caught the eye of Charlie Lazor, the Minneapolis-based design and architecture guru who co-founded the 
modern furniture company Blu Dot and later masterminded the FlatPak system
 of prefab housing components. Lazor was quick to recognize something new in the credenza. The piece has “this outer shell
 of a simple, clean modernist box,” explains Lazor. With their raw edges, “the drawers and the doors are exhibiting the found beauty of wood. [McGlasson] takes advantage of irregular edges in the wood to create 
handles and pulls.”

A tireless worker who avoids pretentious or overly theoretical conversations, McGlasson doesn’t always appreciate the artful qualities in his work. He even betrays a little imposter syndrome: “I’m just a carpenter who makes furniture,” he says in 
his studio, working the lathe. “Sometimes 
I feel like an idiot savant.” Minutes later,
 he cocks his head and remarks on the rich, burl-like swirls he sees in a piece of finished yellow birch.

The shapes are contemporary, yet McGlasson clearly reveres the patterns 
and contours of natural materials. He likes wood so much he harvests much of it himself and has it milled locally. “People call
 me and say, ‘I’ve got a walnut tree – do you want it?’ ” he says. No doubt the approach helps imbue the Woodsport collection with earthiness and warmth. As Lazor describes it, “It’s this modern world and then it’s this wood-based craft world. Seeing the two together is unexpected, and really rewarding. Typically those two worlds live far apart.”

By maintaining a retail presence at the farmers’ market and elsewhere, McGlasson and his rustic-modern creations managed 
to get noticed by other Twin Cities tastemakers. Thanks to Linda McShannock, a savvy curator at the Minnesota Historical Society, the organization added a Woodsport walnut bench to its collection, a distinction that few contemporary furniture makers can claim.

Andrew Blauvelt, curator of architecture and design at Walker Art Center, recently bought the popular Finny stool for himself. “Its form is what really sold me,” explains Blauvelt. “Rounded, over-scaled proportions ­– a nearly cartoonish rendition of the archetypal stool.”

Today, about half McGlasson’s business comes from cash-and-carry bowls, plates, and stools he sells at events like One of
a Kind Chicago and the American Craft Council Show in St. Paul. “I think up this stuff, and miraculously, people buy it,”
 says the modest McGlasson. The other
half of his work is private commissions – the stylish cabinet for the pianist, an enormous walnut slab table for another client. These projects provide the woodworker with a comfortable income. And increasingly, more of the best commissions come from homeowners than architects, people who first discover McGlasson presiding over his $40 bowls at the far edge of the farmers’ market.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. She covers arts, culture, and travel.