Designer Desk: Furniture Designer Kate Duncan

Kate Duncan

I met Kate Duncan at a Gray Magazine Party about a year ago and she became an instant regular (and hit!) at the Designer Happy Hour events. Kate even hosted all of us when she put on her show; ADDRESS at the Chinatown Experiment this summer.  She brought together a group of designers and makers of home accessories, ceramics, textiles, and art to complement her own furniture pieces. Not only was the show stunning, but her thyme lemonade with East Van Distillery Vodka will forever be the benchmark for adult lemonades.

Kate creates stunning wood furniture through her namesake studio – both her own collections and custom pieces for clients.  I’ve personally worked with Kate on a custom project and the experience was perfect. Her enthusiasm is unparalleled when it comes to choosing the right wood species and brainstorming the details of a piece. You can tell how much she cares about making the natural beauty of the wood and joinery shine.

It should be no surprise that Kate was instantly on my list for the Designer Desk series. I made a visit to Kate’s East Vancouver shop to chat about her work:

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I understand that you used to be a shop teacher. How did you migrate to the custom furnishings world and when did you decide to make it your full-time gig?

I was in a really bad motorcycle accident… I had to take some time off work as a teacher after hip and arm surgery and I got to sketching… And sketching… And more sketching. When I slowly started to feel better I’d go into my shop and work for as long as I could. Sometimes it was 20 minutes and sometimes it was a few hours… Woodworking was my rehab. And for about a year I slowly but surely started to build my prototype pieces and portfolio and the next thing I knew I had my own business!

Can you give us a brief breakdown of the process behind your pieces?  What’s your favourite part of that process?

I start out sketching, a lot. A solid plan for a new piece of furniture usually happens little by little over a few days. It helps to take some time away from thinking about it and then all of a sudden another puzzle piece will land in my lap. Usually at the most inopportune times like during dinner or a movie or when I’m fast asleep, damnit! I carry my sketchbook with me all the time. When I leave my apartment I do the phone, keys, wallet, AND sketchbook check… Once I’ve got the design nailed it’s go time! I collect all my materials from various suppliers and I get to work. My favorite moment is when I deliver the piece and put it into place. Clients are always so amazed that their vision is actually right in front of them. I love that look on their face. It’s priceless!

What does a typical day-in-the-life-of-Kate look like?

That is a tough one to answer! It really depends on what projects I’m working on. Sometimes it’s a lot of meetings, emails, phone calls, picking up supplies and working with suppliers for stuff like lumber, metal hardware and leather… My favorite days are the ones in my shop though. When I’m working on bringing a piece to life. That’s what gets me up in the morning. Pushing wood through saws, working a stick into chips with a chisel, and rubbing sandpaper over a board.

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Describe your workspace and why it works for you:

I work out of a 5000 sq ft woodshop in the heart of East Vancouver. It’s full of amazing toys! I’m fortunate enough to have access to an incredible assortment of equipment including a panel saw, veneer press, a huge jointer and a thickness sander. There’s a few other guys that I share the space with who are equally amazing too! It’s such a great community. There’s always a little extra muscle to help move stuff around and everyone shares their beer!

What item or element of your workspace could you not function without and why?

My iPod. I’m always listening to music and unfortunately for the other guys who work in my woodshop I like to sing along too… It keeps me moving and minimizes distractions.

Do you have any work rituals or habits that help you focus and get down to biz?

I am a junkie for a list. If I’m in a funk or having a hard time focusing on something I’ll make a list, or two, or three… I have a million pads of paper all over the place. Usually it’s the first and or last thing I do in a day.

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What’s next for you/what are you working on right now?

I’m just finishing up a job for my woodworking hero, Tyler Hays. He’s the founder of the company BDDW based in Philadelphia with showrooms in Soho and Milan. It was a real honor to be commissioned by Tyler himself. After this job I’ve got a line up of pieces to make for clients including a couple of beds, a dining table, custom counter top and mirror…

Quick fire round:

The first thing I do in the morning: Make coffee
When not at my desk, you can find me: At my workbench
Pencil or Pen? Pen for sketching and list making. Only pencil on wood though.
Coffee or tea? Coffee – preferably in a bucket
Favorite Vancouver neighbourhood: Gastown
What I love about it: The food
What I would change about Vancouver: Not one single thing. I love it here.
What I’m reading right now: Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Media that I read/watch/listen to almost daily: Remodelista – religiously everyday
Vancouver Maker/Designer/Artist that we need to know about: Army of Rokosz – jewelry

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Big thanks and hugs to Kate for letting me hover over her while she does her thing.  To see Kate’s beautiful work or to drop her a line about a project, head over to her website.  You can also follow Kate’s adventures in furniture-making on Twitter & Instagram – always entertaining!

If you know of a designer, artist or maker in Vancouver that you’d like to see featured in an upcoming Designer Desk, please let me know in the comment section below. 

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