Los Angeles–based architect and designer Christopher Norman’s new collection of hand-machined minimalist forms resists standardization. His untitled “extrusions” in ash and cedar and pine riff on a hardware aesthetic while maintaining the organic ethos of much of his other, more fluidly shaped work. Forgoing pre-cut lumber, Norman uses wood from freshly cut trees.
“If you’re working with commercial wood, you get a very normalized look and set of proportions. It’s basically highly mediated,” he explains. Collaborating with arborists, Norman collects urban trees being dispatched in L.A., “street trees or trees on people’s property.”
Using single hunks of wood — he never glues or joins pieces together — he’s able to show the variety and character of different woods even of the same species and give a true “snapshot” of each tree. “You just have this incredible variety of wood. These trees have all sorts of different conditions when they’re growing. It makes them really unique.”
Although his recent work is reminiscent of forms that we might imagine extruded in plastic or bent in aluminum, like brackets and beams, Norman’s process for creating these objects is entirely subtractive. “It’s really fun to start with something that’s 1,000 pounds and then make something that’s 200 or 300 pounds out of that,” he says. The cast-off wood goes to urban farmers located throughout L.A.
There’s a tension between mechanization and craft that runs throughout Norman’s project for Offsite. These minimalist forms are made from highly organic matter, each with a unique texture. And while they might appear to have been cut with a CNC saw, Norman himself shapes each object with a World War II–era military mill — a “giant machine” traditionally used to make molds.
“I’m looking at the relationship between a plant and an industrial machine,” he explains of his process. Given the fact that he’s crafting the objects himself and that their weights and sizes bear a certain relation to the human body, there is an additional exploration of how we interface with the act of manufacture, a circuit between plant, human and machine that is distilled in each sculptural piece.
The objects also have a temporal dimension. Although they are mostly coated with an organic-appearing finish of linseed oil or wax, the variable properties of the uniquely sourced wood — such as its moisture content — means that each design adapts and shifts slightly until it finds equilibrium with its environment.
“Each piece will look different after I’m done working with it, even with a finish, ” Normas says. “It goes from plant to machine back to plant in a way.”