Around the Bend

Around the Bend

Richard Haining’s path has had its curves, but negotiating each one has been worth it.
Richard Haining wood vessels

Although his one-of-a-kind vessels are built of small blocks, Haining isn’t afraid to go big. His Alaskan Cedar Urn (2016, second from left) is about 3½ feet tall.

Joseph Kramm

Near the center of Richard Haining’s studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sit fragments of what was once a New York City mayor’s mahogany patio, reborn as a freestanding cabinet’s mosaic exterior. Nearby, tiny blocks of California redwood and Alaskan cedar from decommissioned New York City water towers have been stacked and smoothed into sturdy urn-like vessels. On a wall behind them, assorted stock rests on shelves, including an old gym floor and a thrilling recent score: two SUV-loads of mahogany offcuts from a furniture company.

“Most of what I’m doing,” explains Haining, “is trying to make something beautiful out of someone else’s refuse.”

If it takes time for the materials in Haining’s studio to become their best selves, that’s only fitting. The 38-year-old is himself still taking shape as a studio artist, having made it his full-time pursuit only two years ago. Yet in that short window, Haining has refined a technique that he has been developing for more than a decade: creating large vessels out of small, meticulously stacked pieces, typically of reclaimed wood. It’s a style originally born of resourcefulness, but one that has come to reflect both the artist and the incremental nature of his career.

Haining grew up in the Atlanta area, one of three children in a family that encouraged his interest in art. He enrolled at Auburn University in 1997, but found attending a large school alienating, especially because he was uncertain about a course of study. He lasted five months before dropping out, trading college for a three-month National Outdoor Leadership School program in Wyoming that helped restore his sense of self. 

Reinvigorated, Haining moved to upstate New York with a friend, and while working food service jobs there, he took a ceramics class. It rekindled his love of the arts, and in 1999, he relocated to the Pacific Northwest, where he enrolled at small Evergreen State College and began studying art. A year later, Haining applied to Rhode Island School of Design’s ceramics program with a portfolio of his work in clay, a packet of sketches, and an essay explaining his circuitous path. He was accepted. 

As a young student at RISD, Haining would cut pieces of clay from large slabs, stacking the blocks into urn-like forms. His professor, Jackie Rice, intervened: “[She] said, ‘I think you may be in the wrong department. You’re handbuilding these large vessels, and you sand them when you’re done,’” Haining recalls. 

“So I took some furniture classes, and there was just something about the tactile quality of wood. I fell in love.” 

After he graduated in 2005, Haining found work first as a furniture maker’s assistant, then in sales, before landing at a Brooklyn set-design company, where he stayed for seven years. He’s quick to list the benefits of his on-the-job education — realizing there was no limit to what could be built, learning how to balance speed and precision, growing comfortable problem-solving on the fly. But possibly the most significant perk was proximity to plywood discards that he stockpiled. In the fall of 2007, he started using them to make new stacked-wood objects, such as large spheres, with terraced contours. 

His technique today is essentially the same as the one he originally developed, gluing and clamping together quarter-inch wooden blocks to form his structures. But now that Haining works with nicer varieties of wood – courtesy of furniture makers and reclaimed lumberyards, which provide him with offcut waste – he gives his pieces sleeker lines, using angle grinders, orbital sanders, and hand-sanding to create rounded surfaces.

“People assume I turn these, but there’s no way,” he says. “If your tool caught in a void between blocks, the piece would explode. About 90 percent of the time is spent building, anyway. The shaping is the fast part.” 

That commitment to handcrafting is in keeping with Haining’s training and respect for the studio furniture ethos – which, combined with his inclination toward minimalism, has guided his aesthetic. “It’s about producing one-off pieces that have clean lines,” he explains. “They’re unassuming until you walk up to them.” 

Unassuming in profile, perhaps, but certainly not in complexity. According to Rosanne Somerson, president of RISD and former head of the furniture department, discipline and persistence have long been Haining’s distinguishing traits. “Even in the beginning, Richard had incredible perseverance,” Somerson recalls. “He really wanted things to be well made.” The accomplished furniture maker served as Haining’s mentor at RISD, and has followed the development of his career and signature style.

“The scale of the pieces is interesting, because they’re big,” Somerson explains. “But because of the way he constructs the overall out of small parts, these commanding vessels are also delicate, and they all have a certain character because of the imperfection of the hand-guided form. That duality is a reflection of Richard – he’s a big personality but a sensitive person.”

Though still relatively new to full-time studio work, Haining finally seems certain of his path. He began taking his work to shows in late 2015 and found success early on, winning the People’s Choice award that October at RISD By Design, a juried art fair. Whereas his career was once limited by access to materials, the only thing slowing him down now is another finite resource: time. His vessels can take weeks to produce – he often has up to five going at once, in various stages of glue-up – so he has to pick his projects carefully, while supplementing his income with commissions for more traditional furniture. 

As opportunity permits, he has designs on expanding his output to include more pieces like the mosaic cabinet, including his dream project: a stacked-wood Bombay chest. “That would be my pièce de résistance,” he says,“but it would probably be a three-month project. At the end of the day, what I do isn’t overly complicated, but it’s a little bit time-consuming and utterly insane. I don’t know – I’m a glutton for that punishment.” 

Whatever his next project, it seems likely that Haining will continue developing his career in the same way that he established it: Taking what life gives him and building something lasting.