Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 7, 2001

A koa chair by woodworker Marian Yasuda.

Wood works

Look for flare and function as
more than 60 artists display their
homegrown, hand-carved
furniture at Aloha Tower

By Tim Ryan

The massive and marvelous Art Deco-ish koa cabinet dwarfs Marian Yasuda as she puts the final touches on the 7-foot high, 9-foot wide, 400-plus pound piece she's entering in this year's Hawaii's WoodShow 2001 competition.

Even the acclaimed master craftsperson seems impressed, though momentarily, by her seven weeks of daily labor and the thousands of dollars of wood going into the piece.

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon in her fourth-floor Iwilei warehouse workshop, a short walk from Dole Cannery Theatres where families and friends are spending the afternoon being entertained.

"Just about finished," she tells a visitor, Yasuda's eyes narrowing as she scans the piece for imperfections. Then she steps closer, rubbing the stylized wooden pulls of several doors and drawers with a soft cloth.

Woodworker Marian Yasuda stands atop a stool to
attach the framed glass doors to a two-piece koa
bureau dresser she built in her Iwilei studio.

"It's perfect," I tell Yasuda. "With all the sections, how's it possible to keep everything so straight and fit so well?"

Yasuda slowly turns.

"It doesn't," she tells me. "You can't see it, but I can."

Yasuda is one of more than 63 woodworkers -- with 138 entries -- exhibiting their work in the Aloha Tower show presented by the Hawaii Forest Industry Association.

Association members working under the "Hawaii's Wood" brand must use wood from Hawaii-grown tree species that have been planted and brought to maturity in the islands. The annual show is designed to provide inspiration for the art and craft of woodworking, while promoting the positive role of forests in Hawaii's economy and ecology. Many of the items, including Yasuda's, will be for sale.

A two-piece koa bureau with dresser
built by Marian Yasuda.

Yasuda's piece is priced at $25,000, and with her fingers crossed, the 41-year-old artist says, "I hope it sells. If not, it'll go in our house."

Husband Neal, sitting nearby, grimaces at the thought of bearing the expense of the work and lugging it to their Palolo home.

The other piece Yasuda has for the show is an elaborate koa rocking chair with impossible curved pieces, at $6,800.

"There's not a 90-degree angle anywhere on it," she said. "This one was a lot of work."

Suspending sexist perceptions for a moment, at first glance it's hard to imagine Yasuda, at just over 5 feet tall, soft-spoken and with slender fingers, using a planer or router or circular saw on a piece of silky oak or dense koa. Yasuda says she's one of five women statewide who make and design custom furniture.

A door handle of the two-piece koa bureau.

"The positives far outweigh the negatives," she says, grinning. "People who see my work tend to remember my name because I'm a woman; and when I buy lumber I always get help carrying it to the car."

The drawbacks?

"People sometimes ask for the boss when they see me so I have to tell them I'm the owner of Yasuda Designs in Wood."

She designs and builds as many as 30 major pieces a year for Hawaii and mainland clients. Works range in price from $2,000 to $25,000.

By her own admission, her work has a feminine quality and most of her clients are men. "I do softer designs with a lot of curves, rarely any hard lines," she says.

The tables, chairs, rockers, ottomans, entertainment centers, bed head and foot boards fit as easily in a bachelor pad as a family home. The furniture lines are gentle but strong, firm but not intimidating, strong in statement yet approachable.


The end treatment of the bureau.

Yasuda's work has taken top honors in local and mainland shows, been written about in national woodworking magazines and in December she will be one of five Hawaii artists featured on the Home & Garden network.

Yasuda, a Punahou and University of Hawai'i graduate, enrolled at UH as an art student for a career in advertising. Midway through her college education, Yasuda, then 21, enrolled at State University of New York, College of Buffalo, as an exchange student. It was there that she learned traditional woodworking methods using only hand tools.

"I started off simple like everyone else, I suppose, making boxes," Yasuda said. "I had never worked in three dimensions and I loved it.

"I like building beautiful things that also are functional and I like fitting angles and geometry. It was a perfect fit for me."

When she returned to Hawaii to complete her senior year at UH, Yasuda got a part-time job in a cabinet shop, using power tools for the first time.

"It was a glue-and-screw shop," Yasuda said. "He hired me and taught me."

Woodworker Marian Yasuda relaxes in a koa chair that
she made along with a koa ottoman in her Iwilei studio.

She still hand-cuts dovetail joints which costs clients more, but gives them the option of also selecting machine-cut joints.

"You can cut dovetail joints with a router or cut them by hand and they look identical; there's probably no strength difference but it's the purist aspect which sells it."

Yasuda left cabinetry making after severing a tendon in her right thumb with a chisel. During her six weeks recuperation Yasuda decided to purchase a futon bed frame business that would allow her time to create custom furniture and build a client list.

"I started developing my own style using more veneer, getting creative with shapes and curves and lines," she said. And in 1987 Yasuda Designs in Wood was born.

The most unusual piece she's built was an entertainment system in which the client wanted a number of "electronic bells and whistles" including an apparatus that allowed him to open all the cabinet drawers by remote control. Her favorite project has been designing and building furniture for several rooms in a Diamond Head residence.

The wood Yasuda uses most often is koa, although she's allergic to it. Most of her koa projects are of veneer since the precious Hawaiian wood sells for more than $30 a board foot. She "loves" maple and Hawaiian silky oak, another local wood appreciated for its honey color.

But even this master wood worker makes measuring mistakes.

"I'm waiting for someone to invent a wood stretcher," she says.

While Yasuda reinspects her koa cabinet, she explains that the original design called for ebony in pulls and other areas but "it was much too dark so I changed it."

"That's what's so much fun about designing," she says. "There's always another perfect solution to be considered."

Hawaii's WoodShow 2001 winners

>> Best of Show: Alan Wilkinson/dining room set
>> First Place Furniture: Tai Lake/rocking chair
>> First Place Musical instrument: Rich A. Godfrey/tenor ukulele
>> First Place Novice: Bruce young/calabash bowl
>> First Place Open: Richard Smith/Black Bart's bowtie
>> First Place Sculpture: Richard W. Holden/Hawaiian hawk, 2001
>> First Place Turning: Elmer Adams/tapa and mango

Honorable mention

Novice: LuAnn S. Fujimoto/tenor ukulele and Al Rabold/Flowers for Kuuipo
J. Kelly Dunn/bowl
David Gomes/Ukulele: Back to the Future
Dennis Holzer/Koalescence
Tai lake/hall table
Robert Lippoth/Sensual Vibrations
Edward L. Love/Strapped
Douglas M. Philpotts/Four Poster

Student entries

Wesley Griswold: Le Jardin Windward Academy/chess table
Ashley Rictfors: Honolulu Waldorf School/rocking chair

Hawaii's WoodShow 2001

Showcasing more than 100 Hawaii handcrafted wood products

When: Opens Saturday, running 5 to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 16
Where: Aloha Tower, Pier 10
Admission: Free
Call: 841-9495

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