Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but Michael Olshefski sees the forest in his exquisite reclaimed-wood furniture. The architect and designer behind Primal Modern in Glassell Park creates museum-quality tables and artworks that reflect his Zen appreciation of nature. Using wood pieces that “speak” to him, Olshefski works with clients to customize furniture that fits their lifestyle.
An award-winning graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), Olshefski has worked in architectural design and construction for 25 years. High-profile projects he contributed to include the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Otis College of Art and Design, the Griffith Observatory and USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center. These days, he’s starting on a project at Santa Monica College as senior project manager for the new math and science building, among other design roles.
Until recently, woodworking was just a hobby for Olshefski. “Four years ago, I decided to really go into it and open up my own studio,” he said. “The work I did in the past looked like woodworkers’ furniture. Now I define myself as a designer who happens to work with wood as a medium.” Yet Olshefski’s practice is strongly rooted in woodworking. “When I was born, my father was a carpenter, a woodworker,” he recalled. His parents took snapshots of him with a hammer when he was a toddler. He went on to become a certified carpenter. “My hands-on experience was a huge plus when I went to architecture school,” he said. “On the flip side, I had to learn to pull away from those preconceived things, general practices I had as a carpenter.” When one thinks about a door, Olshefski continued, “Why does it have to be rectangular?”
Most of his Primal Modern works are rectangular and influenced by his realization that “people have a very strong opinion about the wood. They are afraid of damaging it.” A visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with his wife of 17 years, Linda Stiehl, inspired a solution to that problem. “My mind is always thinking about design and I’m looking at the museum case,” noting the separation between the glass and the wood, he said. The wood of his tables is the art on exhibit, but some clients lay out collections of their own atop the wood and under the glass. “One client displayed his antique daggers on them.”
Going through his portfolio at primalmodern.com, you can see obvious signs of Buddhist inspiration, something clearly expressed throughout the Primal Modern website. Burnt Forest I and Burnt Forest II, glass-topped cocktail tables of sinuous slabs of wood atop a bed of pebbles, will remind gardening buffs of the dry landscape of the Ryōan-ji Zen temple in Kyoto. Olshefski said the rock area represents an estuary of water. “It’s a miniature bonsai concept.”
Buddhism might not seem an obvious path for a guy who was born and raised in upstate New York on an Adirondack Mountains game preserve. “We raised horses, dogs and quails,” he said. “There weren’t really a lot of people around me.” Later, at SCI-Arc, Olshefski was exposed to a wide variety of influences and encouraged by the school to form his own artistic philosophy. He took classes in chaos theory and fractal geometry. “Everything in nature is mathematics,” he says. “You just need to look at everything and see how it grows, how everything is a component of the next and the scale just changes.”
Olshefski also took a class in sumi-e painting and washi paper-making from a Japanese professor. “I didn’t know what to expect when I took the course. It was life-changing.” One of the things the teacher emphasized was “understanding the state of your mind when you are about to do the process.” Sometimes what you do is what you feel. “If you’re feeling aggressive, highly energized, then you should paint bamboo,” because that involves a firm planting of the brush and confident thrusts. On the other hand, “if you’re feeling more relaxed or melancholic,” orchids are a better subject choice because they “have a whole different flow.” With sumi-e, one is only painting in black, but one also learns there are “thousands of shades of black.” Olshefski found painting was “a process of meditation,” allowing him to focus on emotions.
Since 2001, Olshefski and Stiehl, who handles Primal Modern’s marketing, have made several pilgrimages to Asia. Indeed, travel has been a boon to the couple. It was a canceled flight en route to L.A. that led them to first meet at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. They became certified scuba divers on their honeymoon.
Olshefski’s journeys underwater inspired such design pieces as his Manta table, with biomorphic lines invoking those of the graceful ray. Olshefski had always loved the minimalism of Japanese architecture, which is often expressed in his Primal Modern works. “The frames are not actually composed of pieces welded together. They are sheets folded,” like origami.
A small 5-by-5-foot dining table starts at $5,000 and goes up to $100,000, depending on materials and design. Cocktail tables start at $2,500, and accent tables are about $1,500. An ornamental piece like Sunrise or Sunset costs about $900. As Stiehl noted, “When we present at art expos, just about everyone who visits our location stops mid-step and just gazes at his work or says, ‘Wow.’ The visceral reaction is so wonderful to watch. His clientele tends to be those who truly appreciate fine art, love to surround themselves with beauty and want to have a unique experience with the artist and designer. “
About 80 percent of his work is commissioned. “Usually, they think they’ve got more room than they do,” he said of his clients. Olshefski uses AutoCAD design software for presentations and makes several mock-ups to ensure the piece is a perfect fit for each client.
Aspiring do-it-yourselfers should know that working with reclaimed wood isn’t easy. And if you have a stump or old tree you’d like to work with, don’t bother calling Primal Modern. “A lot of people offer me trees to salvage,” Olshefski said. While all the reclaimed wood at Primal Modern is domestic, the designer only works with three mills. Mills can be reluctant to take old trees because they may be embedded with stones, rocks, nails or even barbed wire.
Finding a suitable piece of wood is only the beginning. “Each piece requires three to four years of air-drying in a shed before you can put it in a kiln to dry it… Drying in a kiln kills all the bacteria and all the insects.” After that, there’s no worry about bugs coming out of the wood while he’s working on it or when it’s in a client’s space. The piece he used for Manta, for example, was cut and air-dried for three years and came out weighing 900 pounds. After four months in a kiln, that weight shrank to 300.
It takes time to make a forest and it takes time to bring pieces of a forest into a home. If you want to see the forest differently and more intimately, take a look at Primal Modern.
Primal Modern is located at 2530 N. San Fernando Rd., Studio G, Los Angeles. Call (323) 810-0105 or visit primalmodern.com.