Bill Perkins likes jazz. Bill Perkins also creates stunning furniture out of willow shoots he gathers from the side of the road and birch bark he collects from dead logs. Oddly enough, the two are more closely related than you would imagine.
Bill recounts an anecdote from several years ago: a group of young, fresh-faced students from a small Catholic school in Lake Leelanau took a trip to a nearby furniture show where he was exhibiting his work. The kids had prepared questions to ask him.
“This girl is reading it and she says, ‘What inspired you to make this furniture?’ So I gave them the smart-ass answer: ‘Oh, I listen to jazz music all day.’ And this kid—I found out later he was 11 years old—he goes, ‘Oh yeah? So what inspired you to make that chair?’ So I gave them another smart-ass answer, I tell him, ‘Oh, that was John Coltrane’s Ascension.'”
Bill chuckles. “John Coltrane’s Ascension,” he elaborates, “is about this far away from noise. I mean, it is just way whacked-out jazz music. And this kid, he gives me these Bambi eyes and says, ‘I love that piece.’ Like what?” He continues to laugh. “Apparently he was from a very musical family.”
As far-fetched as a connection between jazz and furniture may seem, there is something undeniably musical about Bill’s furniture. The free-flowing form and avant-garde overtones of Ascension are present in some of his pieces. But, like Coltrane—and every artist, jazz musician and furniture maker in between—Bill Perkins’ work is the product of where tried-and-true tradition meets a fresh and evolved perspective. That, and considerable time spent foraging for materials.
Follow the Bend: Where it All Comes Together
When I arrive at the Suttons Bay Sleeping Bear Twig Furniture workshop — an unassuming storage unit nestled within a warehouse cluster — Bill Perkins is trimming green willow rods to useable sizes and gathering supplies to install, shoot by shoot, the back of a chair that is in progress. He greets me casually and then without much fanfare gives an abridged history of American rustic furniture.
Very quickly I get a sense of the man behind SBTF. Bill is an artist, no doubt, who speaks candidly of his appreciation for different arts and crafts movements and the evolution of his own work. But he is also a straightshooter. When I ask him what “rustic” means to him in relation to furniture, he puts it simply.
“Rustic is when the bark of the wood is kept on, or the bark is used as a decorative element,” he says.
While I’m there, I hear music from Project Trio, B.B. & The Blues Shacks, and Count Basie circulate throughout the workshop behind Bill’s words and stories. He takes me through the basic process of creating one of his chairs: constructing the frame, bending the still-green willow rods around a mounted tricycle wheel, and then fitting the twigs into the frame and carefully nailing them in place, one by one.
I ask if there’s a particular type of furniture he enjoys building most.
“Yeah, I like making the chairs,” he says. “It’s like drawing with sticks to a point.”
Of course, considering how many individual pieces of wood comprise any given SBTF product, things don’t always align on the first try. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of tweaking as a chair or table comes together. But Bill doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s fun to make this furniture,” he says.
In broad strokes, “rustic furniture” is simply furniture that uses unfinished or roughly finished wood. For many, the idea of rustic American furniture conjures the image of the ubiquitous Adirondack chair designed in upstate New York.
There was an analogous rustic furniture tradition in the Great Lakes Region, one that will (for the most part) bring us up to speed with the creations of Bill Perkins.
In the days before proper roads, railroads, and furniture stores, it was common for families to travel from Chicago up to Northern Michigan vacation spots like Omena and Northport Point in the summer. The cottages these travelers stayed in were not furnished, so from this, a rustic furniture tradition distinctive to the Great Lakes Region was born.
Native Americans and lumberjacks within the area would create cottage furniture out of materials that were abundant and visibly renewable. This meant utilizing the pliable and versatile willow shoots found all over Northern Michigan in addition to maple saplings, birch, and cedar.
“We use a lot more willow in the Great Lakes Region, and they’re smaller, skinnier willows,” Bill says.
As a result, the rustic furniture tradition in Northern Michigan has produced pieces that appear more delicate than a lot of the clunky, more raw creations of other traditions throughout the country. This fact—paired with Bill’s appreciation of unrelated art movements and a desire to incorporate such varied styles into a traditional context—is how Sleeping Bear Twig Furniture elicits something more than just nostalgia.
“A Field of 5,000 Table Legs”
Bill’s fascination with twig furniture arose early in his childhood while visiting a friend’s Northern Michigan cottage, which was furnished in the rustic style. However, it didn’t become his craft and livelihood until much later in his life.
“Originally I had moved to plant Christmas trees,” he says. “But soon after that, everyone had a Christmas tree farm. So I was trying to think of what to do with it. I looked out and saw I had a field of 5,000 table legs.” And as simple as that, the seeds of Sleeping Bear Twig Furniture were planted.
He does, on occasion, still use the vastly over-planted Douglas Firs as material for his work, but it has become less of a focus. Instead, the frames of his chairs as well as the more substantial foundations of his furniture typically comes from maple saplings he cuts from orchards throughout the region. Based on where they are planted geographically, along with weather patterns and other environmental factors, these cuts of wood are often twisted or irregularly shaped. Bill uses this to his advantage, letting the gnarly pieces influence the shape of a piece of furniture.
Bill makes chairs, tables, bookcases, bed frames and mirrors, among other things, all in a rustic style. He finds his willow shoots in ditches, confiding in me (with an only half-serious tone): “I’m a really bad driver, because I’m always looking for willows.” The paper-like birch bark which he uses as a surface texture in many of his pieces is harvested from dead logs.
Twig furniture, and rustic furniture in general, are decidedly American traditions. What makes Sleeping Bear Twig Furniture unique is the marriage of these ideals with European ones like Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement.
After a trip to Germany and Austria, Bill became fascinated with the sweeping movement of Art Nouveau, a period of applied art that emphasized organic, curved lines in furniture, architecture, interior design, as well as just about every other medium; the idea of Art Nouveau, along with the Arts and Crafts movement, was based on a philosophy of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total artwork.” The principle of “art as a way of life” was extended to encompass every element being consciously designed as a part of the whole.
In such a niche corner of art, Bill finds these philosophies helpful. Art Nouveau’s swooping lines manifest themselves in the movement of the willow shoots, and every element present in each of his pieces are thought out in advance from the materials to the techniques to the final profile. The handles of his cabinets and decorative components, which have become a sort of signature of Bill’s, can also be categorized this way: stones that he handpicks from neighboring beaches on the lakeshore of Sleeping Bear Dunes and along the Leelanau Trail.
A Craftsman’s Life
As much as Bill has worked and given his whole heart to the craft of rustic furniture, he is still grateful for the way things have turned out.
His work has come a long way since the first pieces he constructed from the days of his Christmas tree farm, furniture he refers to as “labor intensive kindling.” He has been invited on more than one occasion to the Smithsonian Craft Show and other important exhibitions within the trade, like the Rustic Furniture Fair held each year in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. His work has been featured in Northern Michigan craft fairs and shows regularly, and several galleries represent his furniture: The Painted Bird in Suttons Bay and the Artisan Design Network in Traverse City.
Bill recalls with fondness a few serendipitous instances at these shows. Once at the Smithsonian, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stopped at Bill’s booth to take a seat and rest in one of his chairs.
The traditions and processes involved in Bill’s craft are important to him, as are the finished products of his work. But more than anything, his enthusiasm shines through while talking about the memories made, people met, and relationships, professional or otherwise, established throughout his career.
In this way, Bill’s character is reminiscent of his work: raw, sincere, and wholly intentional.
Learn more about his work online.