Talking to custom woodworker Ben Kelly about how to build a stool is like asking Pythagoras how to get from point A to point B: There's a lot more to it than meets the eye. A 29-year-old Aspen, Colo., native with the scruffy look of a guy who's grown up outdoors, Kelly knows his stuff: Biology, chemistry, politics, design, spirituality and even a bit of philosophy come up in a casual conversation about his art. "Wood is a dynamic material. I'm still learning a lot about it, and I always will be," he says.
Kelly approaches each piece, from rocking chairs to tables to cabinetry, with this Zen-like humility: Instead of shaping the wood to suit his design, he shapes his design to suit the wood—a process that, for an average piece, might take 40 to 60 hours, plus 20 to 30 more for sanding and finishing. ("You lose a lot of fingerprints along the way," he says with a laugh.) The technique is one he adopted from famed midcentury woodworker George Nakashima. "It's all about starting with the piece of wood and trying to find out what its best applications could be," he says. "He left wood as natural as possible."
Leaving wood natural, of course, means living with imperfections. But, true to form, Kelly has an alternative philosophy: "The flaws are what make things different and unique." Knots, for example, are denser than the surrounding wood and create tension, or waves. "The ripples are beautiful when you flatten them out and put a finish on them," he says.
During his childhood in Aspen, Kelly's grandmother, an amateur painter, enrolled him in every art class she could find, but it wasn't until he built a canoe at an East Coast boarding school that he discovered his passion. "The functional, technical and arts-and-crafts aspects drew me to woodworking," he says. He attended boat-building school before college, and though he doesn't build anything sea-worthy in landlocked Colorado, that background informs his fluid, modern style. "Boat-building instilled a real aversion to the straight line," he says. "And once you start curving things, you get either really ornate on a small scale, or really contemporary on a large scale."
Hardly log-cabin fare, his work appeals to sophisticated sensibilities, yet its natural materials and organic forms suit today's mountain home. "Contemporary style is prevailing these days, and it's transforming mountain communities," he says.
What really sets Kelly's work apart, however, is simply his ability to reveal the beauty of wood. "The grains have such depth that, when finished, it looks like you can see right into them." Depth, indeed. See more of Kelly's work at his web site, honustudio.com.