“Function Drives the Form”: An Interview with Furniture Designer Paul Forde

One of my favorite makers has to be Cheryl Schulke, the creative genius behind Stash leather goods. Over the last few years, I’ve watched her grow from a small online business to having a storefront in one of the swankiest shopping districts here in Houston. When she opened the store about a year ago, I stopped by to see how she was doing as she set up. When I walked in, the first things I noticed were the furniture and the fixtures: beautiful long natural wood tables that displayed her leather jewelry as well as gorgeous sculptural, rough-hewn dress forms.

I gushed over the furniture to Cheryl, who told me that her husband, Paul Forde, made them. I was shocked—I had no idea he made furniture. But it turns out this is a profitable side business of his. In fact, his pieces have been purchased by large corporations and restaurants, and he’s received countless requests to produce more. But in his soft-spoken, gentle way, Paul is incredibly circumspect about for whom he creates his work. And happily, he gave me a tour of his workshop and told me all about how he got into this business.

Karen Walrond: How did this all get started? What made you decide you were going to do this?

Paul Forde: I’ve always really enjoyed woodworking. I enjoy projects; I like working with my hands; and I like completing things and feeling that sense of completion—you know, being able to say, “I built this,” and looking at the finished product. My personality dictates that those are the things I like to do. I’m very project-driven. So, woodworking is natural for me. And I think it was just an outlet, a fun thing to do.



KW: When did you start woodworking?

PF: Ten years, probably.

KW: So you were an adult! This wasn’t something you grew up doing!

PF: Oh no, not really. I had no training or experience doing it. My grandfather and my dad were carpenters and construction people but not really woodworkers, per se. So yeah, it was just something I had an interest in and just started doing, and reading, and learning about how to do it. And it became kind of a passion and side interest.



KW: What was the first thing you made?

PF: I don’t even remember, it’s been so long ago! I don’t know…it wasn’t anything big, I don’t think. Well, we did a lot of work in and around the house; I’ve done a lot of home rebuilding, that sort of thing, so…I don’t know when it started going from home projects, like cabinetry, to more fine woodworking tables. I’ve built Cheryl a few tables, but honestly I don’t know when it started transitioning.

KW: So you started at home—it wasn’t for Cheryl’s business.

PF: I started at home, and very small, because I didn’t have a lot of space. In fact, that’s probably about when it started—just before we moved homes because I didn’t have a lot of space to do woodworking, and it requires a fair amount of space. And so one of the things that I really wanted when we changed homes was to have that space. And the house we’re in now has enough garage space that I could have a true shop. Then I was able to do something. And that’s when I started getting some tools and getting really serious about it as a hobby.


KW: Okay, so you move into the house, and I know you’ve done display stuff for Cheryl. When did people start saying “oh, this is really good—you need to start doing this for me”?

PF: I suppose as people would come over, or we were involved with Cheryl’s show—she was always needing a piece of furniture—and people would say, “Wow, I love that! Where would you get that?” And I would respond, “Well, actually I made it.” And they would say, “Oh! I didn’t know you did that!” And I’d say, “I didn’t either, really—I just do it on the side…” And it would go from there.

KW: But then you also have your day job—your construction company—and you run it.

PF: Yes.

KW: I think there’s this perception that if you’re going to be the CEO of anything—of your construction company or even your small woodworking business—you’d have to be extroverted. Like, it would require sales, and hustling, and things that are traditionally extroverted. Do you agree with that, or do you think that’s a misconception?

PF: Yeah…To make it work, I would say you need some aspects of extroversion, or at least some help, I suppose, to make that happen. I don’t know that you need it within yourself. Ultimately, things can happen in a business that you’re not out driving. I mean, you can have some success, and you can be driven, and you can work hard without having to be an extrovert. And you can happen upon things—part of it is luck and timing—and have some relative success with that without being an extrovert.

KW: How has your introversion served you? What are the things for which you think that your introversion has been a benefit?

PF: I spend a lot of time learning, and watching people, and reading. Like, for example, when I decided to build the kiln to dry the wood I use for my business, I had to read, study designs. And that’s a lot of introverted time. I didn’t get that information from anyone else, and I didn’t go out and seek it by getting in contact with anyone. I just did it by doing research on the Internet, and books, and all of that. It was just literally by myself. So, I suppose introversion gives me that ability to be focused and spend that alone-time to learn it.


KW: And how do you come up with the designs?

PF: Oh, those just come to me. That’s probably the thing you can’t teach anyone else. I mean, as an artist, your design comes from what inspires you at that time. And you can see something and go, “Wow, I want to make that,” or “I want to make this out of that wood.” Which is why sometimes it takes me a long time to cut a piece of wood. I might look at it for a really long time until ultimately one day, I look at it and go, “Okay, wow. Now I know what I want to do with that.”

KW: Is it something like the wood is telling you what it’s going to be? Or do you sometimes just try something, and if it works, it works?

PF: Both, I think, because I experiment, and if it doesn’t work, then I think, “Yeah, that was a bad idea; I’m going to do something else.”

KW: You also told me that you don’t have a lot of people working with you on this.

PF: No. I mean, occasionally, I get help from people from my day job. The pieces I build are big and heavy, and it does take a lot of effort and labor, and I get help; but I don’t have help that I’ve hired strictly to do this. Which is why it’s not my full-time business. I make what I want as an artist, and I get help occasionally doing it.

KW: I love this—we talked about this, actually—that you have no desire to turn this into your full-time job. So do you look at the pieces you make primarily as art, and by the way, they have a function, or do you consider function primarily?

PF: It actually depends on the piece. Mostly, the things I’ve been building lately are function over form. Function definitely drives the form, and so I’ve adapted some things to make them more functional. I like making functional things that have a beautiful form. Highly functional, beautiful form. So that’s not just “art.”

KW: Okay, but looking at it as an artist, I think there are some artists that would want to have a certain amount of fame, to be known in galleries or in the art world. Any desire for that?

PF: No, not really. Having people appreciate what I build for them is really what matters to me.