Liz Dunning Listens to the Material

This woodworker lets the materials do most of the talking in the heirloom furniture she crafts.


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Photo of Liz Dunning by Magdalena Martinez Miller; furniture by Dunning

From her woodworking shop in the Alameda Point Studios at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, Liz Dunning creates heirloom furniture pieces using high-quality materials sourced ethically and locally.

Affiliated with the longtime art complex of professional artists and craftspeople since 2007, Dunning has been in the Bay Area since 1999, an environment very different from where she grew up. When Dunning was in the second grade, her family moved from the small town of Los Osos to a 40-acre property in rural Cayucos. The family’s closest neighbor was a half-mile away, and the television in the Dunning home did not receive a signal. Dunning’s parents insisted their two daughters entertain themselves by exploring the surrounding outdoors.

“I loved to sew, but I actually thought woodworking was a complete bore,” Dunning said, noting her mom had a sewing studio on the property and her dad had a basic wood shop.

Dunning came to San Francisco at 18 to study at what is now California College of the Arts, initially thinking she would become a costume designer, and she dreamed of working for the San Francisco Opera. But after a semester in the fashion design program, she felt out of step, having grown up in such an isolated area with little exposure to pop-culture.

One day she noticed a newly completed set of stools with upholstered seats in the wood furniture department, and something inside her clicked. “I realized that I could make work that is functional using beautiful materials like wood and steel, glass, and leather and even stone,” she said. She completed her BFA in furniture design in 2004.

For every commission, Dunning meets with the client, introduces the project, collaboratively conceptualizes it, and takes many measurements and lots of notes. Then she provides 3D drawings to scale and material samples. Once the design is approved, she can purchase materials and begin fabrication.

“A day in my studio can be anything from drawing and planning on my computer to milling solid wood, cutting up plywood, meeting with a CNC [computer numerically controlled] operator for larger jobs, or doing hands-on work like machine joinery, sanding, glue-ups or applying finish,” she explained.

Dunning credits her family for keeping her inspired and grounded. She also values collaboration with clients and colleagues to push her design to the next level. Dunning is inspired by travel to new places and recently visited Japan and Mexico. Unusual landscapes also influence her work. Teachers, too, have been great mentors for Dunning.

“I had an incredible teacher named Mie Preckler who instilled in me how to approach design,” she said. “She taught me how to let the materials speak for themselves and not to adorn a material that is already beautiful on its own.”

Additionally, Dunning learned from Preckler how to assess the environment that the work is being created for and to think about how the work will interact with the space. “She taught me that design can be quiet and still make a huge impact.”

Another teacher, Mary Little, taught her to always stick to her vision. Charles and Ray Eames, the famed husband-and-wife design team, also inspire her. “They always looked like they were having so much fun,” she said.

Dunning said she doesn’t think she will ever tire of working with wood. She considers the work an incredible sensory exploration in different grain patterns based on how the tree is milled, the smell of different species when cut, and the way wood constantly expands and contracts as though the tree is still alive.

“The grain of flat-sawn Douglas fir, for example, has a pattern that reminds me of an aerial view of the Badlands or a science fiction landscape,” she said.

The busy woodworker has multiple pieces in the works, and as a side project is making decorative “aura prisms,” a triangle of wood framing a lens of dichroic glass that she gives to friends as gifts. Apart from making beautifully crafted work, she loves exploring with her husband, Paul, and their dog, Remi. She also loves baking and won the annual cookie contest at the studio complex one year.

Regarding her work, Dunning said, “I am inspired to improve the world around me for myself and others by creating work that brings function and beauty to our lives and keeps us in touch with the natural world in which we live.”

Upcoming exhibits include the San Francisco West Coast Crafts Show on Nov. 23-24 in Fort Mason and the Los Angeles West Coast Crafts Show, Dec. 7-8. To learn more about her work, LizDunning.com.

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