DesignCraft Hero: Donald Fortescue

A year. That’s how long it took to finally meet Donald Fortescue: artist, designer and teacher.

But then again, he was never exactly off my radar during that time.

Image courtesy of Donald Fortescue

Lawrence LaBianca, who had first mentioned him to me would,  from time to time, inquire whether I’d spoken to him. And from his years of teaching at California College of the Arts (where he also chaired the Furniture Program for over ten years) he seemed to have built up quite the fan club.

If his name came up in discussion (as it did with several Handful of Salt heroes and heroines) eyes would light up, voices would soften and smiles widen. (Being the cynical contrarian, I must say, these things had me narrowing my eyes a bit.) And finally, there was his very moving work (sculptural wood) – quiet, powerful, elemental and technically and emotionally refined – which would crop up at exhibits and galleries I’d walk into.

Image courtesy of Donald Fortescue

All roads, it seemed, led to Donald, and yet…….

Fast forward. One grizzly (intermittently grey + drizzly) afternoon, the road I was driving on was finally the one that would lead me to Donald’s home and studio in Oakland, CA.

So much for my cred as a cynic, but I soon started to understand how the fan club felt. Because this tall, graceful ex-Aussie is the real deal. Deeply intellectually curious, a natural teacher, he’s a passionate advocate of craft, and an instinctive, generous connector of people and ideas. (In the course of our time together, he reeled off the names of at least 8 people I needed to meet. Pippa Murray, mosaicist and DesignCraft heroine – and referred to us by Donald – called him “one of those hub people”.)

Edges softened by the west cost, he still has that disarmingly direct Aussie way of asking questions and delivering opinions.  A master craftsman and artist, of course.  Actually, a master human being and thus, a rare creature.

Over tea, in a living room graced with his work and with the work of CCA graduates (now that’s what I call a job perk) and in his garage studio with a rather massive steamer for bending wood (check out his blog for visuals), we chatted about it all: the state of craft, the craft of life, and pretty much everything in between.


Were you one of these people who wanted to be working with your hands as you exited the womb? No, I was more of an academic bookworm. My first degree was in botany and zoology and I ended up working in the botanic gardens in Sydney.

I can see the botanical influences in your work, though. I can also see Japanese influences. Yes. I traveled to Japan and it really did change my life. When I came back I realized I didn’t want to work in a lab all day. And I became a crafter: I did raku, I knitted my own clothes.

Why? It was a lot of things, but probably in large part a reaction to popular culture. I didn’t want to be in a uniform of Levi’s and black t-shirts.

I also worked at Tokyo Disneyland there in the ‘80s.


And did Disney change you life? (I don’t really see any Disney influences in his work. Perhaps I am unimaginative to not see it, but I am certainly grateful.) Something like that. I was the first Goofy at Tokyo Disney. (How’d you get that job?) I auditioned for it of course! But it was great, I was working with all these 18-20 year old kids who also didn’t want to be corporate clones. There’s that amazing subculture in Japan, that world separate from the rest of “known” Japanese culture is so fascinating. Me and the Three Little Pigs used to swap manga backstage. (Pause for moment to picture this, please. Quite wonderful.)

OK, so take us from your life as a botanist and as Goofy-san to life as a teacher and artist. When I got back, I did woodworking classes, and at some point, I had that quintessential “craft moment”: when a day had gone by and I hadn’t even noticed it. It was that feeling of flow….when people experience that for the first time, it’s just incredible.

So I just decided to go to art school at 27.

Brave. How was that? Oh, it felt way too late to be retraining but it’s what I wanted to do. And you studied…Woodworking and furniture design. I did well at school…one of the pieces I did at school was collected by a museum in Sydney.

Furniture design vs. science. Discuss, as they say. I liked the people I met in my new vocation. In the science, they were more “special” you might say…Seriously, the older crafts people I knew are just awesome. I loved to hang out with them. And I liked the idea I could never retire. It’s your life, not your career. The relationship between life and work would be seamless. Of course now that I’m getting older I’m starting to wonder about that. (Aren’t we all?)

Anyway, I got a grant….I had my first solo show, sold some work, commissions started to come my way. It just grew and flowed from that. Did that for about 5-6 years. Then I got sick of being in the studio all the time, so I started to do some teaching, and ended up at the Jam Factory in Adelaide. Then I came here, haven’t looked back.

Going from doing to teaching…being gentle about it, not everyone makes that transition so well. You know, but I enjoy the teaching. I didn’t imagine myself as a full-time instructor but I like the variety and stimulation. I’m a quick problem solver and have been trading on that ability for most of my life. Trying to find a way into a student’s problem, solving it with them. I love that, and I like that kind of interaction, that collaboration.

What is it about CCA that keeps you there? CCA is wonderful. It has a great buzz around it, and a great energy. But what keeps me here is that it’s reinventing itself all the time. Formally, there are new majors like animation, curatorial, and interaction design. We have the Design MBA. But more than that, they give me the ability to try new things within existing programs.  Every year I get to design teach classes that I’m actually interested in. An example is CraftLab, in which we explored theories around craft, embodied learning, and the role of tradition in contemporary practice. (Lawrence LaBianca was one of his guest lecturers). Another program I got to run was Shelter, which was about exploring the design and building of minimal habitats. It’s great to be able to try things like this.

What have you found about the students? Overall, they’re wonderfully creative. But I will say that at the beginning stages, there’s a lot of helping people understand how to work with their hands. That’s something a lot of people have to relearn.

What’s exciting you these days? I’m excited by what I’m seeing from students. People are exploring all kinds of different things, and there’s a great deal of interdisciplinary exploration at CCA. Say more. I’m interested in furniture as a metaphor for the body. Fashion and furniture as related. I don’t know many furniture people who’ve used tropes from the fashion world, yet. But I like what I’m beginning to see in this direction.

Do you think there’s such a thing as a Bay Area style of design and craft? I love the idea of terroir….a flavor that comes from a place…that’s very important to me. So in terms of a Bay Area style…physical environment is very much embedded in the Bay Area and there’s a strong sense of place…There’s a way culture gets expressed…a looser way of thinking about it all. It’s liberal. There’s the ocean. It’s a small enough place that there’s cross-fertilization. There’s the use of natural materials, patinas…a West Coast Japanese influence. So maybe yes. (For more on Donald’s POV on place and craft and process, check out his blog. I’m a huge fan of an intriguing little section called Oblique Strategies.)

Your work embraces both art and function. Talk about that. I did all functional work before I came here. When I came here, I started making more sculptural work, drawing on history. I do do some functional work particularly now by commission, such as (quietly lovely) sculptural outdoor benches. I’ve also got this strain of work, based on histories of collecting….cabinets of curiosities. (Dr. Fortescue’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Quite perfect.)

Image courtesy of Donald Fortescue

Image courtesy of Donald Fortescue. Work in collaboration with Lawrence LaBianca

Who would play you in your Biopic? Cate Blanchett. If she can play Bob Dylan, she can play anyone. She’s got the accent already (nothing worse than a non-native speaker “bunging on” an Aussie accent.) And I love the thought that she would have to hang out with me as part of her research.

Genre. Sci-Fi of course. The Day the Earth Stood Still… BladeRunner… Alien…. The Life of Donald – great company. (Cate Blanchet as Deckert in BladeRunner the remake. Though I realize that were it not for Cate, I should be shot for uttering the words remake and BladeRunner in one sentence.)

What’s on my reading table at the moment? Quite a pile actually. But I’m ACTIVELY reading Tim Ingold’s “Lines: A Brief History”. It’s a fascinating cultural anthropology of the line and its role in wayfaring, music, language and art.  And the novel “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell – because I was an 18th Century navigator in a previous life

What’s the first thing you reach for each morning? I reach for the cafe latte my wife Sandra has kindly made me, followed by my glasses and iPhone.

And finally, what objects define you?

My ever-ready, always comfortable, Blundstone boots,

My RM Williams black jeans,

My Akubra hats (the Aussie boy lives on),

The aforementioned iPhone, and

My moleskin notebook and fountain pen.

A pile of brand names – sheesh.




Filed under Heroes and Heroines, SF Bay Area, Wood

2 responses to “DesignCraft Hero: Donald Fortescue

  1. richard stupidhead

    Donald (may I call you Donald?) what would be more amusing is if you tried to play Cate Blanchette.

  2. even the dog eats wood. sheesh. amazing work!

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