The French tradition of the "ébéniste" is difficult to translate directly into English. Carpenter, woodworker, cabinet-maker—they're all in the ballpark. But when you encounter a piece by a skilled artisan like Guillaume Dulau, you realize "miracle worker" might hit closer to the mark. For there is indeed something miraculous about what he can do with a simple piece of wood. In his hands, a substance as solid as ebony can become a delicate folding lamp; a material as weighty as ash lumber can transform into a desk that flows like water. And even an old farm saw can be cut and remade into the most elegant set of dinner knives you've ever laid eyes on. We stopped by Guillaume's atelier in the south of France to learn what it takes to become a master woodworker. And after a delicious meal of homemade foie gras and a couple glasses of Armagnac, he was kind enough to tell us.
EQ: So Guillaume, what first got you interested in woodworking? What led you to do this occupation, as opposed to working with other materials?
GD: Actually, I first studied psychology when I was in school—I enjoyed it a great deal, but I always felt a need to create things. I wanted to produce objects, as opposed to simply taking in knowledge. At the time, I was renovating our family home in Aucamville with my father, and I caught my first glimpse of working with those kinds of materials. But above all, I learned to love working with wood, a material that can amaze the novice and the connoisseur alike. In the beginning, I probably thought about wood as most people do—I thought there was something noble in its tradition, but there was also something very much alive and modern about it. Luckily, I was a bit naive and didn't realize how much hard work and training would be involved—it turned out to be a much more challenging path than I imagined. In another life, I could see myself becoming a glass blower, a blacksmith, a cutler, a potter, or possibly even a psychologist like I originally studied. But for this one, working with wood is my calling.
EQ: For those of us just beginning in woodworking, what are the basic tools we should start out with? What makes them important?
GD: With a question like this, you immediately think of hand tools—a chisel and saw are usually the first two you learn to use in carpentry school. That is a good place to start. But honestly, I think that the most important tool is our "noggin." I'm convinced that a good brain is the most useful tool a woodworker can have. This is a job that requires perpetual reflection; the brain makes mistakes, it becomes challenged, and it seeks the same type of solutions that our grandfathers found before us. But then, all of a sudden, we invent, we find the right trick. We become rigorous and logical, and after seeking that one unimaginable thing, we find the right tools for the job. To summarize, I think it takes practice (we learn every day) and logic and a true desire to create. Those are the most important tools a woodworker or carpenter can have.
EQ: Assuming one does have a saw and chisel, and a good brain to boot, what is a good first project to start with? What do you learn from it?
GD: It's a bit harsh, but the best beginning project is not always the most fun, but rather, the most educational. When I started, I was asked to do a chessboard, with black squares and white squares. But even behind such apparent simplicity, there was a hidden methodology, a logic that still fascinates me to this day. With a project like that, you discover some basic principles: you seek perfection, a method, and finally, you also learn to take care of your tools. Such lessons will come back to serve you a hundredfold.
EQ: Of all the different kinds of wood available, which is your favorite to work with? Which wood works best for different projects?
GD: In general, I prefer working with local wood, although I sometimes depart from the rule. It's hard to choose a favorite, because each has its own special qualities and peculiarities. Some are purely beautiful, such as elm or walnut; others interest me for their technical properties—ash, for example, is particularly flexible.
EQ: As a woodworker in the south of France, you get to do both traditional projects, and more modern, creative ones. How do you find inspiration from older French traditions to make new creations?
GD: Obviously, the tradition of woodworking is a big part of what led me into this profession. Who isn't amazed by a huge spiral staircase, whether wood, stone, or metal? A Louis XV footstool is fantastic too, and Rhulmann furniture is very elegant. When I see all these beautiful things made by my predecessors, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me, but it is this process of re-discovery that intrigues me.
EQ: What would your ideal project be? If you could make anything out of wood, no matter how big or small, what would you choose?
GD: I think I'm a little over-ambitious, so I'm tempted to say something very large and complex. Something that requires experimentation, calculation, and intelligent shortcuts. As for the object, a table, a chair, a bookshelf, or a bench is interesting to me. I love the work of Joseph Walsh and Matthias Pliessnig, and I dream of the opportunity to make projects as large and complex as theirs.
EQ: What do you enjoy doing when you're not working with wood? Where do you find inspiration and enjoyment?
GD: To be honest, I don't have all that much leisure time, and I often stay in my workshop. However, when I can I like to hike (especially in the Pyrenees), and I'm always up for a visit to a good contemporary art museum. Photography is a medium that has interested me for a long time, although I don't have as much time as I'd like to totally devote myself to another craft. But I certainly do enjoy it.
EQ: Speaking of time, do we have enough for one more glass of Armagnac?
GD: Of course. One can always make time for that.