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urbanseashell—a collection, 3rd Q & A—May 2007

I recently met my next guest Deborah Mills at the 2nd networking event called ‘biz ladies’ which is catered towards women designers from various industries. ‘biz ladies’ is graciously hosted by Grace Bonney of design*sponge. Mary Van Vliet of olive design accompanied me to this event. During the networking portion of the evening, we introduced our selves to a myriad of talented women. Deborah a woodcarver was one of those women. I invite you to read my interview with Deborah Mills.

Lisa: Hi Deborah, thank you for joining me today.
Thanks so much for inviting me, Lisa.

Lisa: Can you tell me what inspired you to become a woodcarver?
I had been making wood-block prints at the Art Students League of New York and, because I enjoyed carving the blocks so much, I decided to try out wood sculpting. Once I got my hands on a chisel and mallet, it was like starting the best conversation of my life – I’d found my medium.

I always been entranced by trees – the sounds they make in the wind, the movement and life in them. At the time I was immersing myself in all the African art and medieval European art (mostly liturgical) that I could find in museums around the city -- lots and lots of amazing wood sculpture, in other words. And I noticed that all the pieces I loved the most were actually functional art; they served specific purposes in the spiritual lives of the communities for which they were created.

All this tied in with my strong feeling that wood as a material is inherently spiritual. You get the feeling that life doesn’t leave the wood even when it’s not a tree anymore. It’s warm, it breathes, it speaks to us.
In fact, the ancient Romans believed in numens – spirits or divinities that inhabited trees, objects and places. I think of my carvings as embodiments of the numens already inside the wood.

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Lisa: Where did you study woodcarving and how long have you been doing it professionally?
Deborah: I've been carving wood professionally since 1991. I studied wood sculpture with Lorrie Goulet at the Art Students League of New York. Then, having moved to Oslo, Norway, I had the life-altering luck to meet Erik Fridstrøm, a master woodcarver at the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo. He became both friend and mentor during my internship there. Under Erik’s tutelage, I carved (as a kind of apprentice piece) a Norwegian-style baroque chair that his father had designed.

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Then Erik hired me to assist him in carving a full scale replica of an enormous, fantastically carved doorway from the Norwegian Historical Museum’s collection. It took the two of us seven months to create a faithful replica of the twelve-foot-tall, 800 year old stavechurch doorway (called the “Ål Portal” because it came from a village of that name). Throughout the project we had the original doorway laid out in sections side by side with our replica pieces so that we could hand-carve every detail as accurately as possible. That project is documented on my website.

Lisa: Do you have a shop?
Deborah: Yes, I work from a studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Lisa: Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
Deborah: I’m exhibiting at the 2007 ICFF Show for my 3rd year running – it’s at the Javitz Center from May 19 to 22. I’ll be showing a series of my mythical beasts (inspired by 16th to 18th century motifs) ornamenting very contemporary pieces – a wonderful fireplace surround and decorative relief wall panels. I’m exploring a juxtaposition of ancient and modern design that translates into exciting, eclectic pieces with real personality. Do stop by and see me at Booth 2538.

Lisa: What is your process like and what inspires you at the start of each new piece?
Deborah: I’m addicted to museums, and I sketch anything that knocks me back on my heels. When designing a new piece, I tend to go through my sketchbooks looking for something that resonates, and from there I draw and redraw until I have something that’s my own, but refers back in some way to the piece I fell in love with.

I also work from my clients’ designs or can copy antique designs, for example when replicating historical objects for architectural carvings in a custom home or a historical preservation project. For one project, I redesigned a medieval Icelandic motif to fit the dimensions of a custom headboard, incorporating the bride and groom’s initials and wedding date into the central motif. For another, I interpreted an Indian tree of life design by the client’s mother, carving it into a set of teak double doors.

Once the design is decided, I carve it by hand into solid wood, using any of my dozens of chisels and a mallet, exactly as wood has been carved for millennia. My photos documenting the Ål Portal project give a good example of the steps I go through in a hand-carved piece. (same link as above)

Lisa: What kind of woods do you prefer to work with?
Deborah: I’ve carved cherry, walnut, oak, maple, mahogany, pine, teak, basswood, butternut, poplar, box elder and douglas fir, among others – it’s all lovely stuff. I’m carving chestnut in my next project.

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Lisa: I remember at the biz ladies event you mentioned your work is by commission. Can you tell us about that?
Deborah: I meant that clients commission me to create custom hand-carved objects. Each project starts with a conversation; it’s all about what the client specifies – what wood, what dimensions, their design or mine, the purpose of the piece, where it will be used, anything that affects the design. Call me and tell me what you have in mind.

I carve for commercial as well as private clients. My work includes: architectural elements, liturgical furnishings, doors and doorways, fireplace mantels, capitals, cornices and newel posts, antique reproductions, friezes and panels, beds, blanket chests and other furniture, sculpture, nautical decorations for yachts, and commemorative and executive gifts. And of course I love it when folks are dying for a Deborah Mills original designed just for them.

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Lisa: Do you ever have the opportunity to work with other professionals?
Deborah: I collaborate often with cabinetmakers, and very much enjoy working with architects, designers, restoration experts, and museums on custom architectural restoration or construction projects.

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: Are there any organizations that you are affiliated with as an independent?
Deborah: I am currently a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America; the Preservations Trade Network; the Association for Preservation Technology’s Northeast Chapter; Historic New England; and Furniture New York.

Lisa: I would like to conclude this interview by thanking you very much for allowing me to introduce you to my readers. I will see you at the next biz ladies event for sure.
Deborah: I really enjoy your blog, Lisa -- thank you so much for featuring my work. Don't forget to stop by booth 2538 at the ICFF and say hello!

Lisa: To discuss a commission or view Deborah’s portfolio call 212.447.5146 or send an email to

67 Metropolitan Avenue
Ground Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11211

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