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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Go West, Young Man

Slump with Wood -- bench by Isaac Arms

Furniture designer and sculptor Isaac Arms fell in love with the West for many reasons–the epic landscapes and the wildlife among them. But the most influential may be the resourcefulness and honesty he found in the people.

“I loved seeing how everyone lived simply by using what they have available to them,” said Isaac.

In particular, the Montanan ingenuity struck a creative chord with Isaac, and the hands-on lifestyle set the foundation for his artistic future.

Isaac first headed west for college, leaving the more formal and established traditions of Connecticut for the freedom and open spaces of Montana. After graduating from Montana State University with a degree in geography, Isaac was–like many college grads–unsure of the career path ahead of him. He was certain of two things: he loved Bozeman, and he knew sitting at a desk, plugged into a computer from 9 to 5 wasn’t for him.

Jack Table -- by Isaac Arms

When Isaac read about a summer course in woodworking at the Oregon College of Arts & Crafts, something clicked.  All the wood shop imagery triggered memories of the boyhood passion he had for architecture and carpentry.

“I always loved building stuff when I was a kid,” Isaac laughed. “It bordered on a weird childhood obsession.”

But how many tinkering tykes really go on to become a furniture designer? Even as Isaac intuitively experimented with creating basic furniture for himself and his roommates at MSU, it still never dawned on him to pursue furniture design as a career.

Isaac had plenty of artistic exposure and influence, having grown up a child of art historians. His parents were academics; his father taught art history at Connecticut College, and both collected antiques and decorative arts from classical eras (you know, the fussy ones like the Renaissance and Baroque).

“Art was always made available to me,” said Isaac. “They definitely encouraged me to be involved with the arts.”

Chaise Lounge -- by Isaac Arms

But Isaac’s view of art and design did not fit with the embellished aesthetic so intertwined with home in Connecticut. Call it rebellion or the allure of the frontier, but Isaac needed to move west to find his own creative inspiration.

“The design I kept being drawn to was so different than the ornate antique candlesticks my father would restore,” Isaac explained. “I was always attracted to a more minimalist aesthetic.”

The summer course at the Oregon College of Arts & Crafts turned into a two-year independent study in woodworking. Isaac's connection with the craftsmanship and fine traditional skills of woodworking became more and more ingrained. And by the time his two-year independent study was over, his path was finally clear.

Isaac was intent on pursuing his design ideology in a graduate program, and the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program offered the perfect fit with a strong emphasis on the conceptual aspects of art and design.

Wood Rack -- by Isaac Arms

“I was really attracted to their program because they made you justify what you were doing,“ noted Isaac. “You weren’t there to just make pretty furniture for the sake of pretty furniture.”

After earning his MFA at Wisconsin, Isaac accepted a scholarship to the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado, where he began to incorporate metal and welding into his pieces. Working with metal was a natural fit for Isaac’s design philosophy; it reminded him again of the resourcefulness and stripped-down simplicity he saw as an undergrad in Montana.

“I was always fascinated with the industrial aesthetic I saw out west,” he said. “There is a wholesome component with their use of raw materials.”

Metalwork became a major focus of Isaac’s work, although wood remains prevalent in his designs. These days, he is careful to juxtapose organic materials to the refined and simple lines of steel. The integrity of his work smoothes over any impersonal connotations that welded steel normally conveys.

There are also no tricks or unnecessary embellishment on the subtle curves Isaac wroughts from powder-coated steel. What you see is what you get: perfect seams between two metal sheets, exposed and honest use of materials and so committed an attention to detail that it’s hard to believe they are hand-made.

Furniture designer Isaac Arms at workWhen Isaac was finally ready to launch his furniture design career, he knew he would move back to Bozeman to do it. “I loved Bozeman when I was in college and always thought it was a beautiful place to raise a family,” he said. “But it’s really the people and their way of life that made me want to come back.”

One could say Isaac Arms is like a modern-day pioneer. Venturing from the establishment of the East to find freedom and his own voice in the West. Though his designs are refreshingly unexpected in Montana, behind his work is the essence of Western individuality.  -BM


Sarah Kane Skoglund profile photoSarah Skoglund loves all things art & design. She is an art consultant ( based out of Bozeman, Montana, where she specializes in curating private and corporate art collections.

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