I first met Nicholas Hamilton Holmes for coffee at Mulberry just over a month ago. I was introduced to Nicholas’ work through Bill Curran, after he allowed Nicholas to use his office space for a photo shoot. At only 32, Nicholas is way ahead of his years, both in intelligence and skill.
He’s always carrying around a sketchpad and is full of conversation where brief meetings turn into hour-long discussions. He’s a trained cabinetmaker, furniture maker, and furniture designer. His wife is an incredibly talented interior designer, which makes them the perfect couple. Inspiration is always abound.
I walked into Café Oranje to meet Nicholas for a coffee and was greeted with his bearded smile. Sitting there with his sketchpad open, we started our interview after rambling about every subject we could conjure up. Hamilton has only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Nicholas’ talent, but as you’ll see in the interview below, the sky is the limit.
When did you first get into this trade?
I started in 2008 at a technical college in Montreal. It wasn’t even a design college or anything; it was part of a Quebec program to encourage trades. It took a year and half and because it was a Quebec program they got into a lot of traditional stuff, like carving, veneering, bending wood, and finishing.
What made you get into design?
I loved to make things as a kid. I was always trying to make clothes and other random stuff in my parent’s garage. I was making leather stuff at the time that I found this wood program and I always loved woodworking in high school. I was all about shop class and I did really well in it and then my parents kind of steered me to university. Then the program popped up and I went for it. I was working in a bar at the time and I didn’t have any plans of where my life was going, so I thought this would be good. And it was better than good, it was always what I wanted and I didn’t know it at the time.
And where did you go from there?
I did a work experience program at a high-end custom shop in Montreal and it really deepened my passion because it was so high quality. They did a lot of exchange programs with Parisian furniture makers that came from really nice ateliers, so I was amongst those guys too. Just to watch their work and see their quality of tools and their passion for it, it gave me even more inspiration.
When I look at some of your furniture it has that midcentury modern touch to it. Where did that influence come from?
I think its part of me. I’ve always loved geometry. Whenever I painted or drew or designed, I always started with geometry. It seemed like a logical step to me. Because I always did things by hand, I didn’t start my design process on the computer. I started with a ruler, compass, and paper. And that lends to modern styling. I think the minimalism you’re referring to comes with the need to produce things at a good cost, which doesn’t always work out that way. Basically from an economic point of view, the more simple and streamline your designs are, the easier they are to produce. It’s not always the case, but its kind of a perspective. I can’t say for sure, because I’ll have simple designs that are still expensive to make. That’s my ultimate goal: to make something that’s well balanced with proportions and geometry, but as also minimal as possible.
So what do you clients look for?
Most of my commissions are pretty open. They have a lot of trust in me. I’ve been lucky. Sometimes they’ll have inspirations, but the general client that wants something, even if they’re really interested in furniture, don’t really know much about it. The design choices are always up to me. If someone wants me to produce something exactly as it is shown, I’d probably say no because it doesn’t leave any room for expression.
Where do you want to be 10 years from now?
I want to design furniture for production. Something like a small batch production, producing maybe 10 pieces at a time. I hope to see myself in a shop with a few assistants, or apprentices, or cabinetmakers, working with me producing limited batches of really high quality stuff that’s produced in a way that isn’t too much. I think it would nice to make something that is still expensive, but not too expensive – something that someone has to save for, but can see him or herself owning.
How’s the furniture market been in Hamilton?
Hamilton has a lot of wealthy people in it, for sure. There are a lot of wealthy families out there. I’m trying to service my peers as well. I want the price point to be manageable. The frames I’ve made [which are for sale at Earls Court Gallery] have been a success. I’m hoping that will keep going. I want to have people enjoy them in their house.
What drew you back to Hamilton?
All the pieces were in the right spot. A lot of my friends were moving back to Hamilton, doing their trades and building families. To trump all of that it’s where my friends and family are. Everything came together at one time.
And what do you love about Hamilton?
I love the constant development, the unpretentiousness of the people, the beautiful architecture, which we can all agree on. The opportunity. The energy. It’s got everything going, really. It’s kind of perfect for me. And it’s so close to Toronto too. It’s not like I’m sacrificing a big city market living in a far-flung area. I can make inroads in Toronto on a very casual basis and that’s nice.
Going back to influences, who influenced you in furniture design?
I’m not a big names guy. The major names like (Charles and Ray) Eames or (Hans) Wagner, they’re big influences. Any of the big modernists influenced me a lot. Probably the Art Nouveau is my biggest era of influence. The beautiful thing about Art Nouveau is that it’s a mixture of organic inspiration and geometric minimalism. I’m a big nature lover and hiking in the forest rejuvenates me and inspires me. I’m also inspired by a lot of contemporaries who are creating small batch production throughout North America.
What part of the process do you like the most when it comes to designing and making furniture?
The design process, for sure. It takes so damn long to build everything and a lot of cuts on your hands. It’s tough and really, really hard to get through sometimes. When I’m sitting in my studio, drinking a coffee and sketching is where I really get my kicks and the most excited. But I think that’s the same for any maker. Sometimes you don’t want to finish and hate some of the process, but when you finally finish you can’t believe you created that piece of furniture. There’s still a big romance with the whole process. I love the smell of wood and working in a shop.
What is your favourite piece of furniture that you’ve designed, so far?
My latest piece, the Danish cord bench. It was one of the hardest things to build, technically. There were a lot of challenges to it. I had to troubleshoot a whole host of problems. It took me almost a year to build three of them. I love all my projects though, really. The frames are now a real product, which is nice. I love that. I’m making a toy box right now with gold leafing that I’m really excited about. But I won’t take too much of the surprise away. Stay tuned to see!
I obviously have to ask you this. What’s your favourite building in Hamilton?
There are so many great buildings. I love the Carnegie Gallery in Dundas, there’s a romance there for me because I feel like it’s always been there for me. The beautiful butterfly that is City Hall is also one of my favourites. I love the Tudors in Durand too. If I had to pick one, I probably couldn’t.
See more of Nicholas Holmes work at http://www.hamiltonholmes.com/