In Oak Park, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, as well as the numerous Wright-designed homes in the area, are big draws for countless tourists every year. Although the Wright family history is compelling, when Wright’s great grandson S. Lloyd Natof looked to relocate his furniture design workshop from Chicago’s West Loop, his motivation was not family history but emotions and practicality.
“I fell in love with a woman from Oak Park, [and] around the same time the building that housed my former workshop went up for sale. I picked Oak Park for my workshop partly for proximity and partly for its historical context. It didn’t hurt that thanks to the housing bubble burst, I had plenty of foreclosed properties to choose from.”
As Natof renovates an old dress shop on Roosevelt Road into his new studio, he is also redesigning an old greystone two-flat to create a family home with his girlfriend and her four children.
Natof is the son of Nora Natof, who is the daughter of Frances Wright, one of Frank’s six children with his first wife Catherine. He moved to the Chicago area in 1983 to study music, but soon realized that furniture making was his true passion. He’s been designing furniture for nearly 25 years.
Furniture making as an art
“In the late 1980s I began to build furniture for myself, just because I needed it. My friends in the art world needed stuff too, so I began making things for them,” explains Natof. “Very quickly, there was a need for what I was doing. It was much more natural for me to build furniture than to play music. I have a visual memory rather than an aural memory.”
Over the years, Natof trained himself in the art of fine furniture making, honing a craft that, like his famous great-grandfather, is artwork disguised in practical objects.
“I’m self-taught, which is really inefficient but also helpful because at the same time I figured out how to do something, I was also figuring out what it was I wanted to do,” he says. “For me, the technique and the subject are intertwined. If I’d apprenticed with someone in the traditional manner, I could have missed things.
“Yes, maybe 90 percent of learning furniture making from someone else would have involved learning necessary techniques, but I would have missed that other 10 percent, the expressivity of what I’m doing that’s really important to me.”
Today, Natof handcrafts unique pieces in his one-man studio, specializing in veneer-work that captures the beauty of wood’s ingrained patterns. Each piece can take anywhere from four weeks to six months to finish, depending on the size and the scope of the project. He approaches each piece as a work of art and relishes the emotional aspect of each creation.
“What I like to do is make pieces that are very moving. I don’t believe that beauty lies in tradition. I don’t use traditional designs, formats, sizes or shapes. The finish of a piece is a very important part of each piece. Not only should it feel incredible, but it should have great colors.
“To the degree that my furniture addresses unique construction or uses of material, I want it to be hidden. I don’t want that to be front and center. What I most want to create is a sense of elegance and beauty.”
Natof said he attempts to convey the appreciation people have for older furniture in his contemporary pieces.
“Most people look at an older piece of furniture and think they like it because of the way it’s been beat up over time or because of the way the wood has darkened. I think it is much more subtle than that. I think people like the color gradations: a gradual darkening at the edges, or darkening in the pores of the wood. All of these little details are part of a very large matrix that contributes to a piece.”
Many of Natof’s clients found him through word of mouth, and he often does repeat work for clients. Generally, clients come to him seeking function, where they either need a particular piece for a space or a specific type of storage. He says he works to get to know clients to create a piece that not only suits their functional needs but also fits their emotions.
“I don’t hew too literally to what clients say; it’s more important to get a sense of their personalities,” he says. “I really look at what else they have in their home that is important to them. If they say they like the color red and have a lot of red pieces, I’ll probably give them a black piece with red in it. I give them what they want in a way that surprises them. New territory is what really interests me.”
Natof takes an active role in continuing the traditions of Frank Lloyd Wright. He teaches a design build class at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and believes his family history played a strong role in his development as an artist.
“I grew up in Virginia with a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright furniture that is now in the Home and Studio. The visual environment I grew up with looked different than my neighbors’. It was very influential to have non-traditional furniture.”
Living in Oak Park, he notes, also plays a strong role in the emotional side of his art.
“The thing about Oak Park is that it has a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright homes in a small space, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a lot of his very early work. There’s a lot of experimentation here. There are no failures, but there are lots of different ideas, things he continued to define and make more concise over the course of his career. As someone who is interested in the built world, it’s very interesting and educational to see his work here. When I walk through his houses, I have sensations that I don’t have anywhere else. It’s very evocative; I feel very touched.”
S. Lloyd Natof plans to open his Oak Park workshop in early 2012. His work can be viewed at: www.slnatof.com.