Brent Comber is piling on accolades.
Last month, Western Living magazine named him furniture designer of the year. The dining tables he unveiled at the Interior Design Show West (also in September) prompted Azure magazine to dub him "the wood whisperer." And this summer, the city of North Vancouver presented him with a public art award of excellence.
These are just the most recent honours in a career that has spanned more than two decades during which Comber has earned an international reputation as a renowned wood artist. His pieces have shown at prestigious art fairs such as Art Basel in Miami and, whether sculpture or furniture, are sought after by architects, interior designers and corporate clients around the world. In 2011, his sculpture Serene was purchased by the Tokyo Design Association and presented to the Prime Minister of Japan.
Comber, 51, is drawn to wood by its "connection to place," he says. "Indigenous wood talks about climate, it talks about geography, it talks about permanence – all the things that I do love about the West Coast."
In recent years, wood has emerged as a hugely popular design material, whether its barnboard floors, reclaimed furniture or even bicycles. Often, it's an easy means to authenticity, that most sought-after and impossible-to-define quality. Rarely, though, is it used in such a way that it evokes a distinctive sensibility and something more than a beautiful appearance. Comber, however, has always been driven to use wood to explore the vernacular of the Pacific Northwest and to connect people with the past.
"I'm interested in people slowing down and pausing and touching and reflecting," he says. He wants his pieces to elicit people's memories, whether they "remember when they were a kid sitting on a log, or they remember a beautiful natural forested area," he says.
Jennifer Kostuik, a gallerist in Vancouver who has shown Comber's work for about three years, recalls people kissing the large spherical sculpture, called Shattered Sphere, that Comber showed at Art Basel Miami in 2011.
"People were leaning on it and they couldn't stop touching it. They were kissing it like it was prehistoric," Kostuik says.
"I love the fact that people like to touch wood," Comber says.
The spheres, 60 inches in diameter, were made from and inspired by old-growth trees that were felled by a massive wind storm that hit Stanley Park in 2006. They symbolize the desire to fix what's broken and transform loss into something beautiful, Kostiuk says. Smaller version of the spheres will be shown at the Toronto International Art Fair later this month.
A fourth-generation Vancouverite, Comber has no formal training. "I always think I was lucky I wasn't burdened by taking formal carpentry, actually. As soon as you start thinking a table saw is the be-all end-all, then to me it's kind of an end to a means," he says.
Comber grew up on Vancouver's North Shore. His father worked in a cement plant and a steel mill. His mother was a secretary at B.C. Hydro.
"She's so smart that she's a self-taught computer programmer, so she developed programs for B.C. Hydro," Comber says. "Watching a hockey game she'll knit about three sweaters. I think I get a lot of my aptitude and skill set from her."
Today, his studio, Brent Comber Originals, employs eight people, selected by "aptitude and attitude," Comber says. That group includes chefs, musicians, artists and furniture makers – "People that are good with their hands, they're self-directed, creative and really enjoy solving problems every day."
Ron Cromie, the founder of Kozai Modern, a studio in Vancouver that represents several Vancouver-based artisans, including Comber, finds his work distinctive because there's "a sense of strength to everything he does," Cromie says. "And there's a feeling of connectedness to the wood."
Although he has gone back and forth between art pieces and furniture over his career, Comber is now "back into dining tables full swing," he says. He unveiled his latest tables, Aperture and Serene, both made from walnut and western maple, and two new benches, at IDS West last month.
Earlier in his career, Cromber was reluctant to categorize pieces according to function, preferring to let people decide for themselves what they were and how to use them. But he is now inspired to work on dining tables for what they represent: "Family, friends, memories. I think back when I was growing up, we all did our homework at the dining table," he says. "What better way to show a beautiful heirloom-esque quality piece than a dining table?"
Sourcing wood is never easy, he says. Comber likes to show grain and scale and weird ring patterns to draw people in and tell the story of that wood. "I think of wood kind of like people. Have you met anybody who doesn't have a few knots?" he says.
And Comber is still committed to sustainable practices. That includes taking sawdust to a facility that composts it and using citrus-based finishes.
At the moment, he is creating large custom tables, 333 inches long, for the Yew restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel in Vancouver. He is also pursuing work that "speaks to where the ocean and land overlap, that area of energy," he says.
The popularity of wood as a design material these days doesn't bother him. Quite the opposite, in fact. Wood speaks to people – of childhood memories, of home and hearth, of our connection to nature. It's no wonder more designers want to explore its possibilities, Comber says.
"Generally, the language of wood is a universal language."