Hanging Out With A Master Craftsman

Tolkein PodCredit: KathyRM

I hung out with a table making artist the other day. I had the pleasure of going into his workshop and watching him work on the legs for his new table. Even before he had finished sanding them they looked gorgeous, gleaming in the sunlight coming in through the window.

Table legs hangingCredit: KathyRM


Lionel Murphy works in a small studio in North Marin and so has to hang his works in progress wherever he can find a space. His rafters are full of treasures in the making - table tops, legs and lamp bases squeezed in among raw planks of bocote, redwood, walnut and cypress.

Until eighteen months ago, Lionel worked with a very different palette of woods - silver mukwa, golden jacaranda and dark mahogany. At that time he was a film maker in Zimbabwe, making lamps and tables in his spare time. An industrial designer by training, he was always fascinated with woods and started making tables in his twenties. As commercial work slowed down in the depression that's gripping Zimbabwe, he spent more time in his studio workshop, crafting  sensual pieces that caused a sensation with local and foreign collectors. His decision to move to the States coincided with the decision to make a career leap and start making one-off pieces of furniture full-time.

I asked him what inspired his organic looking tables and lamps and he replied that both animals and plants contain everything he’s looking for.

“My table legs often reflect animal posture,” he said. “They’re bowed and angled outwards as if about to leap forward.” That posture makes the legs extremely strong and vibrant. The legs he was working on at the time contained a mixture of woods: old growth douglas fir bent wood, overlaid and laminated with thin strips of wenge, all pinned with bamboo dowels.

“I don't use metal in any of my pieces,” he remarked, stroking the wood absently. “The dowels hold everything together and serve as decoration.” Dowels dominate his work, in fact, along with the mixture of woods he uses and their sensual lines. “Space age organic,” was how one admirer described his work.

Lionel Murphy workingCredit: KathyRM

He showed me another work in progress (he has about five going at once), made up of a couple of dozen pieces of salvaged wood, all held together with a tapestry of wood underneath. He pointed to the screws holding everything in place. “I’ll take all these screws out and replace them with dowels later.”

Table TapestryCredit: KathyRM

I asked him how many dowels he used on any one table and he said his record so far is 3500!

We went through to the gallery where I couldn’t help but run my hands down the sinewy root that was a lamp base, a gleaming red piece of Mopane. Lionel loves to use roots, wooden spheres and branches in his work, re purposing them into fine art. The lamp itself was quite extraordinary, spanning half the room to deliver its delicate light. The long arm was made using old growth douglas fir, wenge and jacaranda and the counterweight was a solid block of Honduran rose wood, carved out to make it lighter. Lionel calls it his Skeksi Lamp after the hunched creatures in “The Dark Crystal”.

Skeksi LampCredit: KathyRM

Wildebeest Skull LampCredit: KathyRM


I spied a lamp near the window, a wildebeest looking out onto the quiet village street. Lionel added a third eye to the forehead and spikes to the skull's snout, turning the prey into the predator.

I asked him if he ever whipped up anything quickly and he laughed ruefully, shaking his head but looking totally unapologetic.

“I’m besotted with the entire process of designing and making these pieces,” he said. “There are a million decisions that are made and unmade as the piece evolves. You can't hurry that process along.”