October 30, 2019 to May 11, 2020: I’d long admired the cabinets made by my friend Eric Wallner for his own home. The design is simple, functional, and inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Just like at Taliesin and dozens of his Usonian homes, they are made of humble plywood. Doors swing from unadorned boxes by way of “piano hinges”—-full length strips of steel just like you’d see closing the lid of a piano. Built-ins like this were promoted by Wright as a way to save space and save money. Tucked along hallways, they became an integral part of his post-World War II design vocabulary. Now the “everyman” could afford a thoughtfully designed space—not just another cookie-cutter box. Plywood was celebrated as new and modern—an industrial material beautiful in its own right. Like Wright’s, Eric’s design is constrained by the dimensions of a 4×8 sheet of plywood. Here is his initial sketch for two 48” wide x 24” deep x 72” high units. I needed a wardrobe for each bedroom and one for coats at the entryway. Plus a linen cabinet. When I later asked for 72” long units—-48” for hanging clothes and 24” for shelves, Eric devised this pleasing asymmetrical scheme. He ordered 15 sheets of 3/4” thick 11 ply formaldehyde-free birch plywood and got to work. He promised that all that would be left on the shop floor would be a pile of sawdust. I chose birch over a more exotic veneer because it’s super cheap. Birch plywood is considered “case grade”—meant to be used for cabinet backs and sides, not fronts. Look closely and you’ll see the telltale “footballs”. These patches are glued in at the factory to replace troublesome knots and are quite certainly not meant to show. We think differently.
Inexpensive stainless steel furniture legs from IKEA take the place of boxed-in toe kicks. Slender stainless steel handles take the place of knobs or latches for barrier-free accessibility. Cabinet backs are dispensed with because painted drywall is fine. Butt seams are banished in favor of elegant offsets. Edges are left exposed, not hidden behind a strip of veneer. And every inch is lovingly sanded to baby bottom smooth. The wood grain becomes almost iridescent and the whole assembly is a pleasure. Thank you Eric!