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Website: www.michaelferrin.com
Instagram: @ferrin.woodworking

Michael Ferrin

Tell us about yourself
I grew up in South West Philadelphia. My father is a luthier and when I was a child he repaired instruments for the Philadelphia School District while he took care of me – he clamped my baby seat to his workbench. In my work, I am interested in environmental and social justice, helping to further diversity in the woodworking community, and exploring how my work fits into the history of craft. I got interested in these themes outside of woodworking first, through activities like bicycling, political activism, and participation in Muslim organizations. I currently live in Germantown with my partner, our cat Pete, our dog Iggy, and our two-month-old child Tove.

What’s your educational background?
I started my woodworking journey as a child learning from my father. I started working as a carpenter and then a cabinetmaker in my 20s where I learned woodworking in a production-oriented environment. While I enjoyed the satisfaction of turning a design into a completed project, I wanted to do more detailed work and focus on the process of making, so I spent a year studying furniture making at the College of the Redwoods where I learned a slower way of working that focused on carefully crafted details and explored a more intuitive design process that let the wood suggest what it should become rather than imposing a design on it. After I returned to Philadelphia, I worked for a furniture conservator while making furniture on my own where I learned about the history of furniture design and experimented with incorporating historic details into original designs. I also have a BA in Fine Art from the University of Pennsylvania.

What do you make/what are you currently working on?
I am primarily a furniture maker and an artist who works in wood. I also restore antique furniture and build custom installations for homeowners such as cabinets and built-in shelving. As the Winter Resident at the Center for Art and Wood, I am using khatam marquetry to explore themes related to Philadelphia’s Muslim community, using designs borrowed from SEPTA subway station tiles to represent the importance of public transit to the city’s residents and develop techniques for producing khatam more efficiently than I have previously been able to. Khatam is a technique from Iran that uses very small triangles of wood, metal, and bone to create geometric patterns. The resulting veneer is used as a surface decoration for things like backgammon boards, picture frames, and furniture. Traditionally the wood would be carefully selected from several species of trees in order to obtain a variety of colors. I’m using reclaimed wood from broken furniture, pallets, and cabinet shop off-cuts to achieve a variety of colors. One of the pieces I’m currently working on is a reinterpretation of a 15th-century French bench from the collection at the MET. I am combining European-style carving with khatam in order to counter dominant concepts of medieval European design as a tradition isolated from other cultural influences. In particular, I want to explore the stories of how art and architecture from the Muslim world entered into the European design vocabulary. This is important because a lot of the features of European medieval design originate in Muslim architecture. Drawing attention to this shared history is an important way to combat Islamophobia today.

Michael Ferrin's Khatam Box
Michael Ferrin’s Khatam Box

How did you come up with this idea/how did you get started?
My interest in Khatam started when I was an undergraduate in the Penn fine arts program where I explored Islamic geometric design. I was inspired by the complex mathematical underpinnings of the repeating patterns as well as the spiritual aspects of sacred geometry in which the circle – the basic shape that all geometric designs begin from – represents the unity of all being. Initially, I focused on designs that use a compass and straightedge to generate complex patterns and carved them on wood. Woodworking is not particularly prevalent in most of the Muslim world. However, Persian khatam is one of the few exceptions and combines the three themes at the heart of my work – spirituality, art, and woodworking. I started exploring khatam by watching videos of khatam makers, reading academic papers on the history and technique of khatam, and studying photographs of examples. Most of the material available is in Farsi, which I don’t speak about, so I have had to use my woodworking experience to fill in the gaps and understand what I’m seeing craftspeople do. It has been a slow process and I’m still learning lots of new things on a daily basis.

What’s the story behind your business’s name?
It’s just my last name. One of the things the Qur’an emphasizes is honoring your parents. I feel that using my last name is a small way of doing that and connects me to my ancestors. It also means “gift” in Irish which I think is a nice meaning. It helps me to be humble by reminding me that whatever skill I have is a gift from Allah rather than coming from myself.

What’s the hardest part?
There is not much information on khatam in English. What little information is available on the internet is mostly in Farsi. There are also very few khatam makers in North America and communicating with craftspeople in Iran is very difficult, especially since the current protests began and the government restricted internet access. I’ve learned by watching videos and following Iranian khatam makers on social media.

What are your goals?
I want to produce functional objects that have a meaning beyond pure aesthetics. The geometric patterns that I work with are meant to convey the unity of being. I also want to use my interest in historic reproduction to challenge the prevailing notion of the European middle ages that is rooted in white supremacy.

What inspires you?
I am inspired by the art of the past, knowing that my work is part of a long history of woodworking. I enjoy looking through books on furniture making and art history and thinking about what I like and why. There is a lot of inspiration from just being in Philadelphia, a city whose art scene has such deep roots, and is particularly influenced by the encounter between Islam and the civil rights movement.

Meet Our Monthly Maker: Michael Ferrin, Woodworker and Artist
Spice cabinet by Michael Ferrin

What’s your most rewarding memory in your business?
Being part of the woodworking community and seeing the amazing things that other people are making. There are a lot of bad things about social media, but one of the benefits has been connecting woodworkers from around the world with each other. The friends I have made through woodworking are some of the closest ones I have.

What makes your business unique?
I think that the styles I work in are unusual in this part of the world. A lot of the furniture being made in this country is either 19th-century Anglo-American reproductions or Scandinavian mid-century modern. I appreciate both of those styles, but I question why two of the most popular furniture styles both come from Northern Europe. Another thing that I think makes my business unique is a focus on meaning in addition to form and style.

What machinery/shops do you often use at NextFab?
So far, just the woodshop, but I’d like to use the metal shop soon too. The big resaw bandsaw has been great for accurately cutting the thin sticks I use for khatam. The thickness planer has also been very useful for accurately planing boards down because I need them to all be the exact same thickness before I start cutting them into sticks. Otherwise, the sticks will not all be consistent in size.

What advice would you give to aspiring makers?
Start with the basics. It’s tempting to dive right in and try to make something completely original. Look at what people have made before for inspiration. Read about the history of design. Practice using basic hand tools. Get a scrap of pine and make practice cuts with a hand saw until you can follow a pencil line.

What is your favorite part about NextFab and why?
NextFab provides a valuable service by giving people access to machinery that they couldn’t otherwise afford. It’s also important to work around other people. Working alone, it’s easy to get discouraged by setbacks or to fall into a rut. But seeing other people making things that are totally different from what I’m working on provides constant inspiration.

What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next year? What plans do you have for your business moving forward?
I hope to keep learning more about the technique and history of khatam. I’m designing some small items inspired by SEPTA subway tiles as a way of connecting my work to Philadelphia’s local visual landscape. My longer-term goal is to set up a woodshop in Germantown that can serve as both a business and a community space for young people to learn about woodworking.