Perfectly Imperfect

Furniture designer Derek Preble on embracing imperfection and communicating emotion.

MH+D asks Preble to tell us more.

Q. What or who was one of your first design inspirations?

A. In 1975 I was five years old and I lived on Fishers Lane in Cape Porpoise. My father had a fish business in our backyard. We used wooden fish totes to transport the fish from the docks to various markets. My father taught me how to repair these totes using a hammer, nails, and a handsaw. I have always appreciated how simple these boxes were. I find boxes of all types fascinating to this day. I still use the old style fish totes to hold scrap wood in my wood shop. They are surprisingly strong considering how delicate and light they are. These boxes were my introduction to cabinetmaking. So, really, I have been messing with boxes most of my life.

Q. Do you design pieces with the client’s home in mind? Do you believe in creating a Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art?

A. I design and build things that often require windows to be removed, lifts to be rented, homeowners to help, and friends to be called. I don’t like seams. If I am designing and building a built-in unit, like a big entertainment center or library, I like to integrate the piece with the trims in the rooms. I like to see the base and crown, if there is any, flow with the work and I like it to be the same color. I want my work to be discreet. No imposition. I want it to be part of the house. My goal is for people’s art and personal touches to take the lead a bit. People, their pets, and their plants should really matter most. I think the living things are often not paid enough mind in design these days. We are so lucky to have one another.

Q. The materials and form are obviously important to the design. Can you tell us about how you decide on both?

A. When I design furniture I rarely use paint because this is an opportunity for me to disconnect from the building a bit. Often wood can be a bit bright and loud, so I try to age it, but just a bit. This is where the authenticity police come in like gangbusters. People are doing some truly tacky stuff trying to make wood look old. I just think we all need to ease up a bit on the old wood thing and maybe let wood get old on its own sometimes. So here I try to be subtle. As for form, I like keeping my work rectilinear. The wood is already a beautiful piece of art on its own; it doesn’t need much help from me.

Q. How has your design philosophy changed over the years?

A. I was comfortable for 20-plus years cutting out knots, sapwood, and cracks. I needed to express perfection as best as I could. Now I pursue and catalog vulnerable material filled with imperfections. I never liked live-edge much. So I decided to work with it so I could get uncomfortable. I liked what I ended up doing with it. Sometimes materials will push design in wonderful new directions. In my case, the materials helped me process multiple simultaneous hard losses. Life wasn’t going my way. I didn’t know what to do, so I went in my shop and built stuff. I was desperate for some kind of relief from the pain I was feeling. The wood I was using was falling apart as I was cutting it, so I started bonding it with new wood that was solid and I liked it. The whole wabi-sabi (the art of finding beauty in imperfection) thing is not my invention but it has really worked for me lately.

Q. How do you feel after a piece leaves your studio and goes to its new home?

A. So this brings me to the most important part of my personal design theory message. When you sit on one of my benches or put your feet up on one of my coffee tables, I want you to feel. Just feel something. The ultimate goal of all art and design should be to communicate honest human emotion. It is extremely hard for woodwork to communicate emotion the way a song or a painting or even a building may have the opportunity to do so. When I view art, I like to go to a museum with someone and share the experience. When I hear a song, I like to share it with a friend who I think might like the song. When I see a beautiful sunset or a full moon, I want to hold your hand. So if you sit with your family around a table I design and build, I want you to share it and be present for one another. I want my work to foster empathy.

MH+D is proud to partner with acclaimed architectural photographer Trent Bell on his architecture, design, and photography podcast. To hear Trent Bell’s conversation with Derek Preble, please visit