Barrett Stowell on Rising Above Design Constraints

A freelance designer and a ninth-generation Mainer, Barrett Stowell frequently creates innovative, modern designs for Chilton Furniture. He also owns his own design studio called Bearbird. As his advice to designers, Stowell says, “First, reach for the clouds and disregard any of the constraints.” In his interview with MH+D Inside Out, Stowell talks about his work with Chilton and his belief in designing the impossible.

Q. Could you tell us about what you do with furniture companies?

A. I specialize in furniture and interior design. Depending on the client, I design furniture lines for them or products for them to sell. If I work directly with a shop, I look at what they have for machinery or tools and teach them how to design the best products that they didn’t know they’re capable of doing. I like to take people’s dreams and make the most of them.

Q. What type of work do you do with Chilton?

A. Their furniture is very Shaker-inspired, and they have a legacy, but I’m trying to design modern pieces for them, too. It’s a balancing act of how can we make contemporary furniture and stay true to all the Chilton values. That said, Chilton is the best thing going right now in Maine furniture. The owners, Jared and Jen Levin, are evolving to bring in new, younger clients. Right now, I’ve done some tables, some chairs, and a new High-Mast bed with them.

Q. What is the High-Mast bed like?

A. The bed is a collaboration between Chilton and Sea Bags. We used repurposed sailcloth for the headboard, and it’s held up by marine rope and brass grommets between the posts. We’re currently working on lounge chairs for Sea Bags as well.

Q. What’s the part of your work that most satisfies you?

A. Solving problems. I love a good problem. There is nothing better than trying to figure out how to make something possible when most people would say, “Yeah, it’s not going to work.” One of my favorite quotes of all time is Tim Gunn’s “Make it work.” You can make anything work. I just think, “How is it possible to achieve the look that I want with what’s possible in terms of construction?” You have to think about costs and setbacks, and break it down to the simple physics and mechanics. It’s best to design using the simplest methods. There are a lot of sketches and CAD models before real-life prototyping, which we generally do with hand tools instead of big machinery.

Q. How would you define good design?

A. Good design means working with constraints. But it’s also about making it more than what anyone ever envisioned. You need to really believe in yourself to do that.