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A Wooden Performance

Photos by Anne Fishbein

When designer and artist Mike Lee left his hometown of Vancouver to come to Los Angeles in 1993, he also left behind his woodworking tools and — so he thought at the time — his blossoming career as a craftsman of custom furniture. In L.A. he worked successfully as a graphic designer and an illustrator, his drawings appearing in numerous publications throughout the country, including the Weekly. But like a reluctant gunslinger coaxed out of retirement by the local townsfolk, Lee could not escape his calling. The tools beckoned. Actually, Lee was at a party when a fellow started complaining that his new home had no furniture. A friend of Lee's — who had never seen any of his designs — said, and no one is still quite sure what prompted this: "You need to talk to Mike — his work is beautiful."

With that strange but intuitive endorsement, it was time for Lee to fetch his woodworking tools. The partygoer was so pleased with the media room and sofa Lee created that he became a regular patron, and much of the once-empty home is now filled with Lee's designs. Lee soon had a quiet reputation and all the work he could handle. His wife, Deborah Rumens, a former editor, joined him full-time in their Venice studio, and together they now produce upward of 35 pieces a year, mostly for private commissions, with prices starting at $2,500 for a basic low-slung storage unit or bench.


Unfinished chair made out of
walnut, and Douglas fir wall
sculpture with painted wood
panels.


Lee has refocused his business, formerly 21st Century Modern, away from graphic design and illustration, concentrating entirely on furniture and lighting design as well as interior sculptural elements. The new name: Chinese Jesus. Lee laughs when asked what that has to do with furniture. "It weeds out clients who might not share our sense of humor," he says. It is, in fact, more than a little descriptive of Lee himself, who, with his long hair, thin beard and gentle countenance, looks, perhaps, like an Asiatic Christ. Then, of course, there's the carpenter thing . . .

Lee's craftsmanship is impeccable. His pieces convey mass without being bulky. Lifting the end of a desk reveals that the heft is not an illusion. Much of the weight is owed to the hardwoods he favors: mahogany, ebony and, in particular, native walnut. There is a horizontal stress to the work; vertical elements are minimized, letting wooden slabs float — this is particularly true with his bed designs. In some of Lee's most recent tables, a motif of sorts has emerged; a single seam bisecting the tops gives the heavy wood even more gravity — a canyon cutting through the thick earth.


Dark walnut plank table

It's easy to take Mike Lee's work very seriously, but he often does not. In fact he's likely to call the artistic cleft in his tabletops a racing stripe. His work can evoke Wright or Schindler, but he shrugs off attempts to pigeonhole his style. To demonstrate, he quickly sketches some of his early furniture, which more resembles a set piece on Pee-wee's Playhouse, albeit in exotic wood.

Later on, we're behind the studio admiring Lee's '61 Ford Galaxie. It's subtly tricked out, lowered, with a little custom pinstriping on the hood and trunk. Lee tells the story of the artist who did the brushwork, how he widened his stance, stared at the hood, turned his head, stared at Lee, hood, Lee, hood, Lee. Without warning, brush touched metal and he was off. When Lee complimented the pinstriper on the beautifully understated work, the man said, "Well, I took a look at you and I could tell this is what you wanted." "In a way," says Lee, "that's what I do, too. I look at the house, I look at my client, and I create the piece of furniture that they want."

Mike Lee is available by appointment at 503 Boccaccio Ave., Venice, (310) 821-9112; or check out www.chinesejesus.com.