Fatie Atkinson has turned his hand to many skills over the years, from house painter to electrician, but it was in wood that he found his strength. “I’ve always been a creator,” Atkinson says, “but it wasn’t until I discovered woodworking that I found my true calling.” The proof is a growing client list for the distinctive line of chairs, tables, cabinets, and bedroom furniture bearing his Design Intervention label.
Working in walnut and other domestic woods, Atkinson combines function and fancy. His pieces’ intricate engineering is in the service of graceful lines and a simple elegance drawn from Danish Modern forms. “I like combining new and old techniques,” he says. “Doing more with less.”
He uses traditional steam bending and laminating to create, for example, a new take on the Adirondack chair with a curved Bentwood-style, flexible base of parallel strips. His version of a traditional credenza in contrasting light and dark wood carries a hint of Art Deco in its rectilinear tree of three shelves. His occasional chair with its scooped back and seat take the functional Eames chair in new directions, merging lightness with the reassuring sturdiness of its bowed legs and rail back.
One of Atkinson’s most famous creations is based on the simple camp stool, but crafted to be lighter and more easily portable. It was originally designed at a friend’s suggestion for a child’s use. “But then I started thinking, why should kids have all the fun? I started to see it as something that could be useful to everyone, young and old.” He started with a T-shaped chair, and in succeeding iterations added a handle, a carrying strap, and a crosspiece for back support. Building on suggestions from customers, “I thought about hikers, concertgoers, people with small spaces,” he says.
During his childhood in rural Virginia, Atkinson’s mother was the family craftsperson, working in stained glass and designing mirror frames from discarded barn wood while encouraging an appreciation for the arts in her children. Their visits to craft shows included the annual journey to the big American Craft Show, mounted each year in Baltimore by the American Craft Council.
Atkinson’s work really found its footing when he was accepted into Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program, graduating in 2005. He studied with Wayne Raab, a nationally recognized woodworker and designer who, like Atkinson, is a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. “He definitely served as a mentor for me … [he] allowed you to explore your own ideas while guiding you through the process,” Atkinson says.
He also sought guidance from the school’s Small Business Center, growing what until then had been an intermittent occupation while he cared for his three young children. Design Intervention became much more of a full-time occupation once the kids were of school age, although Atkinson, whose wife is a teacher, still works without a business partner in his home workshop in Clyde, west of Asheville in Haywood County.
“I pretty much work all the time,” he says. His use of domestic woods, most from the surrounding mountains, is a deliberate choice. “I’ve worked with exotics, but I prefer to know where my wood comes from. I don’t like the idea of cutting down rainforests.”
The inspiration for new pieces can come from anywhere — the spatial requirements of a client’s home, something seen at an antiques fair or a second-hand store, or sometimes as a way to test out a new technique. “I have a tendency to build the same piece, adding on to it until it becomes the piece I envisioned in my mind,” he explains. “The most difficult for me are chairs. I struggle with drawing them, and it’s just something I have to build and fit, with a lot of scale models to make sure I get it right.”
Such was the process for the now-famous one-legged chair, which met with some skepticism when he first introduced it. “The challenge was getting people to give it a chance,” he says. “It’s a great feeling when you get someone to try it and a smile comes across their face, and they get it.”
Fatie Atkinson, Design Intervention, Clyde, fatieatkinson.com. His work is featured at Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, grovewood.com), through venues of The Southern Highland Craft Guild (southernhighlandguild.org), and, in Highlands, at The Bascom: A Center For the Visual Arts (thebascom.org). Also look for “Fatie Atkinson” on ETSY and Instagram.