Craft Culture: Cabinets full of unexpected surprises at Mark Laub Studios

Mark Laub creates cabinets that are ornate and full of whimsy // Photo by Tj Turner

Mark Laub creates cabinets that are ornate and full of whimsy // Photo by Tj Turner

It takes a series of careful maneuvers to uncover what’s hidden within the cabinet resting near Mark Laub’s front door. First he pulls open a set of connected wooden leaves that surround a stained glass dome. Then, he spins around a glass carousel to reveal a set of arched doors. Finally, he slides out a wooden platform from within. Nestled on an aged copper disk encircled by vines made from abalone shell, mother of pearl, and sterling silver is a single bottle of absinthe.

Mark, a self-described hippie who grew up in the ‘60s, is a master manipulator of exotic wood. His pieces move, turn, light up, lock, and provide a 3D canvas where the artist unleashes a torrent of creative flourishes like hand-carved ebony pulls, inlaid swallows, and pierced wood. Calling his work “furniture” implies a need for function—a design process that compromises aesthetic in lieu of purpose. But Mark doesn’t make those kinds of sacrifices.

“There’s the original F-word, and then there are three others that are even worse: function, furniture, and fabrication,” says Mark, who has spent the better part of two decades building elaborate and original cabinets that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. “People get hung up on that fact that if we’re building furniture, it ought to be functional.”

That’s not to say Mark’s cabinets are unusable. His designs are chock full of drawers, shelves, and secret compartments where you can stash treasures. Yet his approach to functionality is less traditional and more unexpected. Since stepping down as CEO of an energy trading company and taking up woodworking as a career nearly 20 years ago, Mark has carved out a niche for himself that exists somewhere between furniture and art. He doesn’t see cabinets as storage containers, but as sculptural objects begging for artful reinvention.

“Most woodworkers aren’t artists, they’re fabricators,” says the 69-year-old. “They celebrate the beauty of wood, but they don’t put their own beauty into it.”

Photos by Tj Turner

Hunting for magic

The studio where Mark works is buried in a forest of trees at the end of a cul-de-sac just outside of Oak Grove, Minnesota. Inside there’s an old Austrian work bench he gave himself as a gift when he started woodworking full time, Woodie, his dog who doubles as the shop manager, and a collection of Italian band saws that are the lifeblood of the studio.

“Each machine is like a person. It’s got its idiosyncrasies and you get to know it,” says Mark, who favors the curved and organic shapes he can cut with a band saw, as opposed to the straight lines of a table saw. “Italians are great, but they’re just a little bit quirky. It’s like buying a Ferrari versus a Chevy. It’s high performance, but they’re not an everyday driver.”

Mark Laub creates incredibly detailed works at his studio in Oak Grove, Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

Mark Laub creates incredibly detailed works at his studio in Oak Grove, Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

While Mark has tinkered with wood his entire life—his dad had a little shop while Mark was growing up, and the artist always kept a space in his basement where he could work—it was hearing the Bruce Springsteen song, “Better Days,” that roused him to quit his corporate job to chase after something more creative. In it, The Boss sings about “sittin’ around waitin’ for my life to begin” and being “tired of waitin’ for tomorrow to come or that train to come roarin’ round the bend.”

“I listened to it over and over again,” says Mark, who first worked as the chairman of the board at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and then as the CEO at Enpower, an energy trading company. “I felt my soul was being sapped. I wanted to reinvent myself.”

At 50, he retired from the corporate world and turned back to his childhood passion: woodworking. At first he started by cashing in favors with former business colleagues. He made ordinary furniture, mostly chairs and tables, but found the work boring. So he set off around the country to refine his technical skills and artistry by studying at Lonnie Bird’s school in Tennessee and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado.

“You have to have curiosity, imagination, and passion,” says Mark. “Those things were caged in my business job for so many years. When you unleash them, hell hath no fury like that.”

After about five years of exploration, Mark’s signature style emerged: unusual, one-off cabinets that beckon people to look close and discover the extreme attention to detail within.

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