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.”
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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.”
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.
King of the cabinet
The second Mark pulls back the sheet covering his current build, an art-deco inspired jewelry case made of bubinga and Afzelia wood, his demeanor shifts. The easy grin on his face is replaced by a steadfast and singular focus on the cabinet before him. There are lift-out trays with pivoting tops, a rotating carousel, a secret compartment hidden by a magnetic bumper, pierced wood that mimics a frilly blouse, and a sweeping tuxedo-shaped front door inspired by an Erte dress from the ‘30s.
All Mark can see, though, is the legs of the case. He turns to his studio assistant, Bob Kraby, and asks the only question on his mind: “Should we sculpt the legs?” It’s risky. Bubinga is a challenge to shape. The wood is dense, and the angle grinder the pair uses for the delicate work like this is aggressive and dangerous. Mark decides to push forward anyway.
Building a cabinet by hand raises the stakes. Where other woodworkers turn to computer-aided design technology, Mark prefers to keep his methods old school. The carcass, or main body of the jewelry case, has to be executed flawlessly to ensure the 20 hand-fabricated runners and glides that hold the drawers in place work to perfection.
“The best instrument is right here,” says Mark, pointing to his eyes. “Too many people don’t trust their eye or their sense of aesthetic. You don’t need digital aids to help you make something look great.”
For each piece, Mark begins with the plan view—the angle you’d see if you stood above the cabinet and looked down. The rest of the design flows out from that shape. Once a cabinet is sketched out, Mark and Bob spend a day or two building a full size model of the work out of foam board, glue, and black tape.
Mark’s mind is like a puzzle, connecting disparate bits of inspiration and piecing them together into one unique piece after another. In a single cabinet—like the Queen of the Slipstream, which won a national NICHE award this year—the design influences can range as widely from the rings of Saturn and the revolving doors at the Hotel Danieli in Venice, to the lyrics of a Van Morrison song.
“I’m more of a translator than anything else,” says Mark. “I look around for a cool shape whether it’s a leaf, a tree branch, or the elevator doors in the Chrysler Building, and I translate that shape into a cabinet.”
The extravagance of each piece lies not only in the exotic materials Mark sources, but in the layers of small details hidden throughout the piece, like repeated motifs. The artist’s obsession with intricate flourishes stems, in part, from William Blake, a poet whose words hang on the wall of Mark’s studio: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” The lines remind him how there can be a world hidden inside another world.
“I used to like listening to people talk about quantum mechanics,” says the 69-year-old. “I’m always intrigued by the fact that there is a whole microscopic world. Little details make the piece. It celebrates that interactive, childlike exploration.”
While Mark spends most of his time working on commissioned pieces for clients, he sets aside a few months each year to make one piece that comes straight from his imagination. The two ideas the artist is currently milling on feature a melting piano or scarab beetle as the main muse. Mark didn’t start making cabinets for their ability to hold things; in fact, a judge at a show once criticized the artist for not using all the space a cabinet offered efficiently enough. Utility doesn’t concern Mark, though. He’d rather turn a traditional piece of furniture into a series of unexpected surprises worthy of something more.