Against the Grain is a series spotlighting people who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction space. We’ll speak with people working on projects from whole-home renos to intricate wood sculptures to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.
We recently connected with Chicago-based furniture maker and artisan Greta de Parry over Zoom. During our chat, Greta shared her earliest inspirations, how she nabbed her very first and most prized chisel, and why her deep love of furniture keeps her moving forward.
Meet the Expert
She Was Practically Raised to Do This Work
“I have always gravitated towards creating functional art,” Greta told us as she explained that her earliest inspiration as a builder came from her dad. “Making and creating things, whether on paper or in form, always came very naturally to me, [but] my pull towards function stemmed from my upbringing,” she said. “My dad owned a custom home building company and I grew up going to his job sites and watching houses being built.”
“Both [of my parents] carved their own unique paths," said Greta. "I was never scared to do my own thing because I had my parents as examples,” she added. “They never discouraged my far-fetched dreams.”
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., Greta’s mom owned a gourmet food shop, while her dad still owns a home-building company. “I grew up making food [with my mom] and then on my dad’s job sites. He would put us to work moving rocks,” she laughed. “He didn’t have anything for an 8-year-old to do! ‘Just move those rocks.’ But it was fascinating to me. I remember as a young kid studying his blueprints… and just being so fascinated and wanting to know everything. It’s cool as a kid, and it’s cool as an adult! Just seeing what’s behind your walls.”
Art School and Finding Her Calling
From here, Greta’s passion for creating grew. She went on to study fine arts and sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where she took her first formal woodworking class. “Everything just clicked. I felt as though I found my calling; my true divinity.”
It was also at SAIC that she learned the importance of always sharpening her tools and chisels. During one class, her professor at the time, Paul Martin, accidentally dropped her chisel on the floor after she’d spent a ton of time sharpening it, and it chipped.
“So he gave me one of his good chisels and it’s a lot of pressure! A good chisel is something you have forever.” When I asked if she still uses the Marples chisel, another laugh bubbled up. “I definitely still use that chisel! But the first tool I purchased myself was a Makita drill set from Home Depot. My impact drill is still going strong after 15 years of hard use.”
While at SAIC, Greta’s love for the shop grew exponentially. “I wanted to be in the shop all the time, so I got a job as a shop tech through school,” she explained.
A 'Beautiful' 4-Year Artist-in-Residence and Apprenticeship Program
Then, as her time at SAIC drew to a close, Greta’s foundry professor recruited her to be an artist in residence and apprentice with a program he oversaw. Held at a private residence, this highly selective program required Greta to live on-site for four years, where she studied with other artisans and woodworkers.
“I lived above a chicken coop and a metal shop, and there was a fully converted barn that was a woodshop. I had all of this at my disposal,” she said, her love for this special place immediately apparent. “It was just a beautiful experience. Down to the basics. I got to create some of my best pieces there.”
Getting More In Tune With Her Materials
It was also during this time that she became particularly interested in “getting down to the core of where things come from.” She described the experience of dragging logs in from the field, milling them up, and air drying them. “It was just, like, a really holistic, start-to-finish process. It made me feel much closer to the material.”
Throughout the four years of her artist-in-residency, Greta also began taking custom projects, like making tables, working as a carpenter on various job sites, and creating pieces for an outdoor sculpture garden. “I always wanted to make things functional as opposed to conceptual, so furniture was just a very natural progression. It’s like a living sculpture.”
The Birth of Her Wildly Popular Seating Design
As Greta eased out of her time as an apprentice and moved to Chicago, she began furnishing her first home. When she realized she needed barstools, she cast concrete pieces directly onto steel pieces. This was the birth of her Coleman stool, and “they became my bread and butter.”
2010: Gaining Recognition and Building Momentum
She fine-tuned the design, and in 2010, she entered her first Guerilla Truck Show at NeoCon, an annual commercial design industry conference in Chicago. “You would rent a big moving van or truck and back them up in the meatpacking district of Chicago and deck out your truck with your furniture.” She gained recognition after showing for a few years at the Guerilla Truck Show, and that was a bit of a launching-off for her career.
2015: An Award and 'Proud Moment'
“Then, in 2015, I won an award and that was a proud moment for me. At the Dwell on Design Trade Show, I won the Best Furniture Award and I was like, alright. I’m in it now.”
Today, Greta’s eponymous design firm continues to create bespoke furniture, made from trees harvested from its shop's property, as well as a line of contemporary furniture. She also uses her Etsy shop for price experimentation, which she described as “super, super valuable,” as well as a marketplace for any outlet pieces—such as barstools that have been used at a trade show or other pieces showing some light wear-and-tear.
A Huge Deal with Lululemon
Most recently, Greta has been focused on a large-scale project with Lululemon, outfitting most of their North American new construction and remodeled retail stores and pop-ups with custom fitting room seating. “It’s a huge endeavor and a partnership I’m quite proud of,” she said. Her Camp Stools and Coleman Stools were selected for this massive project.
“I did their flagship store in New York four or five years ago and this past year, I did between 50 and a hundred of their pop-ups and new stores for seating,” she said.
Becoming More Efficient
Greta’s been tackling a new side of her business—managing warehouse space and packaging, with a particular focus on efficiency. “This is the biggest [project], scale-wise. But for about seven years, I’ve really been honing everything in, to the point that it’s a super well-oiled machine and everything is quite buttoned up and efficient. But now it’s just scaling. And I’m trying to keep it in my hands, but it’s really challenging.”
Though she once made everything herself by hand, that’s evolved too. “It’s just my partner and me, but then we work with a steel manufacturing company based in Chicago, my cast concrete comes from Vermont. My wood is from a manufacturer in Pennsylvania.” Everything then comes together at her warehouse in Chicago, which is also her shipping hub. “A lot of moving parts!” she said.
2020: A 'Incredible' Personal Project
But as the scale of her business grows, Greta still adores working on more intimate projects, too. “I also spent this past summer of 2020 building an incredible structure on top of my garage. It’s a rooftop deck comprised of Shou Sugi Ban reclaimed cedar, timber tech flooring, and a full urban garden.”
Working alongside her close friend, fellow artist, and sculptor, Jacob Brault, the pair worked on this intensively for four months. Using repurposed cedar planks from her garage roof, she laid the floors and built the pergola. “It was an ode to craft, design, sustainability, teamwork, and friendship. It’s incredibly unique and beautiful, and brings me so much joy seeing it every day.”
“It was the first large-scale architectural thing that I’ve done from the ground up, which was really fun,” she said.
When asked how she uses the space now, Greta carried her laptop through her chic Chicago apartment. After offering a peek at her custom-built kitchen cabinets, she held the camera against the window, revealing the wood-adorned rooftop space. “We have a grill, and I have a big garden where I grow tons of vegetables.” She also uses it for meditation, “and it’s a great party place!”
Words to Live By
Greta’s expansive career has brought her amazing opportunities, and she believes “there’s no such thing as failure.” Citing the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, she said her daily mantra is:
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”
"All of our decisions, even the wrong ones, lead us to where we are meant to go,” she added.
And for any woman who’s interested in going in a similar direction as Greta, she says “Do it! The notion that wood and metalworking is a “guy thing” is totally antiquated and void. Buy a chisel and a carving book off eBay and start whittling a fallen branch.” And while it can be hard to find motivation and inspiration at times—and especially during these times—Greta said, “art serves a great purpose. We need things like that to keep us going.”
Above all else, Greta suggests learning by doing. “Get a [George] Nakashima book, and get a chisel. Clamp it to your table and start seeing how the wood reacts when you cut [different] ways. Go against the grain. Experimentation!”
Given her own experiences growing as an artist first in school and then as an apprentice, Greta also spoke to the power of asking questions and seeking out new information. “In all things, knowledge is power… [and] always remember that practice makes progress, not perfection.
“I feel like I talk to a lot of women who are scared of the tools, and I think that’s common,” she said. “It’s very important to have an awareness of how dangerous tools can be, but don’t let it scare you because a lot of times when you’re scared, you can make an even worse mistake. Don’t be cavalier about it! But it’s not scary. It’s fun.”
As we began to say our goodbyes, Greta paused.
“I love furniture so much, I dream about it,” she said thoughtfully. “I wake up, I think about it. I’m so obsessed with furniture. It never really occurred to me to pursue something else because I loved it so much and even when I was [an apprentice]… I didn’t need anything. All I needed was the shop and material and it just kept me going. It felt like if this does so much for me in this way then I can just use the drive to take me to where I want to go.”