“I don’t really build traditional things, and I want to keep it that way.” – Charles Lushear
Prepare to have your minds blown. Someone has figured out how to make a beautiful, handcrafted coffee table that doubles as a functional Wii controller. Yup, you heard that right!
Introducing Charles Lushear of Bohemian Workbench. Some of you may recall hearing about the functional Nintendo controller coffee table from Lushear earlier this year. He’s taken it a step further and really outdone himself by bringing us the first functional Wii controller of its kind. It even includes a Zapper used for menu selection (translation = the “Duck Hunt gun” for us 80’s babies). Hand-carved out of exotic wood, it vibrates and has a speaker just like the original controller.
The masterpiece debuted at the Abbot Kinney Festival a few weeks back, and to say it was the highlight is to put it mildly. It would have been impressive enough to build a basic table that also functioned, but the gorgeous woodwork is clearly crafted by the hands of an artist. The table is made of rich African Bubinga, Quilted Maple, Birdseye Maple, and Mahogany and features mid century modern legs – my absolute favorite. (Don’t worry, I don’t know what most of those are either, but it sure sounds fancy.)
I swooned at first sight and had to meet the brains behind this artful contraption. Turns out he’s as smart and interesting as you’d imagine. Woodworker, musician, classic car aficionado and self-proclaimed Excel geek. To put it in the words of my husband, “He’s basically a really handsome nerd. So unfair.”
How does one get started designing this kind of stuff?
I grew up around tools, building things, working on cars. My father is a master craftsman and mechanic so I learned quite a lot from him. I was very lucky to grow up in that environment and have such an amazingly talented mentor and teacher. If we weren’t fishing, we were building something. He was and still is a huge influence on my work.
I went to college and decided for some reason to study Finance, Accounting and Economics. I was a huge nerd in college – a huge drunk the first 2 years, but then once I finally got past the core requirements, I was in the library until midnight every night. I really enjoyed it, but I never really saw myself in an office. I wanted to go to California and join a band. I had a guitar back then.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Jersey right around Atlantic City.
So did you end up moving out here right away?
I did. I had some friends out here, and I surfed couches for a while. It was such a blast. I was with 4 other guys. They were all musicians, and we just partied and played music all the time.
I got really lucky with a job as a guitar buyer with Cordoba Guitars in Santa Monica. The retail division primarily dealt with rare, collectible guitars as far back as 1870. Being around these, I figured I want to try making one. So I decided to move, get a house and set up a shop even though I never knew anything about these tools – which is really stupid, by the way, because it can be very dangerous. Looking back, I don’t know how I still have my fingers.
What kind of tools does one need as a woodworker?
I have a table saw, a router, a jointer, a bandsaw, a drill press…
Sounds very manly.
There are women doing it, too. I didn’t see myself getting into furniture at all. At the guitar company, I had a 9-5 office job, and I would moonlight as a guitar builder. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was doing afterhours so it came to a point where I was like, I have to get out of here and focus on this. I’m just not really an office guy, although I really do love business.
Anyway, I decided to leave there around 2010, and I gave the furniture and guitar thing a full-time commitment. It was really rough initially, because no one cared.
What was your very first piece?
A classic guitar. The whole guitar world is really focused on the name. Of course there’s quality that comes with the name, but I could never get that kind of money, because no one knew who I was. More importantly, there’s only so far you can go creatively with guitars. I’m not sure if you picked up on it, but I like to build weird stuff, and I really get excited about that.
So I started to get into furniture. My first piece was a Morris chair which was from the Arts & Craft era from around 1900, but I made a mini one. I sold it on Abbot Kinney fairly quickly, but it was still really difficult to sell my pieces. I was only on Craigslist, and everyone there is looking for a deal.
So I decided I should get a job again, and I ended up going to a place in El Segundo called MotoArt. They build furniture out of old airplane parts – an amazing company. They really opened my eyes to the idea that anything can be a piece of furniture, especially coffee tables. I was building desks out of wings. They’re really unique, and there was a market for it so I started doing really unique stuff. I ended up leaving about a year ago.
Tell me the story of how the first Nintendo table came to be.
A friend of mine needed a coffee table, and he’s really into video games. I can’t take full credit for the Nintendo thing. Aussie Kyle Downes did it back in ’08. His was painted like the original. I said I want to do that, but I’m a wood guy. I love wood grain and exotic hardwoods, and I actually hate painting. So if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do it out of really beautiful wood.
It wasn’t going to function initially. It was a last-minute decision and am quite happy I did it.
How did you figure out how to make it work?
I have a mechanical background with the cars and just tried different set-ups. It’s pretty much just bolts and springs. The electronics from ’85 were very simple.
Talk to me about the new Wii table.
I started designing that one in May. The electronics were challenging. It was very intricate, delicate and tedious. When I first opened up the controller, I thought to myself, they’ve come a long way since ’85.
Creating the gun was really fun. It took me about a week. It was hand-carved out of a solid chunk of Bubinga and wrapped with Quilted Maple. I had a bison leather custom holster made (for the gun) mounted on the side that I didn’t get a chance to attach before the show.
One thing that struck me is the midcentury modern design. Do you just have a personal affinity for that style?
For some reason, midcentury modern legs remind me of The Jetsons. I just thought it was always cool.
Do you have a favorite piece?
Probably my favorite so far is the Elmo ukelele.
My niece was obsessed with Elmo, and her birthday was coming up. It’s all made from a single slab of Maple. The eyeballs and mouth are inlaid, there’s no paint or anything. Creating that was challenging, fun and rewarding.
How did you end up in Venice?
I just wanted a shop by the beach and Venice is where I ended up. Turns out it’s very artsy. I was riding my bike down the beach. I look over to my left, and I see Fishbone playing. You don’t see this kind of shit in Jersey. It’s really cool. The environment is inspiring and exciting. There’s always something going on, a lot of creative people. It’s an influence, and I’ve really grown to love it.
Any favorite Venice haunts?
I’m a huge fan of Townhouse – big beers, great music.
Only place on Abbot Kinney is probably The Roosterfish. Such nice people there, and it’s laidback. Maybe The Brig on a Tuesday – there’s a live band. It’s a lot of fun, jazz funk stuff. Incredible musicians, it’s all improv. Get there around 9:30-10.
On Washington, there’s Hinano Cafe and the Whaler.
Right now I’m obsessed with:
Brazilian Rosewood. It’s great for guitars, and it’s illegal to harvest anymore which is a good thing, because it’s extremely rare. It’s gorgeous.
One thing people would be surprised to know about me:
I think baby shoes are adorable. I get excited about 2-dollar bills and half dollars…silly stuff like that.
My favorite classic car is:
I’m definitely a Ford guy.
Last concert I attended:
DeadMau5. I listen to a lot of House music and Daft Punk in the shop. I have a lot of soundtracks from movies…I love Batman Begins and Inception.
A more recent band I saw was Beat Club - really fun dance music. I had the song, Globetrotters, on loop as I was cutting out the gun.
If I could live in any era, I’d choose:
The 50‘s, probably because I grew up around old cars. I learned stick on a 1950 Ford in the backyard.
Favorite place in the world:
St. Thomas. I’ve been there 3 times, and there’s this place called Megan’s Bay which has a really gorgeous beach.
The second would be my backyard in Jersey. I grew up on 40 acres of marshlands. There are 3 acres of grass and surrounding that is a marsh and a forest, and there’s a creek back there. Every time I go home, I get a lawn chair and sit back there. I miss mowing the lawn. I had a tractor from the 70‘s, and I’d go around in circles until you eventually end up in the middle. It’s just so therapeutic.
One place I’m dying to visit:
Tahiti. I want to have one of those huts on the coast and go there with somebody special, have a wild time, and then jump off naked into the water, then come back and do it again. And then get room service.