In his Costa Mesa workshop, Michael Towey crafts chairs and lighting that look like art—though he wouldn’t categorize them as such. “People often call me an artist, but that’s not what I am,” he says. “I’m not trying to express myself; I’m trying to express my values.” Towey’s designs can be purchased on The California Workshop website as well as at Room & Board.
Why did you start The California Workshop?
I had a store for 15 years, and I would buy and sell vintage furniture. I got divorced and had this fresh-start moment and said, “I’m an engineer. I’m going to see if I can make my own furniture.” I was up in L.A. and my mom got cancer, so I moved my shop down (to Costa Mesa in 2014). Now I have a pretty awesome team of women who do most of the work with me. It’s 90 percent handwork.
Wait, an engineer?
I was a product-design engineer for big companies like Boeing and Sony. People always say, “You were an engineer,” but we’ll usually tell you, “Once an engineer, always an engineer.” It’s really a way of looking at the world and solving problems.
What makes your furniture unique?
The most distinctive thing about what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years is related to more objective design, not fashion or trends. I don’t decorate anything, and that leaves a lot of time to deal with what I consider the real issues like utility, sustainability, and affordability. I make the miniature models of furniture when I’m making design changes. It saves me a ton of time and material to make them at the 30 percent size.
How are your designs sustainable?
Before I’ve selected material, I make a commitment to use only as much as needed—almost everything is overbuilt. If (someone is) building a cabinet and is worried about the strength of the cabinet, (they’ll) just add material instead of looking at how you might design it differently. I always go with natural materials that have no toxicity, are fast-growing and renewable, and can be buried in the ground as fertilizer.
How did you come up with the look of your product?
It’s engineered so there isn’t a look, or maybe there is but it’s the look of pragmatism. The look isn’t something I aim toward; it’s just something that happens. Each (piece) is based on the evaluation of the previous version I made. I’ve designed like 70 chairs, but I am only offering three because I discontinue them the minute I have a better one.
What’s next for your career?
I’m doing it. I’m not trying to get somewhere else. People say, “You’re going to be really successful,” and I just sort of shake my head and say, “What makes you think I’m not successful now?” I think it’s because they see me wearing an apron and working hard, and everyone assumes that I aspire to be doing something different. I love what I’m doing, and that’s a powerful place to be.
The California Workshop
912 W. 17th St., Costa Mesa