Newport Beach Native Heather Zusman Crafts Unique, Minimalistic Furniture

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Zusman found her passion for woodworking four years ago and has since created unique, minimalist-style furniture. “I want to be really good at my craft and learn as much as possible,” Zusman says. “There is so much to learn about woodwork, I’ll never be done.” After honing her skills in England, she moved back to Orange County to build her career.

How did you get into woodworking?
I went to school for art history and architecture at Trinity College in Connecticut. I couldn’t get a job anywhere after I graduated. I like working with my hands, so I thought woodworking would be a good way to build my portfolio, but I ended up loving it and got a job at the California Workshop in Costa Mesa. (At the shop), you design pieces on the computer and it translates into vectors so a laser can cut them. Basically, I was having the computer do all the fun, and I wanted to actually do it myself. I applied to Waters and Acland furniture school in the U.K. and was the first U.S. citizen to complete the six-month master craftsman course.

What did you learn?
The school taught me hand skills, such as joinery, and how to use machines including a table saw, planer, band saw, and wide belt sander. The first thing they preached to us was that wood is going to move (as temperatures change). To prevent it from cracking, the whole piece needs to move together. So that’s why the grain (of each plank) goes the same way.

What’s a favorite piece you’ve made?
My lamp. I started out by making a prototype and then ended up making the full-size piece wider. It’s 17 layers of millimeter-thin veneer that I glued together and then shaped (into a curve). I rewired three LED strips into one inline switch so that when you press power, all three light up at once. I cut channels so you can’t see them.

Zusman’s full-size lamp made from veneer; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

How would you describe your style?
I’m a minimalist, so I don’t like stains. I’m a huge fan of just raw oil because being honest to the material is something (I believe in). Things that I make are what they come from. There’s no need to put stain on a piece of wood because it’s already pretty as it is.

Do you have an aspirational piece?
Chairs are really challenging because there are so many different nuances. Sam Maloof, a well-known woodworker, made a chair that when you would sit in it, it felt like it was giving you a hug. So that’s what I aspire to make—a really, really good chair where you melt into it and don’t want to get up.

Where do you see your career going next?
I originally wanted to open up my studio by the time I’m 27, but now I want to do it sooner. My dream would be to have a shop in San Clemente. I’d love to buy a house and work out of my garage—a one-woman shop. That would be ideal.

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