Wood, metal and a meandering mind.
These three main components fill Sean Carleton’s Bothell work studio, his sketch pad and his ever-growing list of commissioned orders.
His distinct tables, chairs, desks, shelves and other designs sold under the name Carleton Fine Work are created from local steel and wood.
Much of his white oak, maple, alder, madrone, fir and cedar comes from Coyote Woodworks on Bainbridge Island while his metal (he uses either mild steel or stainless steel) is recycled from Everett Steel.
Only three years after making the decision to give up his varied day jobs and devote all this time, talent and tools toward his own business, Carleton, 31, has enough orders to keep him busy for the next five months.
His one-of-a-kind pieces cost an average $3,000. Finished pieces range from small magazine racks and side shelves ($500 to $750) to a huge $9,000 slat white oak and padauk wood “piano dining table” that extends with a hand-cranked chain.
With a background in shipyard welding and floor and wood finish work, Carleton’s home pieces are works of art that serve a purpose. He calls them “sculptural furniture.”
It’s apparent that Carleton’s quirky imagination and innovative touches are breaking new ground in the wood and metal art market of the Pacific Northwest.
The young artist’s work is getting noticed by regional galleries and juried shows. A month ago, Carleton spoke about his work to the Northwest Eco Builders Guild where he also displayed one of his first solar pieces, an 8-foot tall geometric tower called Light in the Dark.
Carleton envisions patios and walkways as the perfect spot for his next challenge — designing large metal sculptures featuring glowing glass and small solar lights.
This summer, one of Carleton’s sleek, smooth yet rustic tables was featured on the poster advertising the “Cocktail Culture” show at Northwest Woodworkers Gallery in downtown Seattle. Among his 2015 awards: Carol Duke Award of Excellence/BAM ARTSFair in Bellevue and Honor of Distinction First Place at the Rising Star Furniture Show of Northwest Woodworkers Gallery.
Many of Carleton’s fans have two or more of his pieces in their homes, offices or businesses.
“I’m a big fan of nature with a metal twist,” says Tyner Guillot. “To me, Sean is able to create a unique modern blend of metal and wood. He’s made one really unique mirror for me so far and re-done a coffee table cypress stump that my family has had for decades. I currently have five pieces commissioned with him for my entry way that I can’t wait to get.”
Alex Shor, a prosthodonist-dentist in private practice, commissioned Carleton to design a bench for his Mercer Island home after seeing Carleton Fine Work featured at the Bellevue Arts Fair.
“Sean listened to my vision for the piece and analyzed our space and environment,” Shor said. “The bench for us is a real highlight and conversation piece in our house.”
Art inspired by industry
The industry of the Pacific Northwest — shipyards, fishing vessels, woodworking — are part of Carleton’s work history and his finished pieces. Each piece is cut, de-burred and welded, sanded, assembled and finished by hand. Carleton is a fan of keeping the natural patina that’s a result of the welding process. He also uses an environmentally friendly process to protect and reveal wood’s natural beauty and texture.
A 2004 graduate of Woodinville High School, Carleton admits he struggled in classes, mainly because he couldn’t sit still. Home schooled for awhile, he then let loose his creative energy at Seattle Waldorf School. Soon, he jokes, “I was your typical private school kid, playing violin, learning Japanese, knitting, making candles and doing drawing and charcoal painting. … Growing up, I was always seeking what it was that made me tick.”
At age 23, he found it — and kept with it — making the Dean’s List at Lake Washington Technical Institute after taking 20 credits of evening welding classes. At the time, he worked full-time and was in demand as a journeyman sander, fine-tuning expansive wood floors inside the homes of some of the region’s wealthiest residents. He also worked in shipyards, welding and designing systems for police boats and fishing vessels. Along the way were stints in Alaska and Korea, working on dry-docked boats.
“This is the dance I did for about 10 years, between wood and welding, but I always knew I wanted to do something really meaningful. I always felt the things I was doing weren’t fulfilling,” Carleton recalled. “Then one day, I was crossing the 520 bridge at four in the morning, the moon was out and it just hit me, ‘I could do it. I could do something with wood and metal.’”
Happiness is in his hands
Welding metal and sanding and shaping wood is when Carleton says he’s happiest. In the studio behind his Bothell house, he says he finds freedom. It’s where he goes to challenge himself, his art form and to leave and make his mark.
Inspirational quotes are scattered throughout Carleton’s studio and home. So are to-do lists to remind him not to forget to feed, water and walk his Siberian Huskies, Donatello and Burton. He spends lots of time alone, alone with wood and metal and tools.
All that time alone has allowed him to reflect on why he took a risk that so many with similar dreams never do.
“Objects are cheap, quality is low and people are tired,” he says. “My work signifies lasting quality and integrity. I want my work to be a symbol that people can rely on in times of despair and remember that a dreamer existed and fought until the end for what they believed in.”
Then he cracks a wide smile, asking, “Did that sound too serious? I’m just happiest when I’m building with my hands. That’s what my work is all about.”