Idaho Arts Quarterly » Cover Artist

King's Thrones

Challis artist Don King's willow and twig chairs transcend simple furniture


At a quiet oasis just up the river from Challis sits a small collection of the kind of homes that exist beyond any zoning controls or covenants. At the far end of this motley row is a nondescript adobe house, almost invisible from the main highway, its color blending into the surrounding brown hills and sage. Sitting on the flagstone patio that was quarried locally and abundantly, Don King tells me about himself and where he lives.

"My work is a part of a whole way of life," he says as we sip our get-to-know-ya beers. It is clear as the afternoon progresses that his way of life is self-directed, intentional and crafted from a lifelong vision and desire.

The 10,000-foot Bald Mountain, located just across the river, dominates the valley. Cool breezes flee its slopes and fill the valley during the summer. King says that in the winter, while the mountains get a lot of snow, in the valley they only see a few inches. It is part of the attraction that brought him here.

Getting to where he is now wasn't easy, but it was definitely intentional. Raised as a plains kid in Lafayette, Colorado, just east of Boulder, he first came to Idaho in 1975 to see friends and do a little hiking. He fell in love with Idaho's mountains. Looking at a map for the perfect spot on Earth, he chose Challis for its proximity to the White Clouds, the Selway-Bitterroots, the Sawtooths and the Frank Church Wilderness, places he loved to explore and immerse himself in. Figuring out how to settle down in his chosen home was another matter.

King did everything he could to spend his summers in Idaho, landing a job with the Forest Service and returning to Colorado to work a variety of jobs in the winters, including a stint at a mushroom farm. In Idaho, he was placed on a range crew because of his background with farm animals, a disappointment at first. He originally wanted to be on the trails crew thinking this would take him more into the wilderness, but the range crew turned out to be a better choice. They ventured further into the backcountry and were out much longer than the trails crews. Soon, he was able to spend the entire year in Idaho. His first winter here, he got a job at Bogus Basin and lived in Boise for a while.

Figuring out how to extend this experience, he worked a deal with his summer bosses and went back to school to get an environmental biology degree in return for them offering him a more permanent job. Returning as a range analyst, he tried his best to avoid the full-time jobs that forced many of the old-timers behind desks. He preferred the outdoors, the reason he came to Idaho in the first place. The summer work crews had all the fun.

King met his wife Polly while she was a chef at the Tunnel Rock Cafe. The local molybdenum mine provided just enough customers to support the small diner. Tunnel Rock was also famous as a popular salmon fishing hole when the salmon used to run in large numbers. King found a plot of land along the river nearby, where he and Polly live now, but for many years he lived in a teepee on the grounds.

King eventually left the Forest Service, working for a time as a guide and a variety of other jobs to help pay the bills. In 1984, he started making willow chairs after taking a class in Hailey. He was interested in Native American lore and was attracted to the way they used willows as a material to make useful objects. Using those same materials to make a chair was, to King, a bridge between the cultures.

Soon, he became proficient in the fine craft of making a chair, even just a no-frills seat he could sell on the corner. "I started making up my own designs and worked with other designers when they wanted custom stuff," he says.

King continued to pursue learning the art and craft of chair design and willow working, first at the Haystack Craft School in Maine in 1994 and later as an assistant to reknowned willow chair craftsman Clifton Monteith. He moved into contract design work, but clients and galleries were also interested in purchasing his experimental chairs. At the time, he was making chairs on his own, without any help, but the demand kept getting bigger.

When an order for 14 chairs came in from Wyoming, a manageable but very labor-intensive order he could fulfill because they were uniform, he had to make a decision.

"I could have become a factory, but I liked making chairs. I didn't want to manage people," he says after taking a sip of beer. "So I went over to Ketchum. Anne Reed wanted creative stuff. I was producing regular stuff for a showroom in Jackson, Wyoming." So he kept at it, making unique, functional chairs while creating more and more creative chairs in his spare time.

A large round metal sculpture sits in the center of the Kings' garden. Bees buzz around the clematis climbing the trellises over the carport. From the lupines to lilies and hollyhocks, the grounds are a fairytale artist's retreat, with no neighbors closer than a few stones throws.

Living on the river, King can't help but bring up fishing in conversation. A former fly fishing fanatic, he speaks of it with the same passion he applies to his current work. Attention to detail--whether finding just the right twig for a chair, or analyzing the hatch from the bugs eaten in a trout's stomach and tying the perfect fly to match--is his life. He takes on challenges with gusto. Looking back on his life one might think King rambled and roamed, but he definitely had a goal. Every choice he has made throughout his life was made to reach his goal.

"I went through a reputation-building period," King says of the past 10 years, over which he has displayed and marketed his work in galleries from Aspen to Santa Fe to Jackson Hole. He stopped showing at Anne Reed Gallery over 10 years ago and started showing in Aspen at the Joanne R Lyon Gallery, then at the Susan Duvall Gallery.

"I think Ringo Starr bought a piece, but the gallery was so 'cool' that they didn't tell artists who bought their work," he recalls.

When he stopped showing at the Martin Harris Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, he decided on a new track for his work, focusing more on high-end craft. Now he feels he just wants to stick to a region and enjoy the life he has created. The Sun Valley show and the Triennial are like coming home, he says. He wants to focus on Idaho, his home state, where he hasn't really shown for the past decade.

"I am into a diverse lifestyle, and my work is part of that," King says.

There's been an increased interest in studio chairs and furniture makers in the past few years. King finds enjoyment working with willow and natural materials that are often overlooked. He even gathers the willows himself along creeks and riverbanks. The best willows are the ones that have grown back after ranchers, who consider the trees a nuisance, cut them back. Ranchers usually welcome King onto their properties to cut the willows down. As far as the twigs he uses for his creations, he collects wood from the places he visits: manzanita in the hills of Oregon, scrub oak when he visits Santa Fe, Koa wood from Hawaii, and red birch and mountain maple from all over Idaho.

King says the environment in Idaho is just about perfect for willows, and especially willows used in making the chairs.

"The willow area in Idaho is really dry so moving from dry to humid is better for furniture," he says.

We finish our beers and proceed to move into the studio to see exactly what he has been talking about.

"I like making wild chairs out of wild, strange and unique pieces of wood, " he says, opening the door at the top of the steps to his studio. We walk in and King shows me a chair he's working on. He points to two sets of arms he's experimenting with.

"Arms are everything," he says as he holds them up. One set gives the chair a spider-like appearance. The other set gives the chair a more solid and sturdy appearance. He's busy preparing 10 pieces, eight of which were built in the last three years, for the Sun Valley Arts & Crafts show at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. They used the photo of what King calls a "dysfunctional" chair for the promotional materials for the show, a chair that was built over 10 years ago for a Boise Art Museum show. It's an exception to the recent works, but they felt it worked better for the posters.

King explains that he makes two kinds of furniture: functional and dysfunctional. "Functional furniture," he says, "is meant to be sat in." He makes these pieces with the intention that they becoming heirlooms, "something to be passed down to future generations."

He explains that sometimes his work has a clear direction, a vision derived from a special piece of wood, sketches, whatever. But other times, "If I don't know where I'm going, I'll sketch it out and try different willow patterns. More often than not, what I find inspires me, some given, some found." His inspiration is sprinkled around his studio, leaning against walls and work tables. One large cross-section of a 384-year-old tree sits outside his studio, given to him by friends. He still is thinking about what he's going to do with that piece.

"When I go on a hike," King says, "I just hike." He prefers to make his wood gathering trips a focused affair.

"Willows and twigs should be harvested depending on what you want them for ... spring growth makes them pliable and flexible because of the sap rising ... But if you want to leave the bark on, then late summer and into the winter when the sap has left the branches is best," he says. "Some wood I like to peel, making it blonde. I collect that when the sap is moving up the wood, then I season it."

He spends hours peeling. "Polly and I sit out and peel wood instead of shucking peas," he says with a smile.

Walking down the stairs into the cellar beneath King's studio is like walking into an art installation. Sticks and twigs of all shapes, contortions, lengths and girths are stacked against the walls, hanging from strings or in organized piles. The floor is gray river rock. This is his warehouse, where the raw materials rest, seasoning for use. He knows each one intimately, its curves and twists, envisioning the piece becoming the centerpiece for a chair or a ladder. Sometimes they sit, waiting a companion piece to make them what he needs.

"I like to collect roots," King says. "Roots grow different. They creep through the soil until they find a rock, then they curve around it."

Amazed at his inventory, I continue to look around as he tells me that he has another storage area at the neighbor's house that is just about as big. In there, he has wood primarily with the bark still on, "seasoning" and waiting for the perfect opportunity to become one of his pieces.

Many of King's chairs, especially the dysfunctional ones, utilize sections of roots for their arms, backs and even what would be the seat supports. They look as if they came from a haunted wood, and give his pieces a disturbed feeling.

We leave the studio and walk along a flagstone path to the adobe guest house on the other side of the garden. King's influence on his environment beyond the chairs is apparent. Inside the adobe cottage is a bed he made of aspen and a whimsical stuffed jackalope on the wall. Also in the well-lit space sits half a dozen chairs waiting for his next show. King describes the kinds of wood in each: elm from Joe's tree that blew down a while ago, service berry from here, choke cherry from there and mountain maple from that other trip sound more like a recipe for a dish than a chair, but the variety of colors and textures make for a unique color arrangement and textural variety. Each type of wood feels different to the touch.

I see a Giacometti-inspired chair, one made from just twigs with a seat of elk hide and red willow twigs. It looks delicate and thin, but would command attention in any space.

Another chair, which King calls "Delerium Tremens," is a dysfunctional chair made of twigs and roots. This fir, red birch, mountain mahogany and willow piece looks gnarled and burnt, as if it were left out during a forest fire and melted into a contorted, disturbed variation of its former functional life. The uncanny appearance could be due to the dark bark left remaining on the wood. When making his dysfunctional chairs, King says it's more about the chair's composition than its functionality, and he tends to take more liberties.

King's work has garnered its own shows in Boise, but not for some time. Ten years ago, when Stewart Gallery was on 8th street, he had a show. He even had some pieces at the Boise Art Museum. Most recently, two of his works were selected for the Boise Art Museum's Triennial exhibition. The rocking chair in the Triennial took 150 hours to make. His works are not necessarily cheap, but neither are they overpriced. When determining his prices, King tries to pay himself about $20 per hour, far below what other master craftsmen charge. Priced from $750 for a creative but relatively quickly produced chair, up to thousands of dollars (the rocker in the Triennial would go for $3,200, due to its complexity), his pieces are still approachable to the collector and somewhat of a bargain for the museum community.

We leave the cottage and move into the main residence. The house, with star, square and triangle-shaped windows, centers on a huge lodgepole pine runing from the basement to the second floor with a spiral staircase wrapped around it.

In the house are King's personal chairs, his favorite pieces. In a position of importance, framed as I walked in the front door and past the kitchen, is the Phoenix chair (pictured on the cover). It is one of his favorite chairs and was developed from a sketch. Red paint dominates this chair, but beginning with black on the bottom to light red on top, it's glossy nature reflects highlights of white. The chair shimmers as the light changes when we walk around it. It looks like it may threaten to take off in flight. King shows us the "breast," the curved willows that define the ribs and bulge out near the seat to make a lumbar support.

Other chairs in the house King describes as being orphaned. "This chair warped and I couldn't sell it," he says pointing to a rectangular themed chair that looks like a brick wall with a pig suede seat. "So I stuck it in the river, torqued it back so it wasn't warped, but the bark started peeling. So now it's mine, a reject."

He explains that willow chairs need to "grow" into a spot. They find their place on a floor, balancing out and become solid. Another secret about willow chairs and what makes them work is strength in numbers. Whereas one twig would certainly break under the full weight of an adult, numbers of them arrayed across a plane distribute the weight evenly and can support hundreds of pounds. The nature of willow, flexible, supple and able to withstand age and drying, makes it one of the best raw materials for making unique shapes, bends, curves and contours.