Oakland furniture maker hopes to inspire more feminine design

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Henry Gutman, an Oakland furniture designer, has seen the shape of the future. It's non-linear, soft, curvy, inviting.

For him, the shape of the future is, in fact, a paramecium.

Gutman, who is exhibiting his unusual work as part of the Jewish Arts Renaissance, said that today's furniture needs to provide solutions to the paradigms of the modern lifestyle.

Dealing with paradigms is nothing new for Gutman. For starters, there is the question of vocation and affiliation.

"A lot of people don't think Jewish guys know how to use tools," Gutman said.

Secondly, there is the question of space, of the furniture within that space, and of the lines within that furniture. There is the paradigm, above all, of squares.

"I'm not saying that square isn't beautiful," the 43-year-old said. "I'm just saying it's limited."

Gutman designs furniture like "zig-zag shelves" — furniture he hopes "brings a spiritual awareness to mundane tasks such as shelving a book." Gutman's views his furniture as a marriage between the sensual and the practical.

Take, for example, his table in the shape of an oval-shaped, single-celled organism known as a paramecium. In addition to the table's soft lines, Gutman designed it to function like a cell — the table glides open at mid-section and exposes a separate layer of surface.

Gutman said the table reflects another theme of his work: the need to build furniture for cramped living environments. "As cities become more crowded, better storage solutions are going to be needed," Gutman noted, adding that art is too often concerned with aesthetics alone.

"A really beautiful steel chair that's uncomfortable to sit in is just bad art," Gutman said. "It's elitist, because it pretends to have practical value when, in fact, it has none."

Gutman's furniture also has his Jewish roots deeply ingrained in it.

Both his parents are Auschwitz survivors. Their experience is the basis for his work currently on exhibit in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The work is called "Head Cabinet" and features an oversized wooden frame supported by five spindly legs. Gutman said the work was inspired by photographs of Auschwitz victims.

"I had a nightmare one evening," he recalls. "I saw images of the Auschwitz dead floating by me. I couldn't get the images of emaciated people with swollen joints and huge heads out of my mind."

But Gutman's heritage also provides him with another link to the past.

"Jewish history is full of narrative and storytelling," Gutman said. "It's the same way with furniture. Furniture has lines, history and continuity."

Gutman said part of that continuity is honoring his parents through his work.

"My parents are real salt-of-the-earth types. They come from European shtetls. Both of my parents worked a lot with their hands," he said.

"When I'm working in my shop, surrounded by wood shavings, dust, and the fruits of my labor. I can feel the connection to the shtetl. In a way, it's like coming home."