Local artist creates unique architecture, furniture as art

When it comes to designing furniture, Michael O’Brien’s imagination doesn’t just move in a straight line.

Instead, his unique furniture-as-art embodies the designer’s visions in well-polished swoops and curves which are in turn charmingly anchored by veneers of hieroglyphic angles and ribbony slices of wood from the different forests of the world.

And then, in a final, amusing pièce de résistance, O’Brien’s work tantalizes its admirers with “What on earth does it mean?” details of adornments such as primitive symbols, totems of pyramids, crackling rivulets of polished aluminum and stone, flying books, scattered bursts of tiny metal and glass squares and whatever else is capturing the artist’s ever curious fancy at the moment of creation.

Local residents can see a masterpiece of O’Brien’s woodworking talents at the Fallbrook library where his gleaming “Orchid Table” has been on display for two years.

Built primarily from pale bird’s eye maple and regular maple, ebony and aluminum, the oval 6-foot by 4-foot table stands inside the library entrance, greeting visitors with its ancient-Egypt-gone-galactic vibe.

And don’t ask O’Brien, age 70, to classify his work into any particular art genre because he believes his art defies definition.

“I really don’t know what art genre my work falls into,” said the self-taught artist with a slightly bemused shake of his head. “I’ve been told it’s a bit of everything – Art Deco, Art Nouveau, American Southwest, abstract, folk art…I don’t even know what to call it myself. The ideas just happen. That’s all I can say.”

But form really does follow function with O’Brien’s furniture – not only are his tables and V-backed kitchen chairs amazing works of art, he says proudly that people have told him that the chairs are comfortable enough to make a Sunday brunch long and leisurely.

O’Brien, who moved to Fallbrook in 1995 after he decided that he wasn’t going to endure another St. Louis ice storm, didn’t set out to be a furniture-maker extraordinaire. In one of those swoops of fate when he was in his twenties, a broken leg actually set him on a new path.

“I had some carpentry skills and I had been a sign maker and I think I had done something like 28,000 signs at $4 apiece before I broke my leg in an accident,” recalled O’Brien. “So I suddenly had no way to make money and as it happened, a furniture dealer asked me if I could make an armoire. And I told him that I could do it even though I had no idea what an armoire was!”

With some research, persistence and pure luck, O’Brien was able to build the piece and he delivered it to the furniture dealer who was very impressed. Until the next day, he said, when it was discovered that “I hadn’t known that the wood putty I had used to cover the nail holes would dry white, and the dealer was having to paint over all those white spots,” O’Brien laughed. “Luckily for me, though, he wanted me to build more furniture.”

Such a can-do attitude has worked for the artist in other ventures as well, including designing and building his 3,400-square foot home on a Fallbrook hilltop, running his own cabinetmaking business, learning to metal craft sculptures such as a Captain Nemo-like aquarium and a school of flying fish which grace the top of a cupola dome, jewelry making, creating elaborate stained glass windows, building the wooden mission-gothic style ceiling beams that transform a media room into an old time Hollywood screening room, working with stone and steel and even doing a painting or two a la artist’s brushes and canvas.

Although he still gets an occasional commission to build furniture or cabinets, O’Brien, who lives by a weekly clock and follows his body’s circadian rhythms – or natural timekeeping system – spends most of his time building pieces to fill his home and working on his ever-growing list of creative projects.

“I feel lucky,” said O’Brien, reflecting on how the events of his life and his artistic dreams have cosmically dovetailed. “Just the way I fell into doing furniture making for a living, moving out to this area because I was sick of Midwest winters and still being able to enjoy doing this kind of creative work. And that there is probably still thirty years worth of more creative ideas on my list just waiting in line to take shape.”

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