By Mark Hiss
WHEN CLYDE TURNER was a teenage busboy at the Chart House, he jumped at an opportunity to create some furniture for the eatery.
“[The owner] came in and said, ‘Hey, any of you guys want to make the tables for the restaurants? Because it’s the same technology as fixing your surfboards,’” says Turner, a lifelong San Diegan. “It was making wooden frames and pouring resin … and we made thousands and thousands of those things to the point where you know, OK, I’ve had enough of huffing these fumes.”
From those humble beginnings, Turner, 54, launched a career as an entrepreneur and craftsman, and is now owner of CTT Furniture, a workshop that has been producing furniture, cabinetry, and millwork pieces for 25 years. Specializing in Japanese design elements and interiors, including sliding shoji and fusuma screens and doors, he revels in incorporating unexpected products and out-of-the-box thinking — from techniques like laser and water-jet cutting of metal to unique materials like 40,000-year-old wood culled from a peat bog in New Zealand.
Turner’s leap from producing novelty restaurant tables to embracing elegant Japanese style was facilitated by a great uncle who lived most of his life in Japan. A State Department employee who later published books on Japanese art and architecture, he offered his visiting nephew entrée to a world that few native-born Japanese could access.
“He knew everybody in Japan who were the living national treasures, the sculptors and the weavers and the potters and the woodworkers,” says Turner. “He would say, ‘What are you interested in?’ I’d reply, ‘I’m interested in stone carving,’ and he’d go, ‘Okay, now get on the train, go down here and see this guy in Shikoku and he’ll put you up for three or four days, and ask him all the questions you want.’ … If I had been Japanese I would have been at the bottom of the totem pole; I would have never been able to even speak to these sort of guys.”
Turner clearly took the wide-ranging mentoring to heart and built a business that is notable for its ability to produce just about anything a client desires.
“The general precept of business, if you’re going to make a profit, you limit your offering and you do what you do best,” he says. “And the truth is, what we do best is the strange and unusual and the things that pretty much nobody else wants to do because they’re just not versed in the material.”
An avid off-road motorcycle rider who leads semiannual excursions through the jungles of Southeast Asia, Turner also has strong feelings about the use of exotic woods that come from places such as Cambodia.
“A lot of the deforestation that’s happening is mainly slash and burn for crops and agriculture,” he says. “So you know timber is not the big offender and using big exotic pieces of wood is not an offender. … If you’re going to say, ‘Oh no, I won’t use this rainforest wood,’ you know it’s like anything else — look a little deeper because, man, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned it’s there’s always two sides to every single story.”
Points Of Light
• Clyde Turner studied traditional tea house construction in Japan.
• His company’s furniture and millwork has been featured in publications such as San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles, House Beautiful and Architectural Digest.
• He crafted buildings for the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park (and serves on the board of directors) and the Phoenix/Himeji Sister City Tea House and Garden.
• Turner has created specialized architectural millwork for projects internationally, from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to Jakarta, Indonesia.
• He built private tea houses in Cape Cod, MA, Palo Alto, CA, and Reno, NV.
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