After seeing some of the amazing pieces Eleanor has created at the Tool Library, we sat down with her to find out more about her projects, her process, and why she’s become a regular.
How did you hear about the Capitol Hill Tool Library?
After moving into my current apartment, I wanted to do an IKEA hack that involved cutting some pieces of wood on my Tarva dresser at an angle. After searching on Craigslist for cheap used chop saws and feeling intimated at the logistics involved, my partner suggested looking up if there were any tool libraries around where I could just borrow one—that option hadn’t occurred to me, but I immediately searched Google Maps and found the Capitol Hill Tool Library not far away.
What made you want to become a member?
When I first came into the CHTL, I, like many visitors, was impressed at all the tools and machines available, as well as the shop space. Moving from a tiny shared apartment to a one-bedroom, I was very excited to finally design a “Real Adult” home according to my vision, creating a space I could feel comfortable in as well as proud of. After working in a furniture store for a couple of years, I came to admire the midcentury modern aesthetic; however I’m also very frugal and unwilling to spend hundreds of dollars for a piece I might only have for a few years. So the best way to achieve the look was to make it myself. I’ve been coming in regularly since September 2017.
You’ve made so many gorgeous things at the CHTL: planter stands, a wall shelf for a vase, a picture ledge and picture frames, a side table—even a dining table! How did you learn to do all that? Did you teach yourself?
For my foundation year in art school (I went to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA) everyone had to take an intro sculpture class, in which we had to make a few projects in the wood shop—that was my introduction to power tools and woodworking. A local carpenter, Jim Daigle, generously assisted me on some ambitious wood projects, which also was an eye-opening experience in the sorts of things one could do with power tools. Later on, I decided I wanted to make window displays, a career that requires a diverse skill set, including construction and installation, most of which you learn on the fly project by project. I did that for a few years before deciding it wasn’t for me (precisely at a moment when I decided I wasn’t getting paid nearly enough to be precariously balanced on a 15-foot ladder, hanging objects in a window at 4 a.m.).
For my fabric projects, I definitely have to credit my mom, Eileen Doughty, who is a fiber artist —she taught me how to use her sewing machine at a young age. I’ve dabbled with it a bit over the years since then. When I saw the CHTL had a couple of sewing machines, I took advantage of that to make some Christmas gifts out of some fabric I had shibori dyed. [Editor’s note: Shibori is a Japanese dyeing technique that can involve folding, twisting, or bunching cloth and then dyeing it in indigo.] I hadn’t really made anything functional for day-to-day life before finding the CHTL, but now I’m kind of addicted to it. It comes with a different kind of satisfaction than what I make in my day job, illustration. Making tangible objects that improve my life in some way is great!
Did you start out with a design for all the items you made, or did you design them yourself?
I started out by looking for midcentury modern IKEA hacks on Pinterest, to make my TARVA dresser and Craigslist IKEA bed frame look more upscale—since I’ll be living with and looking at those objects every day for the next few years. Buying a few 1x2s and some wood stain was a small investment that would make my space look way better.
After the hacks came the dining table, since I had a vision for the kind of piece I wanted for the small space I had. The table design was a bit ambitious, and it didn’t come out perfectly, but it suits my needs!
[table sketch & shelf sketch, respectively]
Then my partner and I decided we needed a computer table, which had to fit in a nook we have in our apartment. I saw a ladder desk/shelf in a Room&Board showroom that I really loved, but I wasn’t willing to pay over $1,000 for it, so I took a photo and compiled a Pinterest board of some other ladder shelf designs people had DIY’d and posted tutorials for. We took those techniques, which were basic enough, and designed our own take on it that fit our odd nook space.
Now that we had all the furniture we needed, I made some small functional objects based on my own vision. I made a bunch of small stools of varying heights, which elevate my potted plants off the floor closer to the windows, and I also keep a few around to act as mini-coffee tables that I can easily move around when and where I need them. I designed a wall shelf to hold fresh flowers above the dining table—it brings greenery and color to the eating area without taking up table space.
Some projects are inspired by the scraps of previous projects, like these coasters I quickly pieced together with leftover bits of fabric I’d indigo dyed (actually, bed sheets from Goodwill) for various projects, and some simple sewn fabric covers to conceal unappealing plastic pots.
Where do you get your design inspiration?
I worked at a West Elm showroom for a few years, doing visual merchandising and making decorative displays for the store. I didn’t really care or think about furniture design before that, but working with those products for so many hours, I learned a lot about the different looks and eras of modern furniture. I definitely appreciate the design and craftsmanship, and put my own spin on it with the tools and time I have.
I love the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, of embracing imperfections and letting materials be what they are. For example, my stools aren’t perfectly circular; all the tops are cut out from plywood using the jigsaw—I could cut a perfect circle if I really wanted to, but I like the look better when the shape is uneven and a little wonky, and the jigsaw is a good tool to get that look since you can get a more free-form line. I think the fact that they’re all different shows their handmade nature better. I’m more interested in character than precision.
The Canadian artist Arounna Khounnoraj, aka Bookhou also inspires me a lot, both aesthetically and in her really smart approach to reusing the scraps of her silk-screened fabric. This makes her business thriftier, reduces waste, and gives her customers the opportunity to get certain products that are totally unique.
You clearly enjoy creating things—what do you get from it? Is it about making art, or saving money, or what?
I do definitely love saving money. I also really dislike buying new things when there’s so much waste in our culture; it hurts me to think of landfills full of IKEA plywood. I’ll probably be making another big move in a few years, so I’m aware that most of the things I own will not be coming with me. Everything I bring into my home, I do so with the mind-set that it’s probably temporary. And at least I can eventually sell these items for more money than I spent making them!
I’m also extremely creative—I get super restless if I’m not working on something. I spend most of my time drawing: for my career as an illustrator, but also for fun. Crafting with wood or textiles is a nice way to get away from the desk and the screen, and make something tangible and useful. I feel so satisfied to look around my home and see all the objects that I made with my hands—aesthetically consistent, unique, and a reflection of myself.
Do you have any future projects in mind? If so, can you share them with us?
I just finished a new standing shelf for my plants, since I have so many I need to maximize the window space they get! I’ve been trying new ways to join wood with dowels, which I learned from watching some YouTube tutorials, so I’m using these new skills on more-ambitious woodworking projects, which look more refined and will level up my skill set. Every time I work on a project at the CHTL I come up with ideas for at least two more. I want to make a birdhouse or bird feeder next. It’s never-ending…
What do you like best about the Tool Library?
I love that it’s a free space that anyone can use, and you’re not judged for being at a lower skill level than other people. People are generally happy to offer help or advice on a certain process. It’s also a nice way to meet others in the community—there are so few spaces where people really mix! But to me the best part is that it’s a really efficient way to share things between people, minimizing waste and avoiding the need to spend money on things you may only need for one or two occasions that will just take up room in your home. It’s an extension of the “sharing economy,” but more pure-hearted and community oriented.
Do you have any words of advice for those who are just getting started as makers, people who might feel intimidated by the tools or the projects, or… everything?
You can teach yourself how to do pretty much anything with free tutorials on YouTube—it’s kind of incredible. And the best time to start something new is right now.