OPI Healing Hands: Woodworking with Daej Designs
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re rounding out our spotlights on women making an impact with another special edition of our ongoing series, Healing Hands. We took the time to sit down with Toronto-based woodworker Daej Hamilton to learn about her journey with woodworking, what role her hands play in the process of self-expression, and where she hopes to make an impact by helping to lead the way in terms of representation.
Photography by: Jamaal O. Ansah IG: @joansah
OPI: How did you get started in woodworking?
DH: I started woodworking when I was about 11 years old. During elementary school, I was able to take a class called ‘Design and Technology’ which essentially was woodshop. But it opened my eyes to endless possibilities when it came to creating something with your hands. My mom was also studying interior design at the time which was my first real glimpse into the world of design. The support from my mom and teachers is what really got me started in this field and also kept me going.
OPI: What is your favorite part about your craft, and where do you draw inspiration?
DH: My favorite part would be the moment when a client looks at/touches the piece they bought for the first time and they say “Wow, it’s so smooth” “OMG this is MINE?!”. To see them as excited as I am makes my day every time. Those comments made me realize that well-made furniture has been normalized as a luxury. But I believe that everyone should have access to well-made things and hope to continue making my work accessible to all.
The people I’m surrounded by inspire my work. I have a lot of creative friends from all different mediums and fields of design in my circle. I tend to listen to them as to what they feel is missing in the art and craft world.
History also inspires my work. A lot of my work includes mid-century modern design elements. I make a point in doing that because black people and non-black people of colour were denied access to mid-century architecture and design. A lot of people don’t know this, but black and non-black PoC were denied home loans that would have allowed them to buy homes with mid-century modern design elements. Instead, they were forced to live in inner-city subsections, in housing that was just slapped together. It was made clear that mid-century modern design was not for people like me. So for me to do it now is almost rebellious. But, I’m taking something that was taken from us and, somehow, trying to reshape history by making custom mid-century modern design as accessible as I can to black and non-black PoC.
OPI: What is your process like when it comes to woodworking? How do colors, types of wood, and other materials come into play?
DH: After finalizing a design, it’s time to pick my materials. Colours come into play when working with clients. I always ask them what colours they have in their space and how they will be using the piece. This helps determine if the wood choice will be something that stands out or blends right in. Once I head out to the lumber yard, I handpick all of my lumber because I need to visualize where each piece will fit in. This part of the process is vital!
Once I have my materials, building the piece can take 15-60hrs. It’s a long process but being able to watch these pieces come alive is so motivating.
OPI: You mentioned on your website that not having furniture designers/ woodworkers that looked like you placed you in a position to be an example and leader for others. How do you believe you are leading change in your industry?
DH: I believe that I am changing the industry by being a part of it. When people think of woodworking they normally think of a man. I want to change that narrative.
My main purpose is to inspire people to get into fields that may be dominated by people who don’t look like them. Going into these fields increases the representation I know we all wish we had. And I know that when others see someone who looks like them in a field such as woodworking, it makes them say “Hey! I can do that too”. And I think being able to inspire people is how I’m leading change. ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ and I’m showing people they can definitely ‘be it’, whatever it may be, and prosper!
OPI: What changes do you want to see in your industry?
DH: I want to see more grants and opportunities when it comes to women in the craft and design field. I’ve noticed that opportunities are given to artists in more common fields such as visual arts, dance, theatre, etc. But, when it comes to fields like woodworking, or glass blowing or metalwork, for example, there aren't really any grants or opportunities catered to us… and if there are, you must be a part of some exclusive group to receive them. It’s tough for newcomers to feel a part of a community when grants and opportunities are exclusive.
I also want to see more collaboration between artists in the craft and design world. Whether that is connecting with a ceramicist or someone who specializes in vegan leather. I believe that creating with others in that way will bring a whole new perspective to the design world. Not only by lifting up each other in our craft, but encouraging others to do the same.
OPI: Are you seeing a growth in female woodworkers and furniture designers of color?
DH: Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve noticed a wave of new women woodworkers who are also people of colour. I must say, it’s been exciting to see. It seems like the pandemic has allowed people to take up new skills that didn't know they had. It's encouraging people to do things outside of their norm.
Representation means a lot to me. Seeing all these women making and creating is proof that the industry is changing. It makes me hopeful that there will be more women of colour leading the way in these industries.
OPI: What does self-expression mean to you in regards to your work? Do your hands play any role in that process of self-expression?
DH: My work really is all about self-expression. When working with clients, I make sure that they are able to express themselves through the design, so we actually design the piece together.
When it comes to more sculptural work like my wall art pieces or imperfect bowls, my hands are totally in control of what happens. There isn't actually a real plan when creating those pieces, only a thought, and an end goal. What happens in between is completely spontaneous. I don't want my hands to be forced to follow a plan, I feel like that actually limits my ability to self-express, especially when creating wall art. And so far the spontaneous approach has been working out.
OPI: Is there a meaning behind your “imperfect bowl”?
DH: The imperfect bowl was made spontaneously. In a world full of perfectly-shaped bowls, I wanted to make something that was far from that. When thinking about perfection, I feel like that’s something everyone strives to be. Since each bowl is hand-carved, every bowl could never be anything else but itself. By calling these bowls imperfect, it shows people that you don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful and functional.
Daej Hamilton is an award-winning furniture maker and designer based in Toronto. She started Daej Designs in 2019 and specializes in hand-made furniture, kitchenware, and home decor. Her mid-century modern style pieces reflect the balance between form and function. To find more of her work follow her on IG @daejdesigns.
Photography by: Jamaal O. Ansah IG: @joansah
Be sure to stay tuned for more wellness-based content coming soon, as we continue highlighting experts in the community and sharing their stories and practices with healing hands.