Designer Profile: Katonah’s Shiela Hale

A Westchester artist and furniture deisgner shares her story.



I’ve loved books since I was a child—I read them, I alter them, I build with them,” says Katonah resident Shiela Hale. Hale has combined her passion for books with her exceptional talents as an artist and furniture designer to create everything from a patented bookshelf to pieces of art fashioned from shredded and altered texts. Her recently remodeled home is a gallery of her artwork and designs, which blend perfectly with the modern and minimalist furnishings she has purchased to create a home radiating with style and innovation.

Hale describes her home, which was built in the 1950s, as a “farm-ranch hybrid.” When she first moved in 36 years ago, she didn’t think she would be there for long. “I considered it a first house, which would lead to designing and building the next one,” she says. But even after her three children moved out, Hale stayed put—and instead of downsizing, opted to add on. She turned two of her home’s five bedrooms into an “inner studio,” where she creates much of her artwork. Then, from 2006 to 2008, Hale embarked on a major construction project, adding 1,000 square feet to her home. She also added an “outer studio,” where she does her carpentry work, as well as a family room over the garage. 

Recently, Hale has begun to focus on the details and furnishings, mixing her own designs and artwork with a smattering of store-bought pieces. In her L-shaped living room/dining room, the back wall is taken over by floor-to-ceiling shelves that Hale created to accommodate her ever-accumulating collection of books. The shelves are enhanced with painted wooden columns designed in a tree motif. As is often the case, she admits, “I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, so I ended up making them myself.”

 

And books are not just on the shelves. In the dining area, a Philippe Starck tripod floor lamp hovers over a tall stack of books. Nearby is Hale’s “cathedral table,” created from recycled wooden pallets and laden with books. (The table was originally designed specifically to display one of her artist’s books for her 2007 solo exhibition, Documentaries, at The Studio: An Alternative Space for Contemporary Art in Armonk.)

In the living-room portion, Hale has created a coffee table made of books that rest on a platform with castors and have a glass top to protect them. She also has two side tables incorporating books, works in progress that she calls her “stacked improvisations.” Most of the walls are adorned with Hale’s artwork, including her Notation for a Silent Song, which is fashioned of leaves from a London planetree, wire, and construction paneling. Also on display are a number of paintings from her maidenhair fern series, many of which were on display in the Documentaries exhibition. “There’s a maidenhair fern growing right outside the door of my house that inspired this series,” she says. “I find that a lot of the artwork I do comes immediately from nature and what’s around me.”

A peek into Hale’s inner studio reveals even more artwork, giving insight into how her table and book creations have melded together and evolved over the years. In the center of the room rests her massive piece, Volumes from a Black Library (2001), which is composed of an original table she made from rough-sawn cedar piled with dozens of books that have had their texts shredded or mutilated. In some cases, words have been replaced with natural objects. In explaining this piece, Hale says, “My art usually comes from peacefulness, but this was an explosion of anger and frustration about the misuse of language to manipulate and deceive—with shredded text, you can’t access meaning.”

Showing a more whimsical, upbeat side to her artwork is a piece called the Nest Book, set on one of Hale’s handmade tables and featuring shredded pages of an old leather-bound book with feathers and an egg nestled inside. (The piece won first prize at the Katonah Museum of Art’s tri-state juried exhibition in 2009.) 

 

In Hale’s windowed outer studio, which she uses for carpentry and construction, are some of her latest creations. One of the new pieces she is working on, Lost and Found, features a table piled with books bursting with “book moths,” which exude an overwhelming sense of release and escape. The completed piece will join some of her other new works in the group show, Beyond the Book, opening in mid-September at the Silvermine Arts Center. Also in the outer studio are her new “cathedral tables.” Computer-fabricated in a design shop, the tables are made from pieces of painted Baltic birch plywood and have an architectural interior space designed to contain a tower of books or display objects. “They are meant to be completed by the books they hold,” she explains. 

In addition, Hale is working on reproducing her “level-headed shelf,” for which she received a US patent in 2001. The shelf comes with a level, which you attach to the wall. There are four flat, slotted pieces of wood that fit together into a box and then drop onto the level. It’s easy to assemble and to move.

“A lot of my designs start with my personal needs, and I find that the same things work for my personal life and for the public designs that I do,” says Hale. Now that she is able to have her pieces computer-fabricated, it will be easier to offer some of them for sale. “I’ve just got my first samples back. I guess you could think of them as being in beta.” 

Laura Joseph Mogil (lauramogil.com) is a freelance writer residing in Briarcliff Manor. Her long history of collecting books has been put in a holding pattern ever since she bought a Kindle.