Cullen has supported himself as a woodworker since studying with Powell at his Leeds Design Workshop in Massachusetts, selling his first table for about $400.
Times were tight, for a while, and for years Cullen worked in cooperatives and otherwise shared space. "It was a long battle. And still today, you take your foot off the accelerator and the car stops. You always have to be on your game."
"I just love to make things," he says. "The idea that I can actually come into the shop in the morning and make something and somebody will buy it, I think that's amazing."
It was just over a decade ago that his business, as opposed to his work, jumped a notch. Friends, astounded when he revealed what he was about to ask for a hall table, said, "You're out of your mind. You need to double your price."
He did, and the gallery owner who was planning to sell it blanched. "The first thing out of their mouth was, 'But that's as much as so-and-so charges.' I looked the owner right in the face—it was a good lesson—and I just said, 'Yeah that's right, because it's better.'"
Today he's even thinking of raising the price of his tops.
Cullen, who would have studied sculpture instead of engineering had it not seemed "totally impracticable," has been gradually moving in that direction. "Michael has the potential to be a tremendous sculptor," says Pierre Clauzon, who has two of Cullen's pieces in his Petaluma shop, Pierre Art & Antiques.
Cullen creates pieces he calls 'elementals,' from found pieces of wood that he carves, cuts, and rubs. "They are all about the wood and all about what the material has experienced over time," he says. "It's immediate, it's visceral connection, its just 'wow, this is amazing.'"
A recent pair of elementals suggests animals—one a bear perhaps, the other a cat. One of his largest pieces, a freeform coffee table crafted from a crosscut section of red eucalyptus, weighs 1,500 pounds. Clauzon loves the way the piece has changed color over time, evolving to a golden honey.
Cullen has written books and many articles about woodworking, and has taught at colleges and gives workshops, including a recent series in France. He also accepts apprentices. In the past he has, at times, used assistants—but less so now.
"The work has gotten a lot more personal for me," he says. He used to design a piece first, and then build it following the design.
"I don't want to build a lot like that anymore. I want to be able to stop, look at the piece, spend time with it, make small changes. I can't have someone tapping their foot next to me saying, 'What do I do next, what do I do next.'"
Photos: David Toerge; and courtesy Michael Cullen
• For more of Michael Cullen's wood creations, visit michaelcullendesign.com