2022 Posthumous Award Design
Even in elementary school and before, the late Peter Debelak took art classes every opportunity he had, his mother Helene recalls, and sketched, painted watercolors and drew portraits of friends, family, and teachers. Long before earning acclaim as a furniture designer and maker in Cleveland, Peter awed people with his effortless images sculpted from small pieces of wire.
“When he was living in California, he made caricatures for people outside the gates of Disneyland, until they threw him out,” his father Charles remembers with a laugh.
Prior to finding his passion for woodworking and creating furniture in his 30s, he left Cleveland for 14 years to attend UCLA, where he majored in linguistics, and then earned his law degree at The Ohio State University and Oxford University. He then chose an early career in civil rights law.
“Even as I pursued these noble paths, I was constantly obsessed with producing and experimenting in the arts and design, particularly with wood,” Peter recalled. “After a long journey in geography and career, I returned to Cleveland with a new vision and passion.”
During summer breaks from college, he worked with a friend who ran a renovation company, where he learned roofing and framing and started getting familiar with the tools of the trade. Over the years of doing that work, the “intensive artist” side of Peter fell in love with working with wood as a medium.
But it wasn’t until a few years later when Peter decided to take a risk and change careers by committing to furniture making. “He had been really getting into wood, learning from other woodworkers, so he decided to do it in earnest,” Helene says. “He had people who wanted his furniture and would purchase it, so when he realized he had enough contracts and clients to last three months, he took a risk.”
His hobby, Peter later said in a video for F*SHO, an annual show of furniture by Cleveland furniture designers that he participated in, had become fairly time-intensive. “I spent a lot of time just fiddling and studying the history and the designers and what you can possibly do with this material, so I spent years experimenting in wood. I’ve never taken any formal classes or instruction.”
Then in 2011, after leaving the practice of law, Peter began making and designing furniture full time. He specialized in custom client work, but also always maintained a practice of creating his own pieces.
“My own work was more playful and sculptural than anything that can be purchased off a shelf,” he explained. “Something happens to my whole being, my cognitive development even, when I engage in creating with my hands.”
Jason Radcliff, founder and director of F*SHO, says: “Peter’s work was very curious. He made you think about not only the physical piece, but how it was created and what the story behind it might be. It was always fun to dissect the possibilities with him.”
In 2012, “enamored of the beauty and value of this work” and having become immersed in the exciting furniture design scene that was bubbling in Cleveland, he co-founded Soulcraft Woodshop. The community access facility enabled members of the community to make their own work or take classes from Peter and other woodworking artists. They could all work at the sizable, turn-of-the-century sausage factory space fully equipped with a range of woodworking tools and machines, whether they were professional woodworkers and furniture making artists or just hobbyists who had a dream project they wanted to complete.
“We have done work in communities, with schools, and with nonprofit organizations,” he later wrote, adding: “It was the same kind of justice work I had been doing with the law, only with a different tool set.”
A self-described “nerd,” Peter had many interests such as being a strong writer. In June 2020, he published an opinion piece about the pandemic in The New York Times. Of course, one of his absolute, most-treasured joys was hiking or spending time with his children: Madeleine, Charlie and Oscar.
In a recent statement about his immaculately crafted sculptural furniture, Peter said: “My work is animated by its reverence for the beauty of the wood itself, carefully tended through boundary-pushing experiments in technical craft, cultivated into playful imaginings. I explore the tension between imagination and the limits of available tools. They begin as experiments, often without a final piece in mind. Potentially remaining unfinished explorations for long periods of time, they are then, in a flurry, combined and expanded at some future date into a whimsical whole.”