A Nova Scotian cabinetmaker opens the door to custom design
The natural world inspires cabinetmaker Carole Burnett. Working out of her home studio in Boutlier’s Point, N.S., she catches glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean through a wall of green trees in the summer. In winter, the view opens to capture the islands of St. Margaret’s Bay, stretching all the way towards Peggy’s Cove. But being surrounded by nature wasn’t always the case for the self-employed woodworker and owner of Island View Designs.
She got her start in Toronto.
After years of working in non-profits, Burnett went back to school in her early 30s at Humber College, where she studied to become a cabinetmaker.
Once she graduated from the one-year program, Burnett was hired as the technician at Humber College and worked on building projects, maintaining the machines, and mentoring students.
Her move to Nova Scotia came in 2003, when her partner was hired at Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University as a librarian. The couple sold their small house in East End Toronto and started hunting for a house outside of Halifax, where Burnett could turn a garage or shop into her studio without having to rent a space. The couple fell in love with a historic fixer-upper in Boutlier’s Point.
“When we moved here, I found out about the Hubbard’s farmer’s market and got a table. I took pictures of my work, and made personal connections with people,” says Burnett. “I didn’t have a big portfolio at the time because I was working for the college. But people would come to the farmers’ market and ask if I could make them specific things. They took a leap of faith.”
After 20 years of custom design work, she tries to keep her prices fair, and her vision adaptable. Island View Designs generates most of its business through referrals, typically from architects, builders or previous clients. Burnett works closely with her clients, as she knows it’s expensive to have something customized.
“I am very flexible. I don’t work to any particular style. I like the variety. I may be doing a coffee table or kitchen. I need that variety. You have to really think through. I have developed many skills.”
Part of Burnett’s process is avoiding trends. Travelling and looking at books also provide inspiration. Her partner is always bringing home art books on furniture designs over the ages.
“Furniture is well-documented. I love being outdoors. I like asymmetry. I like movement. We travel a lot,” says Burnett. “You’ll be somewhere in South America and you’ll see something that catches your eye. I take a picture and file it away. I don’t look around a lot at my contemporaries. I like to be influenced by the world around me. You can feel trends in furniture.”
“I enjoy making a coffee table as much as I enjoy making a kitchen. I like to build stuff, I like to make things”Carol Burnett
Furniture trends come and go. In Burnett’s career, she’s seen the popularity of shaker table and craftsman style move towards rustic and reclaimed material, and then circle back to mid-century modern (her favourite), and move from big live edge slab tables to now slabs filled with epoxy.
“Each trend never completely fades out and some styles are classic, but I feel that focussing only on a trending look as a builder is dangerous. You can get pigeonholed,” she says. “I personally love designing one-of-a-kind pieces … I think we need to draw upon the classic and take inspiration from all those styles so the piece you create can remain relevant over time.”
Burnett holds her own in a male-dominated industry. Her confidence is one thing, but being a woman is actually a benefit in the industry when dealing with clients and homeowners where women make a majority of household decisions.
“It’s very rarely from the male’s side. The women I deal with are more comfortable working with me to help create their design,” she says. “Often, we pay more attention to detail. It’s very stressful building or buying a house. Clients are happy to see me come on site. It’s just easier and lighter.”
While Burnett believes in creating a timeless product, she wants to please her Island View Design clients. Whether she’s making a solid wood dining table with wood from a client’s grandfather’s property, or assembling barn doors from an old barn, she aims to create heirlooms to pass down through the generations.
These days, she is examining her next steps, as financial stability comes from building larger projects (for example, she designed and built Pavia Café and Gallery in Herring Cove, plus the coffee shop’s former location in the Halifax Central Library), but intends to do more custom furniture design. Her work was once showcased in a contemporary furniture exhibition at Halifax’s Mary E. Black Gallery.
“I love the design part. I like interior design. I am in my early 50s, so it’s more challenging to do big jobs. I’m looking at the next stage of my career,” says Burnett. “Where do I go from building kitchens? I do one or two a year. You have to do them to stay in business. But what’s my next step? How do I get back into furniture making, which is less physically taxing? I like architecture.”
While she contemplates where her business will go next, as her 50-something body can’t quite do what it used to, Burnett has ripped off the front of her 160-year-old house, which she describes as in desperate need of repair.
“I have not stopped since the pandemic started. It has been relentless with work, and juggling delays and timelines. I am pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. I will go weeks without an email. I could not believe it. I was completely overwhelmed.”
Despite being flat out, she spent the summer reshingling and working on her own home before she starts a busy fall with two kitchen jobs. “I enjoy making a coffee table as much as I enjoy making a kitchen,” she says. “I like to build stuff. I like to make things.” Burnett firmly believes design and woodworking is for everyone.
“In terms of getting started, I think you need to not be afraid of it. You just need to try. See something you could make and try to do it. Don’t be afraid if you cut a piece of wood too short. A good cabinetmaker is someone who knows how to fix their own mistakes.”