Do the ‘Bright’ Thing
Meet Michael Bright, an unabashed fan of MDF, who loves to mix decorative materials in unorthodox ways to create visually stunning custom cabinetry.
By Rich Christianson
Michael Bright is ultra-passionate about designing and fabricating custom cabinetry and built-in furniture that is environmentally sustainable and will stand the test of time.
For more than 30 years, the creative designs and exacting craftsmanship of Bright Wood Works have found their way into some of the most exclusive homes in and about the greater St. Petersburg, Fla., area.
Customers willing and able to spend up to $200,000 on new kitchens do not come to Bright to produce something run-of-the-mill. They bank on Bright and his eight-man crew to design, manufacture and install unique products loaded with the wow factor.
Operating from a 15,000-square-foot facility in downtown St. Petersburg, Bright Wood Works is up to the challenge to meet or exceed customer expectations. While the company is capable of producing traditional wood kitchens, Bright’s personal preference is modern minimalist designs. These projects invariably incorporate medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, Bright’s substrate of choice.
“I have always loved MDF for a multitude of reasons,” Bright said. “It’s a dense product; it’s stable, and it’s very versatile. Plus, it’s a green alternative because it uses every piece of a tree.”
MDF also lends itself to myriad design possibilities, Bright added, due to the ever-expanding palette of surface options available.
Bright traced his love affair with MDF to European excursions with his wife, Nathalie, a native of Paris. He recounted a particularly memorable experience during the couple’s first trip together in the late 1980s. While diners at a swanky Parisian restaurant studied menus and wine lists, Bright scrutinized the establishment’s intriguing interior woodwork.
“The interior was decorated with clear-coated MDF that created a very modern wainscoting system around the whole restaurant,” Bright recalled. “I thought, ‘What kind of a kooky person would choose to use MDF and put a clear coat on it?’”
Over the last 25 years, Bright has become one of those kooks. His shop has applied clear coating to MDF many times.
“More than a few people have raised an eyebrow. ‘Of all the choices of wood, this guy chooses to do MDF with a clear coat.’ But I think it’s a more truthful use of the material because it shows off its organic nature. I love to use materials in unorthodox ways and challenge what people will think.”
Bright has dedicated his long and successful career to mastering the art of mixing and matching natural and man-made decorative surfaces to make revolutionary fashion statements. He leans heavily on eco-friendly products, especially those made from recycled material and that are recyclable.
An annotated list of materials used by BrightWood Works includes a wide variety of solid wood and veneer species; Smith & Fong’s Plyboo strand bamboo; Extira exterior panels; Richlite 100 percent recycled paper countertops, and Interlam‘s Art Diffusion sculpted architectural wall panels.
Bright is also conscientious in choosing building and finishing products that contribute to a healthier indoor living environment. Columbia Forest Products PureBond hardwood plywood, made with no added urea formaldehyde, is used for the vast majority of Bright Wood Works’ case goods. GreenGuard- certified coatings from M.L. Campbell are invariably used for finishing wood and MDF.
Two vastly different projects offer a glimpse of Bright’s material mastery.
The first is the jaw-dropping Art Deco-inspired Englander study. It features quarter-sawn sapele veneer over MDF, accented by bendable mouldings finished with a metallic coating in Bright Wood Works shop. Complementing the mouldings are custom handles fabricated by a local shop.
The marriage of wood and metal is a perfect union. The metal adds form and function without distracting from the warmth and vibrancy of the veneer.
“The designers were going for an old 1920s steamship look,” Bright said.
The project capitalized on bent lamination techniques he learned working for a local boat builder immediately before launching Bright Wood Works in 1981, he added.
In sharp contrast is the Tampa White Kitchen. Painted MDF cabinets are aided and abetted by the smoothness of painted glass doors and juxtaposed by a sturdy concrete countertop. All bathed in white, these three distinctive elements come together as one. Integrated appliances and pantries, also in white, complement the design.
Turning Heads in Vegas
Bright’s uncanny ability to add the element of surprise to his designs was on full display at the 2015 Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas. Hardware supplier Häfele America commissioned him to create an upscale kitchen to showcase its newest products. Included were the Grass Vionaro cubist drawer system and LOOX LED accent and task lighting.
Bright chose dark grey Valchromat – “my new favorite product” - for the cabinets, doors and drawer fronts. It’s a specially engineered, through-color MDF panel distributed by Interlam that caught his attention at the 2014 International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta.
“When I first saw Valchromat at IWF, I thought, ‘That’s an interesting painted MDF,’” Bright said. “Then, when I got close enough to touch the panel’s edge I could see all of the organic fragments of the MDF and realized, ‘How cool; this is dyed.’”
In what he called a “subtle” design twist, Bright came up with up an innovative idea to make the cabinets less boxy.
“I figured out how to rout a big wedge out of a 4-by-8 sheet of Valchromat that tapered from 16mm to 6mm thick, then rip it in half and glue the two halves together to make a stable panel that went from 32mm to 12mm,” he said.
To reduce fabrication time, Bright had Interlam rout the panels before shipping them to his plant. There, Bright‘s team applied Franklin Titebond II adhesive between the two tapered halves and joined them together on a Vac-U-Clamp vacuum press.
The Valchromat panels required no edgebanding. They were spray coated with M.L. Campbell high-performance conversion varnish to provide scratch and water resistance. For the countertops, Bright picked a nearly matching grey zone-flaked Stratificato compact grade laminate from Abet Laminati.
“People always want to have these big, thick, honking countertops, but I thought it would be more interesting to go with this ultra-thin 1/4-inch material,” Bright said.
Bright sandwiched a 6-1/4-inch-wide heart pine moulding between the Valchromat panels and Stratificato countertop to add “earthy contrast.” The wood was deconstructed from the historic Sunset Hotel of St. Petersburg during a remodeling project.
A final unorthodox addition to the project was a low-iron, half-etched mirrored backsplash.
“It’s a chameleon color and doesn’t really make a statement,” Bright said. “It gives a milky reflection; you don’t see yourself in it.”
Bright said he had a field day watching KBIS attendees’ reactions to the display.
“So many people came into the booth and rubbed their hands on the surfaces. They wanted to know what was used and how it was done. When they opened the doors, there was a nice glow from the LOOX lights.
“LED lighting has gone bonkers. It’s so much more natural today, not like that blue hospital lighting of only a few years ago. We hid the wiring and buried the transformers behind 6-inch knee space doors we fabricated. At the end of the day, it looked like the dashboard of the space shuttle.”
Designed to Last and Do No Harm
Somewhere, Jerry Garcia is smiling to know that Bright Wood Works operates with a strong environmental bent, a carryover from Bright’s attendance of Grateful Dead concerts in the 1980s.
“I know this sounds corny, but I believe in being ‘Bright green.’ Recycling and repurposing things found locally, using no-added urea formaldehyde panels and spraying finishes that don’t off-gas harmful VOCs – those are just some of things that all wood products manufacturers should be doing,” Bright said.
What types of woodworking designs does Bright think will stand the test of time?
“If you strip it down to the essentials, it will better stand the test of time,” Bright said. “If you have to think about adding some form of corbel, column or other embellishment too much, in most cases, you’ll be better off just ditching it because less is more timeless in my opinion.”