For Greg Pennenga, woodworking and furniture design came naturally—a passion long before a profession—but when an accident while apprenticing in the workshop of Dale Rieke’s Wood Street Studio claimed three fingers on his left hand, a promising career was almost cut short too. It took three hard years of recovery, retraining and recuperation—three years without so much as standing in front of a saw blade—but Pennenga kept the faith. “I never reconsidered what I should do, never thought about anything else but building and designing,” he says. “No looking back, man.” And today, Pennenga runs his own furniture design business, Pennenga Creative, creating shape tables and custom built-ins out of a workshop off Lime Avenue, where individuals and agencies like Sawa Design Studio seek his individual expertise and signature style, making each project distinct from the one before. “My real strength is that creative approach,” says Pennenga. “I don’t like to make the same thing twice.” 

How would you sum up your design philosophy? Pennenga:  Considered. Everything about my furniture is intentional. Whether I am building a mid-century-influenced coffee table or a more traditional style media center, I am striving to consider the relationship of every detail.

Where do you find inspiration? Everywhere. The organic chaos of a banyan tree root system. The rigid balance of Guy Peterson’s architecture. Ray and Charles Eames, Mondrian, Ferrari, George Nakashima. I get the biggest boost of inspiration from being inside well-designed spaces. Currently, The Sarasota Modern has my favorite bar atmosphere and any of Mark Caragiulo’s restaurants.  

Where does your creative process begin? For me the process starts in my head and continues in my head for far too long. Once I can imagine a set of solutions I get on the computer and start drawing. I am not a “build-as-you-go” guy. I spend a lot of time (too much!) in planning and design. 

How do you balance creative impulses with a client’s needs? Great design is essentially creating elegant solutions for a client’s needs. A piece’s function should be obvious. My design process is anchored by the client’s need. The form and the function are inextricable from each other, both are the most important part. 

What design rule do you always follow? Which do you always break?  The only rule is consideration. Make every second of the piece intentional. I seem to always break Occam’s Razor, i.e. I overthink everything.

Is Pennenga-designed furniture the focal point of a room?   I want my work to be part of a perfect composition. I want my work to be in a situation where the space is greater than the sum of its parts.

What woods do you prefer working with?    I really like white oak right now. It’s cool and earthy and very hard. Well-built white oak furniture will last a lifetime. I also really like walnut. It finishes so pretty that you really need to try hard to make an ugly walnut piece.  

How would you describe your signature style?   Sculptural, clean, with a bit of Brutalism.  

Tell us about one of your hardest projects. The Floating Leaf Table. I built this table for one of Sawa Design’s clients. It is packed with custom, one-of-a-kind design elements. To start, it needed an asymmetrical shaped top fit in a very specific space. The base had to feel very lightweight while supporting quite a substantial top. There is shop-sawn veneer laid out in a radiating pattern along a curved seam, which was very challenging. Inlaid aluminum stitches, a light grey finish, knife-edge detail, the list goes on! I would lay awake at night agonizing over how I was going to tackle each one. I don’t think I slept all month long. I worked through because that agony is my fuel! I live on the anxiety of pushing myself into designs I haven’t done before. It’s a blessing and a curse.

How do you try to push the bounds of your craft?    I incorporate new design elements into every piece. It is important to me that everything I build be special and new. I get bored very easily. If I’m not stretching my design/build skillset, I lose interest.  

What’s your dream project?   I have two dining table designs that I’ve been working on. I’m dying to build them for someone. And I’d like to build out a functional space that is just this side of an art installation. A space like a hotel lobby, social club or co-work space that is almost 51% form/ 49% function. Real avant-garde stuff but you could actually spend time there. 

What’s the best part about woodworking?   This is the most difficult to answer. All of it. Sharp hand planes. Well-tuned table saw jigs. Tightly fitted dovetails. Specialty tools. Weathered workbenches. Solitude. Collaboration. Improvement. A client’s happy tears. All of it.