It all started with seven shapes, seven curving, organic shapes. For her senior fine art drawing thesis at Mississippi State University, artist Sarah Qarqish combined those shapes to create a 27-foot by 6-foot laser-cut Stencil Wall, with a marbleized design projected behind it. Just after graduation, Qarqish took a small test panel from the wall and a CD of images and brought it to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.
“I laid it on the curator’s desk and prayed they’d call me,” she recalls. “And they did.”
By the time she got the call offering her an exhibit at the museum, Qarqish and her now-husband Morgan Welch knew they wanted to form their own studio to create furniture, sculpture and other fine art and custom work. After checking with Welch, she sought and received the go-ahead from the museum to feature their collaborative work during the show, and soon after they launched The HannaBerry Workshop (the name “HannaBerry” combines their middle names, which are also their mothers’ maiden names).
Over the next year leading up to the exhibit’s opening in December 2014, Qarqish and Welch set out to create an array of additional pieces to complement the original Stencil Wall. Drawing on those seven base shapes and the marbleized patterns, Qarqish and Welch made furniture, including seven interconnecting tables, as well as prints, intricate wood sculptures and lighted pieces. Throughout were the curves and lines that have since become their signature style – so much so that Qarqish says, “It has literally haunted us ever since. Everything we do, people are like, you guys are the organic curvy people, the funky people, and we’re like, yeah! We love it.”
Qarqish, 27, and Welch, 28, met while both were students at Mississippi State, where she studied fine art drawing and graphic design, and he focused on sculpture with a minor in architectural studies. They talked even then about going out on their own, together.
“We have these skill sets that are different from each other,” Welch says, adding, “We were both being exposed to completely different ways of thinking about problems, ways of making things.”
“We were taught to design in different ways,” Qarqish adds. “I mean, there’s basics that everyone goes through, but part of his [training] was engineering through the architecture and part of mine was business with graphic design. So, we just think differently.”
It’s part of what makes their work “not just a furniture piece, and not just an art piece,” she adds. “It’s got both of those things in it. And I think that’s important and different – it makes our style unique.”
The HannaBerry Workshop started in Jackson but moved to the coast two years ago. They’re now based in a live-work studio in Ocean Springs imbued with their style and work – hand-built cabinets, bookshelves decorated with their signature organic curves. There’s a small studio area where Qarqish paints and draws, and a large woodshop with woodworking equipment, but the line between their different mediums blurs more and more the longer they work together. Though Welch still mostly does the woodwork and furniture building, and Qarqish the design and painting, there is overlap: “He knows how to draw and design,” Qarqish says, “and I do know how to woodwork – I do a lot of our finishing. It’s just a cycle, it’s not one way or the other.”
Welch and Qarqish describe their design process as an evolving collaboration with each other – playing off of each other’s strengths and skills, knowledge and training – with the environment around them and with the needs and desires of their clients.
On a recent summer day, two seafoam blue tables, curved like water drops, stand in their living room area, ready to be delivered to the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. They gleam with a marine epoxy paint – a new design feature that stems from their recent interest in boating. But the paint was also chosen to make the finish durable, since the tables will be used for block printing by children. Qarqish and Welch also chose strong but affordable materials to stay within the museum’s budget. Still, the tables retain the warm, organic feel that makes them instantly recognizable as HannaBerry pieces.
“We’re always trying to work within our means or within our client’s means, but we’re also always experimenting and pushing the idea or concept to something different and useful,” Qarqish says.
We don’t like our furniture to sit in the background and just be an object. We want people to be like, that piece really ignited that space, or oh, that Murphy bed folds up and it’s an entire inlaid wall panel – because we did that, we made that for a client one time. And when people realize we’re testing the boundaries, they’ll come to us with an idea.
They love the idea of their artwork being functional, she adds: “We don’t like our furniture to sit in the background and just be an object. We want people to be like, that piece really ignited that space, or oh, that Murphy bed folds up and it’s an entire inlaid wall panel – because we did that, we made that for a client one time. And when people realize we’re testing the boundaries, they’ll come to us with an idea.”
Often the seven base shapes from the original stencil wall will become part of the work. Their move to the coast has only “amplified” their style, Qarqish says – those curvy shapes, always imbued with the organic feel of the natural, are now also reminiscent of shells, waves, oysters. In the context of a large conference table at the University of Southern Mississippi’s new Marine Education Center, for example, seven species of Mississippi wood twisting and curling along a center panel become running water and splashing waves.
Though much of their current work is custom-made by commission, Qarqish and Welch are now in the process of designing a HannahBerry furniture line they hope to unveil in 2019. They plan to offer pieces at several price points, helping to expand their audience.
Qarqish says throughout the design process they’re always thinking about where and how their work will be used.
“We’re making organic pieces, so that can be very awkward in a space,” she says, “So I think we always try and work towards a lighter piece of furniture that’s not so awkward to move around or grab a hold of. We’re always trying to make sure that our finishes and also the shapes and the edges feel good. We try to think about who’s going to interact with them – is this going to hurt a baby if they run into it? Is someone going to think this is a seat rather than a table?”
Which has happened a lot with their work, she says, laughing (not a surprise, really, given the inviting curves in many of their pieces).
“We’re always trying to make sure it just feels good,” she continues, “it’s going to work in a space. We’re always wanting it to be complementary to itself, its surroundings, its space, and absolutely quality and longevity, long-lasting.”
Qarqish and Welch have also seen their work evolve as their interests and experiences change. Their recent interest in boating, for example, has affected how they build: they’re building the furniture like you’d build a boat, they say, with a skeleton and skin. Qarqish acquired an airbrush machine several years ago that she uses in her painting, and now airbrushing can be seen in their larger commissioned work as well.
“A lot of our process will stem from something that happens here in the art studio first, and then it will kind of find its way into a functional piece,” Welch says.
“When clients see what they’re making in the studio, it ignites their creativity too,” Qarqish says. Much of their custom work is for individuals who are investing in their homes, looking for something unique, most likely a piece that’s built in to the space or the architecture of their home. Qarqish and Welch like to show clients what they’re testing out in the studio and present the idea of using it in the client’s custom piece.
“And they normally trust us,” Qarqish says. “That’s the best part. There’s this freedom to our studio, in what we do. People come to us —they want a table, maybe they know the shape of the table. But they don’t know exactly what it’s going to be in the end. There’s this element of surprise—that’s the part that I feel is the art side of the furniture. It functions exactly like the table they wanted, but then there’s this something they could not ever buy at a store, because it comes straight from us.”