woodworking, design and me.
There’s something about wood that, for as long as I can remember, has always been compelling. Part of it is sensual: the smell of freshly milled lumber, the feel of a hand-planed surface, the look of an exquisitely figured plank, its grain seeming to undulate as you walk around it. My affair has been nearly a lifelong pursuit, having a humble beginning in rough and then fine carpentry – mainly building houses.
Having reached a fairly quick proficiency in that first stage, though, I longed for more. The goal of becoming an accomplished ‘mechanic’ as talented makers in the trades were called, seemed one-dimensional, like something was missing. I had worked with architects whose focus was primarily upon vision, concept – the design of any structure was paramount even though very few had any experience with the actual making. What if I could do both, design and build? There’s a worthy challenge! I saw a need within the field, but more importantly, I felt a drive deep down revving up and about to engage. With a young family in my late 20s, someone else might have taken a more cautious approach, thinking through the pros and cons, especially in terms of financial well-being and risk. Not me; I was all in – I would make it work, no matter what. If ever I had had a sense of destiny, it was then.
I’d heard about a program at Rhode Island School of Design concentrating on design and building, but on a much smaller scale than what I was used to: furniture-making. The head of the program was Danish, emigrating to this country in the ’50s. Tage Frid – a present day incarnation of the Nordic warrior myths. He never had lost his accent nor Viking roots, or more appropriately, horns. His relatively small stature notwithstanding, he had a towering level of self-confidence, a storehouse of experience, a quick wit and incisive intuition about creating quality fast with a no-muss, no-fuss approach. I was awestruck even at my interview and felt graced that he decided to give me a chance even without a portfolio of furniture pieces.
His sayings were like ever-present and sturdy pegs to hang my learning curve on: predictable, always there and you could test your latest brainstorm or chimera upon them. ‘Go, Go, Go’….’Baby, it’s cold outside’….’Wood moves’….’Man (pronounced Mon), you better get your ass in gear’…are a few that still echo in my head when I’m in the shop. And then there’s this classic that became a mainstay: “But take a piece of wood, plane, sand and oil it, and you will find it is a beautiful thing. The more you do to it from then on, the more chance that you will make it worse”.Tage Frid(1915-2004)
He’s no longer around and I find myself at about the same age he was when he was my mentor. I realize now that the seeds he planted have borne fruit in my own work and practices. Here are a few examples to begin with and my site is loaded with more experiences:
A museum curator once held forth to a group of us that one of the signs of well-made furniture is its ‘transitions’. While that thought has stuck with me for nearly 4 decades, in my early years I often pondered where one went to find these magical transitions. I learned over time that not only are there no boxes of transitions somewhere, it’s up to the designer/maker to create an easy path for the eye to follow, traversing vertical and horizontal lines facilitated by the detailing and how the parts are positioned relative to each other.
Everyone has heard the old saw, the devil is in the details, or, depending on your point of view, God is. The point is that the details – the shaping of edges, the joinery, choice of wood, finish, proportions, hardware – all work together to describe a piece of furniture, telling a barely hidden tale of how it was made.
No matter what the wood, whether it’s reclaimed factory timbers or rare slabs of curly maple, well-designed, well-built furniture creates a feeling. Forget function, as a well-made piece will have myriad uses; the key is that it will invite use. In my view, that’s one of the measures of its success as well as the joy of creating.
Design is intention. It is the fleshing out of a concept into a workable plan. Well-made furniture is execution of the plan while staying true to the intention. The mark of that happy conclusion: no sign of a struggle. That is, all parts fit together like a family, each having its place and supporting role – in harmony, balanced and not fighting each other.
With almost every project I’ve done, there’s a balancing act that needed to happen between all the elements of the design, whether wood or other materials besides wood. Even the seemingly ‘easy’ fundamentals like proportion, size relative to the space where it’s going, wood grain and furniture construction principles must always be kept front and center for a successful design. When something looks like it was easy, it’s a sure indication that it wasn’t.