Studio Furniture in the Big Tent

Asa Christiana is on the defensive.

Editor of Fine Woodworking, Christiana posted this piece in the FWW editorial blog in response to a recent interview with Tom Loeser in American Craft.

Loeser is the head of the Woodworking department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His series, Flotilla, was featured recently in Woodwork.

While Christiana quotes only a snippet (in bold, below), I think we get a better understanding of Loeser’s argument by understanding the context in which the offending statement was leveled:

Loeser has been taking full advantage of this creative license. As an academic, he recognizes himself as a subversive in the field. “I think the woodworking world is too small, too limited and too defined by Fine Woodworking magazine. There is a slightly anti-intellectual slant to it. I am more interested in the ideas behind it and opening things up. I am interested in where we overlap with design and where we overlap with art.” Loeser has always worked from historical objects and sources, but he plays with ideas of function by deposing the users’ operational expectations. These days he welcomes escapes from his studio furniture oeuvre to explore other systems of generating form.

What is troublesome is that Christiana’s rebuttal sets Loeser up as a straw man, showing pictures of his most challenging work with no context, making him out to be some ridiculous figure, rather than a daring and courageous individual.  As with all straw man attacks, Christiana sidesteps the earnest (and earned) criticism Loeser offers to FWW, that it is parochial (my word choice) and anti-intellectual, serving a focus-group audience.

Not surprisingly, Christiana’s followers, who like FWW just as it is, rally round the flag and take pot-shots at Loeser’s more challenging work.

This parochial and anti-intellectual stance within woodworking has made American furniture stagnant.  We get really good at mimicking Stickley or the Shakers, and maybe we stretch a little to make these styles serve our 60″ widescreen displays.

Not enough of us are concerned about the direction of American furniture.

Studio furniture makers play an important role within the larger ecosystem that includes the magazines, the designer-craftsmen, tool-makers, amateur woodworkers, reproduction craftsmen, educators, and much more.  Loeser and other studio makers challenge us to see beyond period styles, to remove our self-imposed constraints, to shake up our notions of how furniture should look and what it means.  They challenge us to grow.

Notice, too, that I consider it an ecosystem, not an economy.  This is an important distinction.  If we reduce our craft to an economy, then we are merely consumers whose only role is to buy new machines with granite tops.  By seeing woodworking as a larger, more varied endeavor, with broader (and maybe even loftier) goals, we can stimulate a creative renaissance.

It is Christiana’s loss, and ultimately a loss to FWW’s readers, if he fails to make room in the tent for studio furniture.

As an intellectual and a maker, I would hope Christiana might see an opportunity to bring Fine Woodworking out of stagnation.  He has given us a taste of the intersection between design and woodworking with some great contributions by Michael Fortune.  If only it were enough.  Clearly we miss entirely the intersection between woodworking and art, the intersection at which Woodwork, by comparison, has done its best work.

While I hold out hope for a bigger tent for woodworking, it feels as if Christiana has come down on the side of the focus groups and the advertisers.  I expect more tool reviews and a continuing disregard for daring, challenging, and thought-provoking work.

Meanwhile, I’ll cross my fingers that Tom Caspar won’t turn Woodwork into another American Woodworker.  Maybe I should be reading American Craft…

A Furniture Aesthetic

As a woodworker, I love to work with wood in its natural state, to celebrate it as a source of inspiration.  Reverence for wood as a material is the basis for my aesthetic vision.  Each species has its own characteristic traits.  Each board offers its own unique message, telling and retelling the story of the life of the tree. 

Wood shares this beauty in a way that is intimate and immediate.  I make friends with this wood, and make sure it will be friendly to the hand.  When I discover a beautiful grain pattern, create a soft curve, or coax a unique sheen, I am excited to share this beauty with others.

This feeling of intimacy with wood directs me toward simple finishes, like linseed oil, tung oil, shellac, or paste wax: finishes that enhance rather than obscure the character of the wood.  Stains and dyes should be used in a subtle way, so as not to obscure that natural character.  Rather than attempt to imitate the finishes of the past, I prefer to use construction and finishing techniques that highlight and celebrate the unique and individual character of the woods I use.

This aesthetic demands an attention to the wood itself.  Every piece of wood I choose must work as a part of the whole, must contribute to the overall tension or harmony of the piece.  If the wood has a knot, it should either be featured prominently or concealed in such a way that it won’t distract from the overall effect.  If boards are edge-joined, they should have compatible grain characteristics to prevent those joints from distracting the viewer.  Methods such as bookmatching can create such harmonious effects.

Imitation in form and construction has provided me the opportunity to practice technique and develop a pleasing vocabulary, but strict imitation of old forms says little if anything new on my own behalf.  I want to use the old forms at most as a starting point from which to diverge and reinterpret.  Rather than faithfully reproduce a classic piece, I would prefer to take cues from those forms, but make them relevant to  life in the 21st century.