This page was written in July of 2001. It is not current, but it may have some interest.
The Art of Making Furniture by Hand
The title of this page pleases me as a heading. It is lyrical and expressive. But the meanings of "art" and "handmade" are slippery and wide, and do give me pause. Here I hope to explain what the "Art of Making" means to me and what "Furniture by Hand" means to our time.
In the past 30 years, very fine furniture "made by hand" has become increasingly visible in galleries, shows, and print. Because this furniture varies widely in style, design, and use of materials, it is difficult to identify by name and to classify. In various contexts, "handmade" is often used. By emphasizing the importance of the craftsman, "handmade," or "handcrafted," does serve to distinguish this furniture from furniture manufactured in factories for mass distribution. Yet "handmade" is not technically correct. Much of the hard physical labor of working wood has been reduced in this privileged world by electric machine tools and most makers use them. But "handmade" does resonate with most everyone and is useful in bringing this furniture to mind and to market. I use "handmade" in ads and print to describe the furniture that we build because of the connotation of the term: produced by craftsmen in a small shop.
Many of us in this field have wished for a more rigorous definition and description of our work. And, among the trade, the term "studio furniture" seems to be coming to the fore and gaining acceptance. We are members of the Furniture Society (www.furnituresociety.org). The mission of this organization is "to advance the art of furniture making, by inspiring creativity, promoting excellence, and fostering understanding of this art and its place in society." In a book published by the Furniture Society, Furniture Studio, an article by Edward Cooke, Jr. titled "Defining the Field" describes studio furniture. With respects, I paraphrase:
Studio furniture is defined by the scale of its production, the background of its makers (and their personal, original approach to design, materials, and technique), the workmanship invested in the furniture, and by the way it is sold. This furniture is made in small batches, or one piece at a time, in a studio or shop by skilled artist/craftsmen. These artist/craftsmen may be graduates of degree programs, more often are self-taught, but always continue to learn and explore. They have an abiding reverence for their material, a thorough technical knowledge of wood and woodworking, and a formal or informal art education. They pursue their own design, style, motifs, and methods. Studio furniture is not distributed through ordinary retail outlets. Pieces are sold through art and craft galleries or shows, commissioned by patrons, or purchased from the maker. With a miniscule marketing budget, relying largely on word-of-mouth, most studio furniture makers serve a local or regional clientele.
I like this clarification of our field. How do we fit it?
Our shop is 2596 square feet Our finishing porch and drying room have an additional 560 square feet. We have the general purpose, medium duty machines and the hand tools common to any small woodshop. In addition, I have designed and built a few special purpose machines. The workbench is prominent. We cut out and work on six or eight rocking chairs, a set of dining chairs, or a table or two at a time. When we get to the assembly, we assemble two items per day and they progress through the finishing area at that pace.
I taught myself woodworking by reading and experimenting. I have some formal training in drawing and art, but have broadened my knowledge by study and practice. We build my designs, influenced by my study, associates, and patrons, but distinctively my own. I have not copied, nor will I ever copy, the work of anyone else. Everyone who works here has interest, education, and experience in art and craft and has some experience in other creative fields.
Each of us moves through the shop, working on parts at all the machines and at the handwork benches. Along the way choices are made. The criteria for these choices include dimensional accuracy and visual and tactile refinement. Risk abounds. Skill, commitment, and knowledge are everywhere required. Excellence is the only acceptable outcome.
All of our furniture is sold to the people who use it. Our website, catalog, magazine ads, and publicity and word-of-mouth bring us to the people. By the appeal and pricing of the rocking chairs and dining chairs, we have been able to work for patrons in all 50 states, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
But is this art?
I submit the fit, fabrication, and finish of our furniture to judgement by the principles of craft. Our workmanship is careful, precise, and appropriate. The joints are fitting for the application and fit for scrutiny. The lines, forms, and edges are true to concept and exact. The surface is impeccable. The furniture will last.
Our furniture carries the burden of function to judgement as art, but, if that is not a disqualifier, it expresses these artistic values. It is original in design and sculptural in form. The play of light and shadow over the furniture, the chairs particularly, elates. The figure, color, and character of wood as a medium are handled with grace and integrity. The experience of sitting or touching delights the body and hand as the form, figure, color, and character delight the eye. Beyond the product, I submit the process. We can be lost in the work, investing creativity, ingenuity, and imagination to find inspiration and spirit.