February 10, 2010
I love this photograph. My friend, Emily Hague, took the picture. That, in the background, is the building that houses my studio/workshop. It’s a big, ugly old structure that was built in the late 1920’s on the foundations of an even older building that had burned down. It’s got 12-inch-thick solid concrete walls, lots of large windows with steel factory sash, and 11-foot-high ceilings. I would never call the place charming, but it’s definitely got “character”.
This is where I work. I’ve been in this space for over ten years now, and this is where most of my best work has been conceived and produced. Including, as it turns out, the table pictured above.
I got a note this past week from a person who had discovered my work online. After looking through all the pictures in my portfolio, he named this piece as one of his two favorites. It caused me to go back and look at it again. It’s not a big table, but it’s got a bold presence. The base is quite sculptural and was inspired in part by a magnificent old stone railroad bridge about a mile from my shop. It’s known simply as The Arch Bridge.
But it was the top that was the impetus for the piece. It is made from an old red oak board provided by the customer who commissioned the table. The board had special meaning to him, it had a story. By incorporating it into this table I wrote a new chapter to the story of that old piece of wood. And, in the process, I started a new story, the story of the Arch Table.
January 26, 2010
I built the bench in this picture last year. Designing and making a new piece is always an emotion-filled process for me, but this bench was a completely different experience. Silas Bennett was a journalism student at Keene State College; he was heading into his final year when he was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Last spring, around the time when Silas would have graduated, the school hosted a ceremony in the Media Arts Center, dedicating this bench in his memory… I was among the people who were asked to say a few words:
The Design Process for Silas’s Bench
The design process for this Memorial Bench for Silas Bennett began with a meeting at my studio with Silas’s mother, Lorraine, his sister, Jesse, and his close friend, Zack. Their request was very simple and straightforward: they wanted me to design and build a bench to be placed in the Media Arts Center at Keene State College as a memorial to Silas. By the time they left we had settled on an overall length of approximately six feet, and the choice of Ash as the material it would be built from, and not much more… beyond that it was up to me. To help me in the process, they left me with an album of photographs and copies of the eulogies that were given at Silas’s memorial service.
I set to work on the design for the bench right away, trying to let the conversations we had had, and the materials they left with me “infuse” the design. This was quite a different process from my usual approach. With most furniture commissions, the process centers on the physical context of the proposed piece, and what I, as the designer, want so say through this piece. In other words, it’s kind of about me. Well, this commission wasn’t about me, it was about Silas.
Designing a piece of furniture to say something about Silas was a unique challenge for me. To start with, I didn’t want to insert any literal images into the piece. I simply wanted to allow the ideas and themes of Silas’s personality and life – those things that I had seen, heard, and read – to work into and through my thoughts. An email I received from Lorraine had referenced some of these words and themes: “regal… humble… magical… solid, yet with lightness… Silas had a big presence, yet an energy that was extremely approachable”. I especially appreciated her insistence in portraying Silas as a real and complex person, and not a cardboard cut-out.
With that background on my design process, I will try to give you a few of my thoughts on specific aspects of the design:
I started with the ends of the bench and quickly decided that they should be rather heavy and solid to anchor the piece, both visually and physically. I ended them at arm height, rather than extend them up to enclose the back, and angled them outward toward the front to make the bench more “approachable” to users. And although they are solid and elemental forms, their upward and outward flare is intended to give the piece a more uplifting feel.
The height, depth, and angles of the seat and back were based on the request that this bench was intended to be used, not just looked at. This should be a comfortable bench.
The most unique element of the design of this piece is the connection between the seat and the back. Both the seat and the back are made up of a series of boards or planks, which taper in width toward their connection point, and actually pass between each other. I pictured them as interlocked fingers. To me they are representative of interconnectedness… of Silas’s life being connected to so many other lives. The supports beneath the seat and behind the back are relieved, or “scalloped”, so that each plank of the seat or back is attached to its own individual point of support, and yet all are joined together, which is a metaphorical reference to the supportive community that Silas was part of.
The final part of the design (and the one part that I had to “sell” people on) is the top profile of the back of the bench. There is a semi-random pattern of differing heights to the fifteen slats which make up the back. This rhythmic stepping across the back came to me in a kind of “waking dream”. Something in my sub-conscious mind came up with this and planted it in my minds eye. I couldn’t shake it, so I decided to run with it. It looks like music to me… rhythm… vibrancy. And also, oddly, like a city skyline.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be involved in this memorial. Even though I didn’t know Silas very well, I feel a sense of connection to him because of this project and process.
After the dedication, Silas’ mother wrote a letter to the local papers, I will leave you with her words:
January 14, 2010
How do you answer when you are asked “So… what do you do?”
The question, of course, assumes a conflation between who we are and what we do. Not an unreasonable assumption for many of us, and it’s a little less awkward for both parties than asking “So… who are you really? Tell me about your interests, your abilities, your values.”
Perhaps the question is also used to help us sort people out: “Do I file you under Banker or Gardener?” And that’s where we start running into problems, because that Banker may feel most alive, most true to herself, when she is working in her garden (although I do find it hard to conceive of a Gardener who dabbles in banking when he comes home… but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part). We are, each of us, too complex to describe ourselves by simply giving our job title.
We have created all these terms. On the one side we have: Job, Career, Vocation, Calling, Profession. On the other side there are: Hobby, Avocation, Pastime, Diversion. For my part, I have used many names to describe what I do over the years, but I’ve rarely been able to give anyone that simple one-word, file-me-under-this title. Part of the problem is that I have never really felt much of a distinction between what I do professionally and what I do for fun… they are intertwined.
As a teenager I was an avid cyclist. All my free time seemed to be spent either riding my bike, reading Bicycling magazine, or working on my bike or my friend’s bikes. When I was sixteen I started working part-time as a bike mechanic at a local bicycle shop. At nineteen a friend and I took an extended bike trip. We headed south from Michigan without any real plans, reaching New Orleans before we ran out of money. Three years later I was working at a bike shop in New Orleans, and spending my free time learning to build bicycle frames. I found that the metal-working skills which I had learned making jewelry at my alternative high school, applied directly to brazing together the joints of a bike frame. I eventually opened my own bicycle shop in Biloxi Mississippi, and one of the services I offered was bicycle frame repair and repainting.
A parallel story:
As a seventeen-year-old in high school, I met a young couple who built mountain dulcimers and sold them at craft fairs. We hit it off, and they agreed to teach me how to build dulcimers, I was even able to get school credit for it. So, for the next several months, I rode my bike to their shop two afternoons a week and gained my first experience at fine woodworking. I fell in love with the process, the workshop, the exotic woods, the tools. I worked for a few years in my late teens and early twenties doing anything-for-a-buck carpentry based on the experience I gained in that shop. And then, a couple of years later, my boss at that bike shop in New Orleans, knowing about my woodworking experience, asked me build a bookcase unit to go by his desk in the back room. And many years later, as professional woodworker, a friend paid me to make a dulcimer for his daughter.
Where in these stories can we draw the line between Vocation and Avocation, between Job and Hobby. It’s all twisted together, and I don’t think I’m unique here. Side projects become part of a career. Skills learned for pleasure influence a job choice. And sometimes, things that that we will never get paid for are the most important part of who we are.
So, what do I do? I’m glad you asked… I’m a Designer/Furnituremaker/Woodworker/Metalworker/Student/Mentor/Artist/Luthier/Bike Mechanic/Baker/Brewer/Sausage-maker/Coffee-roaster (and I know you didn’t ask, but I am also a Husband/Father/Grandfather/Friend).
December 19, 2009
In October of 2005 the small city of Keene, NH, where I live and work, was hit with widespread flooding. It wasn’t throughout the city, but all the lower-lying areas were hit to some extent. My workshop was (and is) in one of the worst-hit areas. I had nearly two feet of water throughout my shop/studio/office.
I received a lot of help in the aftermath of the floods, mostly from friends and family, but also from the Craft Emergency Relief Fund. CERF is a non-profit organization that helps craft artists/artisans in times of trouble. This is taken from their mission statement:
The mission of CERF is to strengthen and sustain the careers of craft artists across the United States… through direct financial and educational assistance to craft artists, including emergency relief assistance, business development support, and resources and referrals on topics such as health, safety, and insurance. CERF also advocates, engages in research, and backs policy that supports craft artists’ careers…
CERF also takes a proactive role in helping craft artists to prepare in advance of possible emergencies. Their newest effort, which took them two years of research and planning to produce, is called “Studio Protector”.
In an effort to help educate people on how to prepare for, and recover from disasters, CERF is producing a series of short videos, including four based on an interview they did with me:
December 16, 2009
(read parts one through three first, or this might not make sense.)
This entry foyer bench is a study in curves. The back supports have straight edges, and the surface of the seat is a horizontal plane, but beyond that it’s pretty much all curves. The back, the seat and the leg structure, all of it. And each element of the design has both an aesthetic and structural purpose.
The seat is a low, broad horizontal plane with an arcing outline that draws your attention to its center. The back, its supports angling outward, its ends shaped similarly, and its exuberant top edge following the idea of an arch… all pull your focus downward and inward. The legs are delicate, but broadly spread out to ensure stability. Their lines draw your eye upward, toward the center of the piece. That visual center, that spot where all the elements combine to focus your attention, is located several inches above the center of the seat. It is a void that seems to need something… someone.
That’s right, this bench, by design, is calling out to be sat upon! That’s part of what I call “Human Centered Design”.
In part three I talked about gathering the materials for the bench. So now, the next step is to actually make it. Rather than write about that, think I’ll show a few pictures of the bench in progress:
December 15, 2009
(read parts one & two first, or this might not make sense.)
So… the couple who commissioned me to build this entry hall bench had approved the design, and the deposit was in my bank account. Now I just had to block out the time to make it, and gather the materials.
The plan called for the entire piece, except for the back, to be made of cherry. I didn’t want anything curly or figured for this, just plain cherry. Too much figure would draw your eye to the wood, instead of to the lines of the piece. I had quite a bit of good cherry “in stock” at my shop, so I was all set there.
As for the back, that is a completely different story, it is meant to stand out, in its shape and as a graphic element. They really go hand-in-hand. You can’t have that exuberant, jagged top edge without also having wild figure and “character” in the wood itself. That live edge on the top of the back was going to be one of the defining elements of this bench, so finding the right piece of wood for the back was going to be the first challenge.
If you are not familiar with a “live edge” board, it’s one which still has the irregular natural edge, just as it was cut from the log. That is not the usual way that wood is cut. Almost all lumber gets those edges trimmed off at the sawmill to make straight, easily stacked boards. Only logs with something special get set aside for the more labor-intensive processing needed for pristine live-edge boards, and they must be handled carefully so as not to damage their outer surface. Typically these logs are sawn “through and through”, that is sliced in parallel slabs right through the log. The boards are then stacked back together, with spacers called “stickers”, to dry. The Europeans call this re-assembled log a “boule”.
There are are a lot of places I can buy good wood, but there are only two suppliers of live-edge specialty lumber near me. Tradewinds is about forty-five minutes away, and is my first choice. Berkshire Products is about three hours away. Only if I can’t get what I need at Tradewinds do I commit to the nearly full-day buying trip needed to go there.
I needed a single board for the back of this bench, 11 inches wide and 5 feet long. I drove to Tradewinds and told Dave, the owner, what I was looking for. I described the size, thickness, shape, color, and working characteristics that I needed. After a couple of false starts we ended up in one of his lumber sheds climbing fifteen foot tall stacks of irregular and oddly-shaped wood. Getting the best footing we could, we started shuffling through layers of boards. It took several climbs up and down before we found the right thing. European beech from Bulgaria. A whole “boule” of wild, gnarly, burly, amazing wood which Dave had imported several years ago.
The board I picked out, the one that had a section with all the right characteristics, was 21 inches wide and 10 feet long. I had to buy four times as much wood as I wanted to in order to get the piece that I needed. That one board cost $262.50.
To be continued