Silas’s Bench

January 26, 2010

Slas's Bench

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:

Lorraine's letter

What Do You Do?

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.

A story:

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).

Cocktail Tables

January 4, 2010

Bamboo and Wenge Cocktail Table Set

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I made this pair of tables this past spring for a couple right here in Keene, New Hampshire. Cool people. He runs a non-profit arts organization, and she does media relations. The majority of my clients live at some distance from my studio, mostly in larger metropolitan areas, but it’s nice to know that there are folks who appreciate progressive design just about anywhere.

The design of these tables is fun, modern, and very practical. They were designed as a pair, but can be used separately also. And if guests show up unexpectedly, you can sweep all the magazines and remote-controls (and dirty dishes?) into the cubby holes in the sides of the tables and push the two together… Voilà, clean room. Better living through design!

I am always looking for new projects, so if you like what you see, please contact me. I’d love to talk to you about your ideas. And if you know of anyone else who might be interested in stuff like this, please send him or her over to take a look. Thanks.

Gary Spykman