What I Do
There is a lot of talk among furniture makers about the creative process. For many, especially those among us who come to furniture making from art school or who at least think of themselves as artists, the creative process begins with self expression. For others like me, however, furniture making, if it is an art at all, is primarily an art of interpretation. Perhaps my most important skill is the ability to listen to my clients' desires for a piece, ideas of what solutions might satisfy these desires and thoughts and feelings about the environments in which they already live. Careful listening leads to a design process and ultimately a composition/building process that, all included, I call the art of interpretation.
But what happened to self expression in all of this? Well, maybe I'm not the best qualified person to say. Certainly, as you browse through my portfolio of work, you may find it hard to identify a "signature style." Each piece has emerged from the singular chemistry that developed between me and a particular client at some moment in his or her life story. That's why, in twenty seven years of making furniture, I've never repeated a piece and I can't imagine ever doing so. Nevertheless, I like to think that certain elements do persist from piece to piece and independently of who commissioned them. These elements, insofar as they "express" something that's personally dear to me, I would call standards of quality. Joinery is chosen and executed to last for generations. Veneers are all sawn to thick dimensions in my shop and never bought commercially. Finishes have been tailored to the situations in which the pieces will likely be used. In the design and execution of each piece, I address the engineering issues of strength, wood movement, reactions of wood color to light over time and various other potential problems as the pieces age.
Another attribute that I bring to this work is my collection of rare and beautiful materials. I admit I have an irrational fascination with wood. I buy it when opportunity arises, often air dry it for several years and then offer it to my clients when a project seems to feel just right for it. These discoveries are true moments of enchantment, but once again, I hesitate to call them my discoveries alone. What makes a particular plank of old growth mahogany "just right" for a certain small cabinet is not just the design of the cabinet itself. It is also the nature of the architecture that will contain the cabinet and the character and sensibilities of the people for whom that home is inexplicably "just the right" place to live. The important point here is that, for me, the "creative process" seems infinitely more complex and more pluralistic than the standard picture of the individual artist imagining an "original" piece of furniture and then building it as an act of self expression. By this word, pluralistic, I'm referring to the collaborative subjectivity that both creates and uses furniture. The person who decided how to divide the giant mahogany log that yielded the plank that I used for my cabinet contributed to the creativity inherent in the cabinet. So did the third-generation Japanese master chisel maker who made the chisels I use almost every day. So did my teacher who taught me how to make the hand planes that I use. And so, of course, did my clients through all of our conversations, not just the ones about the piece itself. This is only a sketch of the complexity of the creative process that brings each new piece forth from my workshop. But the deeper meaning of this complexity is the principle that finally separates the artisan from the artist. The artist, for the most part, stands apart from society, seeing what the ordinary person cannot see, challenging the common view, willing to offend if necessary. The artisan, by contrast, remains embedded in the community, seeking to enrich it with ever finer forms of utility and beauty. The artisan, in a word, seeks to serve. It's my own view that an evolving civilization needs both the artisan and the artist. And, for myself, the long tradition of the skills of furniture making are best suited to my own artisanal nature and the gentle art of interpretation.