Workshop Update: April 2021

First, the big news: I will be at Popup Raleigh on Sunday, May 16, selling an array of stools, spoons and spoonlike objects, and a few other small goodies. All my available time this month has gone into preparations: not only making things, but putting together a booth and figuring out the business end of things. To wit: I now own a Square reader. I also own 18 yards of chambray fabric that need to be sewn into table covers. The items on my to-do list keep bifurcating, but as long as they don’t reach period three, I think I’ll be okay.

I have signage, in case I forget who I am:

Among other smallwares, I’ll have carved ash chopsticks with jauntily painted ends. The ash is scrap from chairs and stools

I’ve made a taller version of the carved-edge milking stool that I was going to call a “work stool” but now think it may be too pretty for work. However, it is an excellent height for playing guitar. Should you ever find yourself as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, this is the stool you’d want to sit on while serenading Rosina beneath her window in the opening scene. I may call it my troubadour stool. (Should you find yourself as any character in Il Trovatore, however, you’re on your own.) The tapered octagonal legs have a secondary taper towards the foot, the seat is (as before) carved with a drawknife, and the stretchers are octagonal as well; it is 25 inches tall, and the stretchers are 17 and 19 inches below the seat, right where you want to rest your feet while you’re strumming. The finish is pitch black over salem red Old Fashioned Milk Paint, sealed with Tried & True original oil and wax finish.

I’ll have more to say about that stool, and stools more generally, when I get some time at my desk.

Meanwhile, it is spring, and the garden calls. I have limited space, and my preference is for intensive but relatively low-labor arrangements. For example, the herb garden mostly manages itself (here chives, which are perennial, and chervil, which reseeds itself); and I plant the mustard greens thick enough to choke out weeds, cut frequently, and let them keep growing back. This weekend I’ll carve out space in the mustard patch for a few cucumber plants; by the time the cucumbers need the space, the mustard will have bolted and I’ll pull it out.

Happy spring!

Workshop Update: March 2021

With intermittent shop time and a lull between bigger projects, I have been finessing some designs for stools. I have had a thing for stools for a long time; it’s a simple form open to endless variations in which small details have a big impact. A stool is also something I can make relatively quickly and sell for relatively little money (relative to, say, a chest of drawers), so I want to have some designs in the bag.

First was a short, four-legged stool small enough for a toddler to sit on, sturdy enough for an adult to stand on, and pretty enough to set out by the hearth. Because I used the prototype for putting on my socks, I called it my “shoes-and-socks stool.”

The underside of the seat has an arching bevel carved with a drawknife. This version uses some lovely walnut I picked up last spring with white oak legs and a natural oil finish.

Next was a carved-three-legged milking stool with a carved-edge seat. Instead of trying to cut and polish a perfect circle, I draw a perfect circle, saw close to the line, and carve the rest with a drawknife. The jauntily uneven, playfully faceted surface is accentuated by a two-layered milk paint finish, in this case black over red. I call this — wait for it — my carved-edge milking stool.

I also made a four-legged version with stretchers, because I hadn’t made anything with stretchers recently and wanted a bit of practice. While a stool this height does not need stretchers, I’m considering this a prototype for a taller stool suitable for painting or playing guitar.

Meanwhile, in odd hours, I also finished a batch of spreaders and a batch of stir-fry spoons (or, if you are from Louisiana, roux spoons), both in various woods.

All of this is for sale, hopefully at a craft market this spring or summer.

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.

As a first-order approximation, it’s true; I don’t like mid-century modern. If you line up a hundred random pieces of furniture built between 1950 and 1970, inherited from your grandparents or purchased at “vintage” or “antique” shops, chances are I’ll dislike ninety-five of them. It’s dull and boxy with occasional forays into weirdness. Much of it looks like it was designed by committee. In particular, I cannot abide unornamented rectangles with upside-down cones for legs. When I see them I think “firewood.”

But.

Just that month, in trying to design a coffee table and an ottoman, I’d looked hard at several examples by pioneering Danish designers working circa 1960. They weren’t exactly what I wanted; I had no interest in copying them—but I appreciated their efforts to make furniture with a spare kind of elegance not out of place in, but also not capitulating to, an industrial age. Not to mention there’s Sam Maloof, whose work I generally like a great deal, and respect even on those occasions when it doesn’t speak to me.

I also had, in a rotating stack of junk mail I keep for irritainment, a catalog of “Shaker” furniture that might have been constructed from 4×4s and planks, slathered in something intended to look like milk paint. It was boxy, boring, and just plain ugly. (Also, a nightstand with a drawer cost a thousand bucks, so it was expensive ugly.) The best actually Shaker-made furniture is a testament to the beauty of minimalism (what I said above about the aspirations of Danish modern could perhaps apply to 19th-century Shakers as well), and Christian Becksvoort has done beautiful work extending that style. But based on most of what’s marketed as “Shaker,” I don’t like Shaker style either.

In fact, based on most of what’s marketed as any style, I don’t like it. Arts and Crafts is boxy, heavy, dark, and depressing. The Jacobean style it half-imitated was all that, partially hidden by as much turning and carving as the buyer could afford. Chippendale makes me think of women with birdcages in their coiffures. Hepplewhite is going to fall over any minute now, I’m sure of it. Empire, bless it’s heart, wants to be everything at once. And so on. The older the style, the more bad examples have long since been turned into firewood. But there are always reproductions.

Do I really mean that? Yes, and no. Within each style—at its root—are examples that are thoughtfully, well, and beautifully made. The idea behind each style, considered in its historical and cultural context, is valid and interesting. It’s the knockoffs and elaborations that suck. The cheap imitations by people who meant well but didn’t grasp that core idea. The versions designed not for personal use but for mass production. The orgies of ornamentation, the bad reproductions, the pieces made for people with more money than taste.

Unornamented does not have to mean uninteresting; interesting does not have to mean off-putting. In any era, in any style, good craftsmen have been at work. Some eras take more digging than others, but they’re there, finding new ways to solve old problems and solving the new ones that every generation invents. At the heart of things there’s always good design, good work, and good furniture.

Once it becomes a style? You can keep it.