Crafting a Life - Episode 11

Wednesday, March 25 2015

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We currently have a Danish wood worker, Rasmus Trustrup, working with us on exchange for a three month period. Rasmus is studying at the Danish School of Fine Arts and his trip is supported by the Danish Government as part of his training towards becoming a designer/craftsman.  The other day at smoko, Rasmus was looking over my library of woodworking books and he noted that they were a very different collection of books to the texts that he was familiar with in Denmark. He asked me who had been my major influences over the years.

Rasmus was interested to know how and why I have come to develop my workshop the way I have.  He wanted to know where the shapes and ideas came from. He wanted to know why I had chosen the suite of equipment that we use. Naturally, this is a big set of questions, and it is hard to know where to begin. I guess I should start by saying that my primary influences were direct experiences first and books second.  I was working as a woodworker before I really started to read about it. And of course, for the first few years I was an employee, but an employer.

They have a theory in the Navy that your first operational captain will have more of an influence on your career and approach than any other single factor.  From my experience, I think this can be true of woodwork as well.

I was originally trained by David MacLaren of the Bungendore Wood Works Gallery. David is an American by birth and an Australian by choice. His big influences were mostly American; George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter, James Krenov  and the various American greats of the 60s, 70s and 80s. His style had an American accent to it, both aesthetically and in the way he worked wood.

David was a very generous master. He had a strong work ethic, but certainly not a brutal one. He and I were genuinely comfortable with each other on a personal level and we enjoyed working together. He would always explain what we were to do next and why we were to do it.  His explanations were rarely superficial and he never assumed pre-knowledge. David was only rarely able to spend all day in the workshop, so a typical scenario was that we would start work together at about 8am and he would leave for the gallery at around 10:30am, having set me a day’s tasks. He would return around 4:30pm to see how I had gotten on.  I was always under a time pressure, but it didn’t feel that way. It was not so must a case of, “you only have this much time in which to finish”, it was more a case of “this process should only take X amount of time”.  We never kept formal time sheets, but David would always set time goals. In the early days, I was the only workshop employee.

Whenever David was available, he would work with me and pace-set; I was expected to try to keep up. Every process and technique was constantly questioned and explored; is this really the best way to achieve the result? Could a jig make it quicker or more accurate? Would a different tool work better? Nothing was sacred and no process was set in stone, only the target quality was unquestioned. David taught me the importance of reaching a decision at every turning point, and getting on with the job. For better or for worse, this approach has always coloured the way I make and the way I plan ahead.

David always believed that the feel or energy of the finished piece was the most important single element of a completed project. This encapsulated a holistic approach to design, craftsmanship and the approach to market.  David instilled in me that a customer’s first reaction to a piece had to be positive, otherwise they would never buy it. In other words, I was trained to see the work through the eyes of the potential client. I was listening to an interview with the author Elizabeth Gilbert the other day and she said that she always writes a novel with a particular friend in mind. That way she knows just how much pre-knowledge to assume and how to pitch the level of the book. I realized while listening that I do the same thing. I always have a particular, well know, past client in mind, even when I am making something for a new client who I have only just met.  There is always the danger in a small, intense, yet competitive craft like this, that we start making with other makers in mind. I believe that this can lead to a weird spiral where makers are trying to impress each other and make increasingly complex, expensive and self-indulgent work that leaves the public behind.  

In Australia, Neil Erasmus, David Upfil Brown, Will Matthysen, Rodney Hayward, to name a few, are at the top of their game, and are master craftsmen. They all have stronger technique than me. I have sometimes been called a master craftsman, usually when being introduced before a speaking engagement, but I am uncomfortable with this title because it is not strictly true. If I am a master at anything, it is at designing for craft manufacture, because that’s what I value the most.

Not surprisingly, my biggest influences have been people and companies with whom I relate. “Well, of course!” you might say. The late Alan Peters from England is probably my biggest single external influence, because he, like me, saw his career holistically.  I enjoy his designs, but more than that, I appreciate his thoroughly common-sense approach to the business of craft manufacture. On page 32 of his book “Cabinet Making, the Professional Approach”, I read the following paragraph and it changed my life;

“…I had one burning ambition, which was simply to get the business off the ground: to achieve what Gimson and the Barnsleys and many others had not been able to do at that time, which was to run a creative workshop working to my own designs and to my quality, without resorting to teaching or any other source of income.”  

It might be hard to believe, but up to that point, I had never heard another woodworker talk or write like that, not even David. Most of the serious furniture craftsmen I knew seemed determined to ignore the business realities of their work.  David ran a profitable gallery selling other people’s woodwork, but I think it is fair to say that he ran an unprofitable workshop (clarification: The workshop was not run as a separate entity to the gallery and was never intended to be commercially viable in its own right. The workshop supported many activities of the gallery but did not have the staff, nor did David have the time, to be independant) . David, like many woodworkers of his generation and influences, saw woodwork as a calling, and he would sometimes make workshop decisions based on his personal enjoyment as a craftsman, rather than from the value-for-money perspective of the client. I appreciate that at face value this seems to contradict his emphasis on pleasing the client, and indeed it caused me much confusion at the time.

 At that time, James Krenov’s  books and teachings were highly regarded and had influenced an extraordinary number of the woodworking community. Krenov’s romantic attitude towards the craft was very much the fashion. When I read Krenov, I was appalled. To me he was saying “hide in your basement, be self-indulgent in your making and don’t expect to be able to make a living from it, because ordinary people won’t appreciate it.”
At that time, the late George Ingham was the head of the Wood Workshop at the Canberra School of Art and he had a similar message. Ingham was an extraordinary craftsman and designer, yet every year he gave a speech to his new students that they should leave now if they thought that they would ever make money from making fine furniture. In essence, Ingham was saying that in order to make work that was saleable, the work had to be unacceptably compromised. To read from Alan Peters, an unquestionable great within the woodworking community,  that you could and should be able to run a creative workshop that was also commercially viable was incredibly powerful.
Peters had a love of English timbers as well as a comprehensive knowledge of their characteristics.  His designs focused on an honest use of wood and sound craftsmanship.  As well as his commissioned pieces, Peters had some reasonably complex pieces designed for batch production , some simpler bread and butter designs, as well as some basic designs aimed at training his less experienced staff.  Peters also had an approach to craftsmanship that resonated with me. He wrote;

“…I have become concerned by the growing tendency to ‘preciousness’ in much of our top craft furniture in Britain. Just as a painting can be ruined by being overworked, so too can a piece of furniture. It is as though we are in danger of becoming precision engineers in wood, rather than creative exponents of a live tactile material”.

If you look at Chinese antiques, you will see work that is exquisitely well crafted. The joinery is complex and fits snuggly straight off the tools. The proportions are sweet, much sweeter to my eye than the vast majority of Western antiques of the same vintage (pick a period, it really doesn’t matter). The selection for grain, the harmony of the colours, the attention to function, everything about traditional Chinese furniture is compelling. The one thing that it is not, is precise in the modern sense. My favourite George Ingham piece is his “Ming” Inspired chair N02. The startling contrast between Ingham’s beautiful interpretation and a Ming original, is the clinical precision of the former, and the more relaxed accuracy of the latter.

My clear goal has always been to design furniture that is a celebration of Australian timbers and that fts with the Australian lifestyle.  I sometimes feel that, because our craft’s heroes are largely northern hemisphere, there is a cultural bias to working wood in a classical way. This excludes, or at least limits, many of our native timbers.  One is simply not going to work a piece of river red gum the same way that you can work a nice piece of steamed pear.
Several of my Australia role models such as Tony Kenway, Leon Sadubin, Matthew Harding and Greg Peters were Churchill Fellows. Alan Peters was also a Churchill Fellow.  So, in the year 2000 I applied and was successful and thus because a 2001 Churchill Fellow.

The Churchill Fellowship opened doors and took me places that I could never have achieved otherwise. There is no question that this trip was a pivotal one for me as a craftsman. I spent four weeks in England followed by six weeks in the USA. I focused on small workshops and talked to as many designer/makers as I could meet.  The differences between the UK and the American makers were significant.

The vast majority of the workshops that I visited in England were converted cattle sheds, with low ceilings, poor light and elderly (often wildly inaccurate) machinery. Naturally there were many fine exceptions to this sweeping generalization, but at times it felt like I was on a tour of British barns; I was truly shocked at how difficult many of the working conditions were. Of course, since then I have visited many more Australian workshops and, while not exactly cow sheds, there is some very good work coming out of some very rough sheds. The hand skills that I saw were often exceptional, but it was rare indeed to find machinery that could be described as modern.  I found the pace of work to be generally very slow and (in my opinion) un-necessarily inefficient. The most common complaint I heard from the makers (especially those who were employees) was dissatisfaction with the low wages. Woodworkers in Australia find it difficult to make ends meet, but at that time it was virtually impossible for an employee to live a “normal” life on the English wages (again, this is a generalization and there were some notable exceptions).  Most employees (all of whom were very highly skilled) could have earned more money working the same hours at the local supermarket.

The size and density of the English population, coupled with the short distances (by Australian standards) gave the impression that there were fine furniture makers on every street corner. In Australia, you are lucky indeed if there are two serious makers within a one hour drive of your house. In England there was a shared sense of tradition, re-enforced by The Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers. This body bestows Guildmarks, a sort of “certificate of excellence”, on specific pieces of furniture. A maker submits a piece to be judged and if it is found to meet certain high standards, it is awarded a Guildmark. Guildmarks are highly prized and not easily won, so the achievement has great significance with a real-world effect, a little bit like an academy award.  I think that this is a model that serves the maker and the client very well; it is an independent confirmation of excellence and adds to the “story” of a piece.

There is a tendency in Australia and the USA to assume that all makers can also be designers (and by definition, business people); the ideal is to design and make every element of a piece of furniture personally. The USA is far more concerned with the notion of the maker as artist. In the UK there is a far greater acceptance that some people are excellent designers, some are excellent makers and a very small number of people can actually design and make with comparable skill, as well as run a viable business model. It is quite acceptable and respectable in the UK to work for an established designer as a craftsperson.  This follows in the tradition of Edward Barnsley, the aforementioned Alan Peters and John Makepeace, all of whom employed small teams of highly skilled and equally respected craftsman.
In the US (and, I would argue, Australia), there was a much greater emphasis on, or bias towards, working alone.  I suspect that this is in no small part a legacy of the disproportionate impact of the teachings of James Krenov in the USA. The reality is that the significant commercially viable US makers all have or had staff. Brian Boggs, Hank Gilpin, Wendle Castle and Sam Maloof (to name just a few) all had or have talented staff who knew what they were doing. The English workshops were much happier to acknowledge the contributions of their makers and the part those makers played. For example, if a client commissioned a piece from the English maker Richard Williams they understood that they were buying a Richard Williams design, made to his standard and vision by one or more of his craftsmen; there is usually no expectation that Richard would actually make the piece personally. By contrast, Sam Maloof in the US was basically expected to be personally involved with every piece that came out of his workshop. The American culture seemed very reluctant to accept that a team could make art. If this was the case, what did the four guys who worked for Sam do all day? For that matter, now that Sam has passed away, how are some of those same guys still able to keep on making his style of furniture?

On returning from my Churchill Fellowship I decided to follow the English example and acknowledge the contribution of the craftsmen who work at Dunstone Design. If I am the conductor, they are the soloists and the orchestra combined. Indeed, when we are at our best, I feel more like we have a band rather than a team. Bands make art, teams win matches.

In my 2001 report to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, under the title “lessons Learned” I wrote the following:

1.  It is essential to have a workable business model that allows you to develop as a maker.

2.  Very few makers are successful without having employees.

3.  One must be results driven with the making and not be too obsessed about the process. 

4.  There are no shortcuts to developing a personal style. One must accept that it will take many years to hit one’s stride as a designer.

5.  Craftsmanship is a tool used by designers. It is not an end in itself
                   

I didn’t re-read my Churchill Report for nearly a decade and I was actually shocked when I re read this list. There isn’t much I would change.

Not much of this so far explains how my personal design style has evolved. At the Bungendore Wood Works Gallery, I was exposed to a wide range of influences.  Most of the serious makers operating in the 1990’s had a piece in the gallery at some point or other. I now realize just how lucky I was to see such a constant flow of quality work from such a diverse group.

I used to consciously ask myself the same question whenever I looked at a new piece;  “would I want to live with that piece forever”? It is hard to think of anything other than jewelry that you could buy this afternoon and realistically expect to have for the rest of your life. Not your car, not your phone, not your clothes, not your pets, not even your house, is likely to be with you over the whole trajectory of your adult life. People find it hard to part with good jewelry and good furniture in a way that is almost unique.

A maker whose work stood out to me at that time was the Sydney craftsman Nick Hill. His work was innovative without being radical, finally made, nicely composed and somehow quite warm. There was something quintessentially Australian about his pieces that I find hard to put into words to this day. Nick’s work had echoes of other styles and influences, but it was somehow his own, and it was somehow indigenous. It was a combination of the timbers he used and the shapes that he employed. Nick no longer makes, which is a shame because I think he is quite under-rated within the scene.

The other stylistic influence for me was Scandinavian modern, at least as far as chairs go. I should note that I only made one chair the whole time I worked for David. Chairs are really something I came to after David’s workshop burned down in 1998. People who do not understand craftsmanship from a personal perspective mistake the mistake that the Scandinavian influence is an aesthetic one.  I’ll try to explain.

Most of the mid-century Scandinavian designers we excellent craftsmen, whatever other qualifications they might have had. If we look at Hans Wegner, he was widely considered to be a master craftsman in his own right even if, to the best of my understanding, he never directly sold any of his own work. Just as importantly, the workshops that manufactured this sort of work were run and staffed by excellent craft manufacturers. Whether you look at Scandinavian, Chinese or Japanese craft furniture, there is a certain softness and humanity to the work which is characteristic of the work of designers who are also craftsmen, and who are trying to sell their work. It is generally only when furniture is designed by architects or designers who are not also craftsmen that you get work that is cold or harsh or abstract or first and foremost a visual statement.

Shaker, Arts and Crafts, Mid Century Modern, all this furniture was designed to be lived with daily. There is a humanity and an honest approach to material in all this work. This is what I respond to. This is what I saw in Nick Hill’s work. This is what I hope is in my work. It is less a style and more an approach. Contrast this with the hash lines, voiceless materials and temporal nature of much contemporary furniture and I think you will see what I am getting at.

I have always sought to make furniture that speaks of Australian values and landscapes, can be lived with for a lifetime and that will also keep me in beer and chips. My influences are those who have successfully found ways to do the same within their local conditions. I hope this has gone some way towards answering Rasmus’ questions.

You have been listening to Crafting A life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things woodwork and furniture. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.
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