Getting to a personal style
Creating a personal style is a lifetime arc that slowly develops by studying the work of others who inspire you and imitating them, being prolific and self-critical of your own work, recognizing and sometimes embracing your limitations, and allowing your personal history into the process.
My personal history begins as the child of an art teacher whose family outings were often to galleries and museums. In college, I studied theatre and immersed myself in all aspects of its collaborative creative process. In graduate school, I spent most of those years with the students in the dance and sculpture departments. Their aesthetic and working processes resonated with me more then what was happening in my traditional theatre department.
While in graduate school, I married a British sculptor, who was a major influence on how I thought about art. About the same time, I picked up a job building displays at a museum, working for a master craftsman in furniture making. I realized what a rare opportunity this was and spent a year mining his knowledge and skills. At the end of that project, I was determined to become a furniture maker; what I became was unemployed with a wife who was pregnant.
With no other prospects, we emigrated to England, moved into a trailer on my wife’s family hill farm and became shepherds. I picked up a part-time job at an old joiner’s shop. Here, I learned how build doors and windows in a traditional manner that rarely relied on drawings and rulers. Instead, we worked from old processes, handed down the generations, where, sizes were recorded using marks on sticks, and pieces were built up by relating one component to the other.
The farm was in the North of England, just outside of the Lake District – the home of John Ruskin and the spiritual center of the Arts and Crafts movement. Ruskin’s philosophy on craftsmanship along with the simple, traditional life in rural England – and the building practices in the joinery – entered my bones. However, as a new furniture maker, I didn’t want to return to the 19th century and copy that style verbatim. There had to be a way to take those influences and adapt them to contemporary work. I just didn’t know what that was.
(photos John Finney and Alexander Virtikoff)
At first, I thought that conceptual art was the answer, and I made several pieces based on visual puns of the Shaker style. Fun, but I soon realized that being clever was just a cheap way of avoiding the real work of learning to trust my intuition and accept it for all its quirks and flaws.
One thing led to another, and I eventually became a teacher of design and furniture making at a traditional English boarding school (think Hogwarts). Here, I spent 15 years teaching young people a formal system of design thinking and the craft of woodworking. Personally, I got two things out of this experience. First, by supervising upwards of 50 individual projects at one time, I developed a broad knowledge of different building techniques and skills. I also trained my memory to keep the details of all the projects in my head. I learned how to remember where each student was in their building process, so I could guide them through each step. I discovered that I enjoy this way of working, and even now, in building my own projects, I write down very little, and instead, mentally rehearse and revise steps and processes over and over – sort of like a slalom skier imagining the course before her run.
Second, by drilling the engineering design process into the heads of my students, I grew to appreciate the thoroughness of this formal system. But I also saw the limitations of that strict process and looked forward to a time when I could tuck that into the background and ‘think like an artist.’
How I think like an artist
Although I believe I think like and artist, I don’t consider myself an artist in the sense that I am the ‘wonder-elder’ of aesthetics, leading the zeitgeist, or a Picassian genius where my every gesture has value and significance. My ego is not that big. Furniture-making has the working-class roots of the village craftsman serving the needs of his community. I sit more comfortably in that arena.
“Start with what you know,” is the adage to beginning writers and artists. And when I first stepped into the furniture-making arena, what I didn’t know was how to compete in the world of fashion and design. I was not a tastemaker and living on a farm in one of the most remote parts of England, I was unlikely to become one. What I did know, however, was the theatre, and I knew it well.
Theatre is an art of collaboration. As a director, I particularly loved talking to a producer with a script or idea and discussing all the possibilities of where this idea might lead. Research and more discussions lead to a direction. We would then bring in designers who would help us refine that direction. The show is cast, and the actors, in rehearsal, contribute more detail and nuance to the idea. We eventually have a production that we can present to an audience.
It is this collaborative creative process that I enjoy most, and ideally this is how I like to make furniture. You, the customer, are the producer and come to me with the idea that you want an adaptation of that Classical Greek play, ‘A Coffee Table.’ We start with the basic parameters by investigating the room in which it will live, what is the largest and smallest it can be, how will it function, and how formal it needs to be. Then we have a discussion about you: What are your interests and passions? Your history? Your profession? Your family? What mood do you want it to imply with the piece?
I will then go away and think and draw and research until I come up with some very rough ideas based on our discussions. Normally, you won’t like them, but they will generate new ideas and directions we might pursue. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, we will get to the point where I can build a small model or prototype that we can view in three dimensions. This engenders more discussion until we get, not to a detailed working drawing, but a specific direction with clear parameters. We may cast the show, by which I mean we go together to the lumber yard and pick out a large slab of wood with beautiful and interesting grain. This will become the top of the table, the leading role.
I then go into the workshop.
Generally, I will build the piece according to our design, but in an ideal arrangement, we will have agreed on a level of freedom for me to improvise based on, say, what I see in the wood grain or, perhaps from a new idea that might occur to me while working with the materials. Staying with the theater metaphor, I call these ‘gestures,’ and it is discovering these gestures spontaneously, while I’m working that I feel gives the piece life. If the new idea is beyond our agreed level of freedom, I will have a discussion with you about it. The important thing, both artistically and functionally, is that we keep in regular communication and our options open. This is how I’ve built my most successful projects.
Of course, not all my projects are built this way. Sometimes I’ve been sent a photo and asked to build ‘that thing’ to specific dimensions; on other occasions, I have been commissioned to make something that satisfies ‘this function’ and will go in ‘that space,’ and the customer doesn’t want to see it until it’s finished and in their home. Working in some middle ground between these two extremes is, for me, a much more joyful experience. For you, the client, you will get a piece of furniture that is extremely personal to you and comes with a great story of your participation in its creation.
The architect, Robert Venturi once said, “Great work comes from great clients.” …at least I think he said that. I’m sure I saw that quote posted at his exhibition in Philadelphia in 2001, but I can’t find any reference to it. (Perhaps I should just take credit for it myself.) My best work is not a transaction with a customer, but a collaboration, where there is sufficient trust that we can challenge each other, explore, and take risks together.