Wood Stories Newsletter
The Tappenden Collection
Every morning at 7:30, I would take my dog, Betsy to the school park behind my house to romp for a half hour with other dogs from the neighborhood. Typical of this college town, all the other owners are a Who’s Who of achievement: doctors, psychologists, professors, a retired physician from Doctors Without Borders, the Women’s golf coach. This is where I met Michele Heisler: professor of Internal Medicine and Medical Director of Physicians for Human Rights. In her younger days, she worked with Paul Farmer at Partners in Health. (Read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.)
Michele’s husband, Jamie Tappenden is a Philosophy professor. Jamie grew up in the wilds of arctic Canada and was “discovered” as a youngster as a chess prodigy. This led him to the University of Toronto and eventually to a PhD at Princeton.
Michele and Jamie recently bought a beautiful apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River and asked me to build a few pieces for it. When I first visited the apartment in 2021, it was fairly sparce except for a beautiful dining set designed by George Nakashima in 1948.
Normally, I like to design in close collaboration with the client, but Jamie and Michele pretty much gave me complete freedom: end tables here, a writing desk there, and a shoe rack for the entrance hall. The rest was up to me. What began as a commission for 4 pieces eventually grew to 7. This series has been both a joy and a challenge in just the right measure.
I guess I owe Betsy a finder’s fee.
How I work
Part 1: 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.
Disclaimer: If this next piece seems self-indulgent to you, I'm inclined to agree. But I can't find another way to discuss how I work and think without this background. Feel free to skip over this section if you find it too tedious. (Believe me: I've left out the really boring bits!)
My dad gave me this as a picture puzzle when I was 10.
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.
Bobo 1, a work by my teacher,
With no other prospects, we emigrated to England, moved into a trailer on Jane’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.
Rivling is inside the box shape. We lived in a converted knitting factory on the River Dee (oval in the photo),
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. 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.
Dining Room at Blackwell Arts, the quintessential Arts & Crafts home in the Lake District. (photographer unknown).
Me being "conceptual"
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.’
...next time, "How I Think Like an Artist"
Sedbergh School, founded 1525
(photo Steve Cooling)
Samples of some of my students' work
A Testimonial: Tongson Dining Chairs
The chairs Walt made for me are a treasure. Not just because they're beautiful. They are treasures because every millimeter of them, every gram of the wood, is filled with Walt's care, craftsmanship and attention. That care and attention was there even before Walt put his hands on the wood: he talked to me, asked me what I was looking for, listened to stories about dinner parties and my childhood. He made a prototype and sat in it with me. He made another prototype and sat in that with me. Then he made 8 beautiful chairs one by one to go with the old family table I remember playing under when I was a kid. They are beautiful,and they are treasures, and they remind me of Walt, and of care and attention and craft.