Wood Stories Newsletter
Come visit me at the Ann Arbor Art Fair!
July 20, 21, & 22
On the corner of Washington St. and Ingalls Mall
It’s been said that as you get older you do fewer things for the first time and more things for the last time. My days of fell running and long distance cycling are, sadly, behind me. But come visit me at my booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. It’s my first time.
As I set up, I can picture the other exhibitors thinking, “Wow! That old-timer’s been in this game for a long time.” Then, in about an hour they might think, “Ooo, I wonder if someone should tell him [insert obvious dumb thing I’ve done here].”
Actually, this is not my first craft booth. In 1971, my dad taught me how to silk-screen words and pictures on T-shirts for a high school fundraiser. People didn’t know what to make of it; they’d never seen such a thing. The printed T-shirt craze exploded shortly afterwards. I sold 2.
Another first-in-a-long-time is that I’m building furniture on spec. Normally, my work is for a specific purpose for a specific client, and while it would be nice to sell these pieces, what I’m really after is a list of new clients with whom I can collaborate. (See article below.)
So, if you plan to come to the Art Fair, please stop by to say hi and see the furniture I’ve been building. Or, run the booth for me so I can go and pee.
State of play. I've a month to finish 4 pieces
How I work
Part 2: How I think like an artist
Although I believe I think like an artist, I don’t consider myself an artist in the sense that I am some avant-garde influencer 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 living room classic, ‘The End 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.
Previous interpretations of 'The End Table'
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 visit my sawyer and pick out a large slab of wood with beautiful and interesting grain. This will become the top of the table, the leading role.
Then, I 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.
An example of a "gesture": The theme for Tim McKay's standing conference table was "Deep Time: The Origin of Everything." While struggling to find a pattern for the root system for the trees that support the table top, I came across Charles Darwin's first 'Tree of Life' sketch.
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.
A Testimonial: Time Table
I have worked with Walt on several large and unique projects. Each has begun with a vague desire on my part and developed through a months-long series of occasional meetings and idea exchanges into a unique and (for me) deeply satisfying project. If you're like me, and want to co-create furniture that is beautiful, functional, and reflective of your own interests, Walt is a perfect partner.
The first of our projects together grew from my recognition that I needed to change the way I spent my day. Like most academics, I'd spent many years sitting behind a desk, engaging in creative work mediated by a computer. Eventually, this static, cramped way of working began to harm my health. At the same time, I discovered that the large standing table at my local Sweetwaters coffee shop provided a great place to work, and that standing all day left me feeling much better. So, I came to Walt and said "I want you to build me a big standing table."
That wasn't enough to go on, so Walt asked what I was interested in and working on. At the time, I was deeply engaged in teaching a course for the University of Michigan Honors program called Deep Time: The Origin of Everything. This course was designed to introduce students to what science has learned about the origin of life, the Earth, and the cosmos, with a particular focus on intellectual history. After hearing about this, Walt asked me for images related to this work, which I happily provided. A few more conversations, and a couple of months, led to him proposing and ultimately constructing the Time Table.
You can read about and see pictures of this magnificent, massive 9'x5' standing table on Walt's website. Here's what you won't see: dozens of people who, years after we moved this into my office, still backtrack after passing my door, stop, and ask whether they can come and run their hands over the tabletop. You won't see me getting to share the multiple 'origin science' secrets quietly built into this work. And you won't see my team of students, faculty, and staff gathered productively around this workspace they'll never forget. For me, the broad expanse of oak that tops this table is a constant reminder of my connection to the past, to nature, and to its beauty.
The second of our projects is still underway. This one involves multiple pieces, and includes the work of other artists as well. Designed to bring some sense of nature into an office with no external windows, this collection already includes a three-paneled mural of a 10,000-year-old oak savannah and a smaller, walnut topped, standing table. Eventually, we will add some creative version of a renaissance 'cabinet of wonders', providing a home for small and various objects of natural history: fossils, feathers, bones, and more. I'm sure that Walt can build you beautiful traditional tables, chairs, beds, and cabinets. That's all great, and you should commission him to do so. But if you want to do something really special, something unique that no one has ever made, or will ever make, then Walt is an ideal partner.
Tim McKay. Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, and Education; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education. The University of Michigan.