Thursday, October 30, 2008

ewwwwwwwwwww. (age)

the scene: furniture woodshop. Two undergraduates are discussing faculty, starting with Professor Lothar Windels.

1: "I think he must be almost fifty, right?"

2: "Probably."

Overhearing, I stop and say

z: "I don't think he is at all. I don't think he is more than ten years older than me. Probably less. I bet about forty two or so."

1: "You're thirty two?"

z: "Thirty five."

2: "You're almost forty?!?!?! Eeeeewwwwwww!"

I almost said "Look you rotten goddamn kid, shut up!" but then thought that maybe railing against youth would not be the best approach. So I tried to explain as patiently and kindly as possible that actually, my thirties have been great so far, and that as hard as some times have been, I feel that my life gets better the longer I live it, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to be twenty again for anything in the world, so there.

They remain unnconvinced.

It is true, though. I don't think of myself as "almost forty" yet, but then that kind of designation is so relative. Maybe when I was twenty I would have thought that way. Probably would have. I vaguely remember being twenty and thinking that thirty was impossibly far off, that maybe I would never even be that old.

Now, I have a lot of good friends that are forty or damn near. Suits me fine.

Among the things that I like about getting older is the fact that I am mellowing a little. Maybe it is the yoga. Certainly it is the woodworking. I am learning to slow down, to be present. Yoda said about Luke at one point "Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing." I am trying to take a pointer from the Jedi master and be here. I am trying to be aware. Rather than looking always to the future, and comparing my work and life to other's, I am trying to be better about seeing and enjoying what is right here, just now, where I am.

It is not always easy. But it is almost always a good idea.

Just like in yoga, when we stop, close our eyes, and concetrate on our breathing, and on all of the little parts of the body, and what they are doing, I feel like sometimes it is good to do that in life. I have been trying to stop and think "what is happening, right now?"

This is something I certainly was not doing ever at 20. It concerns me, sometimes, the cult of youth. Which I guess is something that humans have been doing forever, it is nothing new. I just think it is especially irrelevant now, when the average life expectancy is in the neighboorhood of seventy years, and getting longer all the time. Sure am glad that the next fifty years of my life won't be spent pining for the first twenty.

"You're almost forty?" Yep I am. If the current trend continues, forty is going to be better than thirty, and fifty better than that. I am excited about the journey.

Rotten goddamn kids.

Friday, October 24, 2008


"this is a bandsaw," I said over the roar of the dust-collector. "It has a flexible blade that runs down into the bed here, and then around this wheel..."

The sophomores are learning about their first power tools in the woodshop at RISD. This is a sacred part of a yearly ritual, the training in of the uninitiated, the welcoming of a new crop of makers into our midst. Pretty exciting stuff. It fell to me to introduce them to the first power saw that they will learn to use. The teacher asked me to be in charge of this station, and I jumped at the chance. It has been months since I have been able to teach anything in a formal setting, and boy, do I miss it.

"This is a bandsaw." My students at NYU used to laugh at me because I introduced every new tool and process in the same way. One of them joked that when I die my tombstone will read "This is a tombstone. Are you working right now?" But I think naming things can be an important part of understanding them. Often students come to me with no making background, and have no frame of reference or vocabulary to describe their work or their surroundings. Part of my job is to contextualise these surroundings for them, to introduce them to the vocabulary, to empower them to avail themselves of the tools, to learn to be comfortable around them which makes them more comfortable makers.

"This is a bandsaw." I walked them through how to turn it on and off. We looked at the parts, and we did some test cuts. As the teacher, I kept my eyes on their hands, for the most part. The hands and the eyes. I like to know where they are looking, and what they are aware of. But I also want to make sure they are using their hands safely. So many of them are so trepidatious that they are not looking at the blade, or they are looking at the blade and it paralyses them. So I now have had the opportunity to closely examine thirty pairs of hands and thirty pairs of eyes. Lacquered nails and chewed nails and long nails and short ones. Dirty and clean. The smooth, tight skin of an eighteen year old hand is so interesting, especially when I look at mine, scarred, with callouses and mangled nails and think that mine used to look like that, and at one time I was just as scared to approach a big machine like that, myself. Green eyes and brown and hazel and blue, looking at the blade and trying to figure out how to integrate this new thing into their lives.

But they all did it. Every one. Even the ones who were so scared, or who apologised for messing up their test cut. Or who kept looking over at me to make sure they were not doing anything wrong. It made me proud. It is especially great to see the look on the face of a student who is particularly scared of the tool at first, but then finally, triumphantly, makes a test cut or two and realises, hey, yes, I can do this, it isn't really so scary after all!

"This is a bandsaw." It is the next step into a huge new way of thinking, one in which we can work, with hands and hearts and minds, to make a better world. We can, through the application of our labor and our intellect, have a positive impact. And if we pool our creative abilities, there is nothing we can not achieve. I firmly believe that is true.

And it is my job to be a part of this. Like a Johnny Appleseed of tool training, I get to plant this information, to water it a little and then let it take its own course. How many people will each of these nineteen year olds influence? What great things will they cause to happen? The few minutes I spend here in this loud, dusty shop can have unimaginable effects as the lessons learned here from me and others ripple out and out and out. Just like the wisdom and knowledge that my teachers imparted to me are rippling out and out. I see and hear my teachers from years ago, some still with us and others gone, encouraging me, showing me, instilling in me the confidence that I am trying to instill in these thirty sophomores.

I wrote a little while back about how important I thought it was for me to make some kind of difference. This is the difference I can make.

"This is a bandsaw."

Sunday, October 19, 2008


took a quick trip up to maine this weekend. I was delivering the conference table that I have been working on, the long-leaf pine one. Portfolio shots will be on the website soon, but here is one that I took while I was working on the dry fit.

I am very pleased with how it came out. Sometimes, after I finish a piece, I step back and look at it, and think, "well, yes, that will be fine." This was one of those pieces. You can't hit a home run every time, but when you do get one, it just feels good.

So on Friday I loaded it into a rentaed minivan and drove up to Deer Isle, which let me tell you is pretty far from anywhere, and that is no lie. Out on the coast of Maine, and just gorgeous. By the time I got up there, it was late afternoon, and the autumn sunlight was low and amber and cutting through the trees. Wherver it hit one that was gold or orange or red it looked like a forest fire, the color just exploding off of the leaves and almost making a sound. I see why people drive around to look at the autumn leaves, though that always seemed odd to me as a pastime. I understand it now.

There were many trees that had already lost most of their leaves. They lay on the emerald grass in a perfect circle around the base of the trunk which called to mind (I forget whose image this is. C S Lewis, maybe) slender pale women who have stepped out of their beautiful multi-colored evening dresses to prepare for the bath of winter. Made me think about trees, and how much I like them, and how much I want them to stay right where they are. Really affirmed for me the need to cut down as few as possible.

The dining hall at Haystack Mountain School of Craft, which is where I was taking the table, has a south-facing window that looks out over the bay. The building is about 200 feet up the side of a very steep hill, and the effect is one of hanging in the air, just at that moment of rest in a jump before you start hurtling back down. Looking out into the bay, there are a handful of small rocky islands with trees on them, evergreens, mostly, that look to me like a bunch of punk rock kids standing in a pool with only the tops of their heads sticking out of the water. I want to tell them to go on and get out, because the water is not going to get any warmer, but with their ears under water, they can't hear me.

So I stood and looked out at the bay as the last rays of sun set the sky on fire off to the west, the reds and pinks blurring into that velvety violet that one can only see when one is far from civilisation. Deer Isle is remote enough that there is actually starlight, which is always something that I find jarring to remember. I have not lived anywhere that there was starlight in a long while. Sure is pretty.

Remote, and cold cold cold, and beautiful. A good home for a rustic table.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Requiscat In Pace

I only met U Utah Phillips once, and that was pretty recent. Didn't know how to tell him that I had known him a long damn time. He convinced me to play music again, to take an interest in how we live our lives, to be a pacifist, to memorise stories and poems, to unearth a copy of the Hobo's Hornbook and start to cram all of that wisdom into my brain. He reminded me that I love this country, that I have a voice, that I have a responsibility to think and to act and to bring about change.
I am not that important, in the scheme of things. But I am a better person for what Utah inspired me to do.
He talked about heroes, on one album I have. Well, he is one of mine. Up there with Twain and Lincoln, a person who had compassion, but not at the expense of being cantankerous. Wisdom, but not at the expense of drollery. I mourn his passing, but I know that he is up there caterwauling away, and that pretty soon all the angels will have a Wobbly card.
He died the day after my 35th birthday. I wish I had known. I do not know what I would have done, but I would have done something. He didn't sing his songs so much as he slung them at you, and you didn't have the chance to get out of the way, so you got them all over you, and they were sticky and dirty and full of unpleasant things like truth, so you couldn't help but listen, and take them in, and be changed by them.
I guess the best that I can hope for, in my life, is that I can have the same energy to attack anything that I do, and that I can be as true to what I believe as he was.
Go over easy, Utah. See you on the other side.

Friday, October 10, 2008


i was talking to a colleague last night about furniture as objects. We take a lot of care, as makers, to refine these objects aesthetically. We spend a lot of time and energy getting drawing and redrawing the lines and curves, choosing perfect materials, getting the proportions just right. These are all important to being a designer, I think. I would never say differently. And I myself have been known to build model after little model, changing just one detail, or try finish sample after finish sample, looking for just the right mix of oil and varnish, or debating the relative merits of boiled linseed oil versus tung oil.

But then, maybe, at the end experience trumps all of this. That is to say, would the user enjoy the table more if it was finished with oil instead of varnish? if the legs were steel instead of wood? I am not sure they would. I might enjoy an object more one way or the other from an aesthetic standpoint, but then I am not sure how much of the experience of a furniture object is aesthetic. Maybe this is what separates furniture from sculpture (and I emphatically do not think of myself as a sculptor): that sculpture has a primarily aesthetic impetus, and that furniture has a primarily functional impetus. The one is experienced by viewing, the other by direct interaction. That direct interaction is what is so compelling and important to me, and is why, in fact, I don't think of myself as a sculptor. As I have said before, I want to touch the user, to have a direct physical contact with them, so I make furniture.

Clearly this is an oversimplification. And clearly I am not the first person ever to posit this. But it sort of crystallised for me last night, which is one of the things that I love about being in a gallery, at an opening, is that everyone is kind of primed to think about these things. And as fervently as I believe that furniture does not belong in a gallery, that it belongs in an environment where it will be used, it can be useful to look at it in a gallery setting occasionally, if only to get a different perspective.

And a different perspective is always so useful.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


i love chestnut. It is just a gorgeous wood, honey brown, with big, open pores like oak but much much softer and kinder to edge tools. I have made a few projects with it, like the chairs at right. A dream to work with. Thought I would tell the story of chestnut, since it has been on my mind, lately.

In early America, chestnut made up between 15% and 50% of all hardwood stands in the Appalachian mountains. From Georgia to Maine, there were towering chestnut trees. They grew higher than a twelve story building, and the largest recorded was seventeen feet in diameter. Seventeen feet. That is you and two friends standing with your arms outstretched and your fingertips touching. Backpacking in the mountains of North Carolina I have seen stumps of chestnuts that were felled that are bigger than our old bed room in Brooklyn.

Big trees.

Because it was so plentiful, and so big, it was used for everything imaginable, siding (it is rot-resistant), beams, barrels, caskets, furniture, you name it. It isn't great for any one thing, but it is better than average for almost everything. And because it grows quickly (an inch in diameter per year in it's youth) there were more than enough to go around. In addition, the nuts were great food for pigs, which in Appalachia were often let loose to roam and forage for themselves during the summer months. And tanneries used the bark to tan leather hides.

In 1904 (the same year that the Crescent Tool company patented the adjustable, open-ended box wrench, or "Crescent Wrench") a fungus was brought into the US from somewhere in Asia. It was first noticed at the Bronx Zoo, and most people think that it came over on an exotic species that was installed there. By 1915, it had spread to Connecticut, and by 1940 almost all of the really big chestnuts had been felled. In 36 years, the tree that was once a staple material for so many industries was gone. The aftermath of the blight was wide ranging. An important source of food (for both animals and people) was lost. As all of the dead trees were cut down and made into lumber, mountain sides eroded in a big way. The tree trunks glutted the saw mills, which depressed lumber prices in areas that for the most part were already existing at near-subsistence levels. The tanning industry up in the mountains collapsed.

Chestnuts still try to grow in the mountains today, but when they reach a few inches in diameter, the blight grabs them and kills them off. Some work has been done to combat the blight, but so far nothing has really worked. The only place to get wide chestnut lumber now is by reclaiming it: it can be harvested from old floor beams and floor boards, from barn siding, and sometimes from posts and beams. And every piece now is a signifier of a different time, and a reminder of how precariously we are balanced, how easily things can collapse if a single link is removed from the chain.

Historic information in this post came from the article "Chestnut: Salvaging the Blighted Giant" by Victor Demasi

Friday, October 3, 2008


got to spend most of the day in the studio today. Beautiful. My hands are dry from the dust that is particular to Southern Heart Pine. It makes a dust that is at once wet and pitchy and at the same time dry with the dryness of a hundred years or more spent in a building. And it smells just like heaven.

Being that I came up in theater, most of the wood that I used for eighteen years was pine. It has a sweet, sharp smell when you cut it that is irrevocably the smell of making things for me. It is the smell of being sixteen and wearing all black and dangling my keys off of a carabiner as I strutted around backstage in combat boots. It is the smell that mingled with the smell of the perfume that my first girlfriend wore. It is the smell of the first set I designed at sixteen.

Powerfully loaded smell.

So as I was milling some of it this morning, I was wrapped in a smell that felt so old and so comforting that I couldn't help smiling. There is an undercurrent to the smell that is also the smell of the history of the lumber, too. Like a wine, really. A lot of notes, a lot of layers, and it is my job to work with this stuff. Magic.

And it is southern heart pine. Sent up north with the cotton the slaves picked down where I grew up. The Northern Industrial Complex was built on the backs of slave labor, as I like to remind Yankees who try to tell me that their side was blameless in the importation, exploitation, and massacer of so many Africans. The mills that these beams came from would not have been needed had not the Southern plantations produced so much cotton that something had to be done with it.

So the smell of the lumber milling and the feel of this hard (harder than maple), pitchy, sharp lumber in my hands sends me on all of these flights, taking me to my own youth, so recent, and to the history of this lumbering, wonderful, terrible country.

Wood is so magical.

These discarded beams will be a conference table around which artists from all over the country and all over the world will sit and dream up new plans and new concoctions and new solutions. Rather than rotting in a landfill, this lumber, which smells simultaneously of a first kiss in a high school auditorium and a ship creaking her way up on the Gulf stream a hundred and fifty years ago to bring it to Rhode Island, will have a slightly longer life. It is too solid and too stable not to keep being used.

This tree was likely felled by hand. Two men and a long saw brought it down, and a water (probably) powered sawmill reduced it to boards, long before Edison had figured out how to harness electricity, and long before that electricity had been worked into power tools. I am releasing cells in this tree that have not seen fresh air since well before young boys donned blue and grey and went out to shoot at each other. This lumber was already long-seasoned when Armstrong climbed down his ladder on another planet.

My hands are dry with the dust from milling this piece of lumber. I can still taste it in the back of my throat. I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to ask it to live a little longer. I love being in the studio and working with this stuff, listening close to try to catch what it is saying to me, coaxing it into new shapes so that it can continue to tell its story to a new set of people.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

so I have been thinking about stories. And about how we tell them. And about how we hear them. Sometimes the telling is the important thing, regardless of content. Sometimes the content supercedes the manner of the telling. Sometimes it is just the raw communication that is important, the "I-will-listen-as-you-talk" attitude that is meaningful.

Your writing is similar to my making, in that we are telling stories and they are being used by others in a way that we can't know or control. You put words together and send them out there. I put steel and wood together and do the same. And maybe someone sits on a table or spills syrup on a chair. And maybe someone reads your words and thinks things that are not what you are thinking. And that is fine. But I have been thinking about what the words really are, at their core.

What matters? The words? The telling? The hearing? When I make a piece, I want it to be used. I want it to be in someone's life and to become inextricably woven into the fabric of their life, in a way that it HAS to be kept and used. Not so precious that it is put on a shelf and gathers dust for a decade and is then sold at a yard sale. No, my work must be used, if it is going mean a damn. So maybe it is the hearing that is important.

But then, someone looks at something I made, and says "look, it is like those chairs on the deck at that hotel" and I realise that the hearing is so subjective. And that if that piece is resonating for them, then it does not matter what my intent was, they are hearing their own story, and weaving the object into their experience in a way that is maybe more valid than the way it would have happened in my mind.

Maybe that is what is the most magical about objects.

My studiomate had this terrible little secretary which she moved into the studio until we could make her a desk. Falling apart, painted about fifty-eleven times, you know, and department-store furniture to start with. Terrible and ugly and in tatters. Says she: "I need to throw this thing out."

You ain't lying.

"But it was one of the first things we bought as a couple ten years ago, and somehow I keep saving it."


And that is the thing, isn't it? In the same way that we can not choose our loved ones and friends, we sometimes can not choose the objects that resonate with us. Which is what I think I am trying to get at, here: I make things that resonate with me. Then I put them out into the world, and I hope they resonate with others. But when they do, I as a maker have to step back and let them get incorporated into the lives of the users. Which is a strange thought, really.

So we make these stories. And we spend a lot of time thinking about what is the important through-line, and what are the over-arching concepts, and how we are going to orchestrate this moment and bring out this shining detail. And of course we should. Everything that leaves my hands should be something I am proud of, something that reflects what I think is meaningful.

That is, after all, our job, maybe. To be creative. In the sense of creating. Making stuff. Making stuff and telling stories. Not a bad job.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

making a statement

part of being a working artist is an expectation on the part of others that one will have an "artist's statement." It is sort of a credo, a two-paragraph explanation of Who I Am and What I Am Doing. How hard could that be, right?

I'll tell you: Real hard.

There is a tendency toward the colloquial in my life and demeanor. Part of me would like to just say "Aww, hell. Ah jes' make stuff, an' Ah lahk wood and cawper and old stuff an' thaings lahk that," and leave it there. I am a maker, after all, not a writer. My work should speak for itself.

But not really.

Because if Lane Myer is right (and I think he might be), and all art and design is about communication, doesn't it mean that is is even more important for me to be articulate about my work in whatever medium presents itself? Very probably. It is probably pretty important for me to be eloquent and direct on paper as well as with a chisel.


So I have been working and crafting away at this thing, and am maybe a little closer, but it is a daunting task. The words all sound either too casual (and therefore inappropriate) or too grandiose (and therefore painful and irrelevant). I actually at one point used the word "unknowable." Jesus.

Why is it, after all this time, that the hardest thing in the world is to be honest, direct, and to just say what is needed without a bunch of florid filler? Nothing harder. But that is the job at hand.

So. No more "unknowable." No more "continuum." No more meaningless ornament. "Oh it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to totters, to very rags, to spleet the ears of the groundlings..." Hamlet tells the players. I couldn't agree more.