Listening to craft in dialogue

I would like to thank everyone on Facebook’s Critical Craft Forum for so many thoughtful, useful contributions on my last set of, and expand upon some of my remarks.

My concerns have to do with the fact that craft and material culture histories have only VERY recently (last ten years or so) been taken up by critically-oriented scholars and curators. Much of our field’s history is mired in a half-century of connoisseurship and object-driven analysis. Now, I may get people jumping down my throat regarding this last—object-driven analysis, but I would like to point out that singular objects—seemingly the raison-d’etre for craft history—are no longer driving the field.

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Let’s take, for example, a classic object like Wendell Castle’s music stand, or even Garth’s rhapsodic commentary on a singular Peter Voulkos stack. I too could go on and on about the significance of the music stand, its biomorphic punning, its significant melding of form and function, etc etc., what I would be missing is the object’s circulation in the wider world of ideas. How, for instance, the music stand is made of stack-laminated wood, circa 1964. Castle’s essential plasticking of wood and his later coated fiberglass pieces are sculptural, exploratory, and reject traditional techniques, opting for new and clever materialities alongside a more well-known and more lavishly celebrated, but lesser craftsman, Donald Judd. As an art historian, it is this comparison that is much more important to make, than a stand-alone interpretation. Further, Castle’s music stands have never been put in dialogue with the avant-garde or experiments in electronica, atonality, and avant-garde music that was so prominent throughout the 1960s in the Northeast (where Castle was located) and Western Europe, ie, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier.

What I am getting at, is that Castle’s music stand reconsidered within this context is so much more interesting than its hand feel and its shape alone. Castle—and a host of other craftspeople-have never been complexly or richly re-situated in their own place and time. This is the work to which I am referring—the serious, scholarly pursuit of relational situations, ideas, zeitgeists, and circles of influence. This is the kind of work I mean, when I say that the writing in our field has not yet caught up to the sophisticated conceptual work being made now, in 2011.

More than ever, I believe, artists are invested in their current conception of place and time, because they continually evolve forward in their own trajectories and oeuvres. But good scholarship and brave writing traces a path less backward than sideways, making multiple footpaths alongside each other, so that there isn’t just one path with two directions, but infinite concurrent and disparate routes—some more direct, others more circuitous, and still others dead-end. But this is the spirit of research—process. Who but an artist could relate?

Snow Furniture by Ethan W. Lasser

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Spring has finally come to the upper Midwest, and with its arrival Hongtao Zhou’s installation Snow Furniture is an increasingly distant memory (fig. 1). Over three intensive days in late January, Zhou, a woodworker and sculptor based in Madison, Wisconsin, used snow, ice and sticks to create a set of chairs outside the East Galleria of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Part performance piece and part political statement, the installation was one of the more unusual and provocative works in an exhibition of “green furniture” Zhou and I curated at the MAM.

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As performance piece, Snow Furniture featured Zhou and a team of local school children (fig. 2). Bundled in down parkas to withstand twenty-degree temperature, these energetic assistants helped create the slushy material used to build the chairs. Zhou equipped them with an aluminium bucket, and sent them to fetch water from the shore of Lake Michigan, a few steps away from the museum. Snow was mixed in with this water, and then applied to an armature of sticks (fig 3). Within minutes, this mixture froze and the chairs took shape to the delight of the children and the audience of adults watching from inside the museum.

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This might seem like an innocuous playground exercise or a variation on a snow sculpture competition, but the political stakes of the installation became evident a few days later, after an unusual early-February thaw. As temperatures rocketed into the high-40s, the chairs started to melt, morph and lose their rigidity (fig 4). They took on a biomorphic, surrealist air. “Dancing furniture” is the way Zhou described the installation when he returned to Milwaukee to enjoy the warmer air. He argued that the change in the shape of chairs called attention to the entropic effects of global warming. For Zhou, the work specifically indexed one of they key manifestations of climate change: increased temperature variation and the shift from steady seasonal patterns to rapid freezes and thaws.

As the winter went on and temperatures continued to vary, the chairs continued to dance. To return to the installation each morning was to see a fresh and reinvented work. One morning in late-February after a snowfall, the chairs looked like fluffy, upholstered divans. After a cold snap in March, they were icy and skeletal (fig 5). These variations tracked something more than the effects of climate change. The constant evolution of Snow Furniture showcased the artistry and animism of nature, the obsessive inventiveness of her masterful hand. Like the artist David Nash, who builds wooden sculptures out of unseasoned wood that changes shape as the material dries and shrinks, the aesthetic power of Snow Furniture hinged on nature’s power and unpredictability, on changing temperatures, wind speeds, and uncertain patterns of rain and snow. What was truly green about the installation was the way it called attention to this power—to nature as agent and artist.

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Snow Furniture might seem like a good project for the Artic or some desolate tundra, rather than a factory town like Milwaukee. But the installation was closely connected to its site. Standing in front of the dancing chairs and looking south, one could see the crisp white atrium of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, and beyond it, the Milwaukee skyline (fig 6). A pair of belching smokestacks, vestiges of a once thriving industrial economy were particularly prominent. It was hard not to read the installation against these towers, and to juxtapose the pure, productive power of nature with the impure, productive power of the machine. “Nature,” Zhou explained, “was the perfect, carbon-neutral artist.”

Zhou, who is fond of such sagely pronouncements, is a fascinating character with an unusual background for an artist. Born in China, he came to the US in his mid-twenties to do a PhD in furniture engineering at Purdue. In his coursework and dissertation, he focused on the “lifecycle” of furniture. His challenge was to design a chair that would last for a definitive period. The goal was five years. Zhou mastered this challenge but wasn’t fulfilled by it. After he finished his degree, he moved from the factory to the studio to take up an MFA in woodworking under Tom Loeser at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His focus has been on sustainability and environmentally-friendly furniture.

Snow Furniture reflects Zhou’s unusual training. Like any good engineer, he harnessed a force larger than himself to craft the chairs. And like his work at Purdue, he created a set of chairs that only existed for a fixed amount of time.

But while Zhou’s earlier designs failed and then endured as a series of parts, the dancing chairs evaporated into thin air, leaving no residue.

Gone without a trace and largely crafted by the power of nature, Snow Furniture invites us to reflect on the way we value art, and the premium we place on durability, artisanal skill, and the marks of the artist’s hand. Though his installation no longer presides in front of the museum, Zhou’s other-directed, ephemeral aesthetic raises questions for every artist to think through.

Ethan W. Lasser is curator of the Chipstone Foundation

See also the website for Hong Tao.

Bodging Milano by Stephen Knott

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

Down a small in lane and up a mud track in deepest Herefordshire, a white canvas structure emerges from Clissett Wood: an unplugged greenwood furniture ‘bodging’ workshop that hosted ten prominent designers during the wet week of March 30th – April 5th 2010. The designers had cut themselves off from the infrastructure of their respective studios, with straight edges, electrical power and machinery swapped for hand-made tools, local wood and fingerless gloves, in imitation the of bodging techniques of countryside carpenters.

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

‘Bodging Milano’ resulted from a collaboration between artist and designer Chirs Eckersley; Rory Dodd of Designersblock, a London-based organisation that provides a platform for the exhibition of contemporary design through international design shows and festivals; and Gudrun Leitz, founder and chief instructor of a week-long greenwood chairmaking course in Clissett Wood. This connection was established in July 2009 when Chris Eckersley spent a week making a hand-made chair in Leitz’s outdoor workshop, an interest prompted by his experience designing the Arden range of contemporary greenwood Windsor chairs for the bespoke furniture company, Sitting Firm, whose manager David Green was also with the designers for the week.

This year Eckersley returned to Clissett Wood with nine designer friends, and, with the exhibition platform of the Spazio Revel in Milan secured by Dodd at Designersblock, engaged in a week of making greenwood chairs using traditional techniques under Leitz’s instruction. Her methods echo the processes adopted by Philip Clissett, the nineteenth century Hereford greenwood furniture maker who inspired figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, including Ernest Gimson. The same attraction that led Arts and Crafts figures to Clissett led to the fruition of this project: to get away from the machines and tools that define modern production and become familiar with the manually powered pole lathe (constructed from pieces of wood from the forest itself), shave-horse and an array of hand tools.

The influence of William Morris’s elevation of good workmanship was evident. Leitz straightforwardly admitted that the course was run according to a specific philosophy that stresses sustainability, quality craftsmanship from local raw materials, manual skill, and the retrospective reconstruction of folk traditions.

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

So how did the metropolitan designers mix with the bodging techniques? I arrived one day before the deadline to finish, and the workshop was a hive of activity, with the practitioners pushing tired limbs in an attempt to finish on time. All the processes – including cleaving, lathing, steaming, shaping, sawing and assembly – were powered by hand, a physical exertion that was taking its toll. The tools demanded a great deal from the human body. The pole lathe, which the designers learnt how to use on the first day, not only required repeated pedalling but also the need to cup the wood in the lathe with your hand to offer it up to the blade of the chisel. This offered greater manual control over the turning process and an intimate relationship between the body and the machine, but more muscles were involved in the making procedure than might be expected in a conventional machine powered workshop. This cohered with Leitz’s philosophy of making the body a craft machine, rid of all the technicalities the mind mulls over. But the consequences included aches and pains, too.

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Designers were not only encouraged to be closer to the tools, but also to the material, selecting a piece of locally grown ash, cleaving it, and then shaping it into the integral elements of the chair. The Windsor chair is defined by the fact that legs and backrest are fixed into the seat. With greenwood this is done through mortise and tenon joints which, after being joined together, are dried. The mortise contracts around the tenon, locking it firmly in place. Steaming is done onsite too, with a kiln and steaming jig used to keep the bent wood in shape. Smoothing with sandpaper is forbidden because it obscures the grain.

Designers responded positively to the new experiences of using manually-driven machines and hand tools, and to the close connection between labour and the material. However, the lack of a straight edge in the haphazard workshop meant geometrical designs were hard to achieve, and uneven chairs resulted. For practitioners used to the accuracy of computer machinery this caused particular problems, relating to Pye’s hypothesis on the workmanship of risk: with hand tools there is greater likelihood of a misplaced intervention, which could ruin the desired outcome.

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

When asked how the designers were different from the normal clientele of furniture maker enthusiasts, Leitz replied that they approached the course with ‘an image in mind’. For her this made the week more demanding, as the participants, with specific knowledge of furniture making, wanted to achieve a particular result. This was obvious to me while I was there: I only managed to grab a few sentences from her during a rushed tea-break before she had to go back and consult the makers.

The products that resulted from the week’s endurance were whisked away to Milan a week after. Like Clissett’s handmade chairs that made it to Heal’s in London in the early twentieth century, the chairs of these designers may well ignite a romanticism attached to local production and craftsmanship amongst a metropolitan crowd. In addition to this direct output, the bodging course provides a lesson in the value of craftsmanship without power machinery. But however pleasurable, interesting or eye opening this experience in the woods may be, it does not constitute a viable modern day production strategy. As David Green from Sitting Firm mentioned, his £8,000 machine can cut the same seat bottom in 30 seconds as it takes his hands to make in a day. These realities of production seem to limit’s the experiment’s scope. But using a different set of tools, materials and skills does have the potential to renew or reinvigorate furniture practice.

Stephen Knott is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, writing on the theory and practice of amateur craft.

More images can be found here.