Durable Goods reprise

I once wrote long ago about being interested in “composition” in the broadest sense. At the time, I was thinking in terms of words and images rather than objects. Surrounding the period when my mother died, I began to really consider the concepts surrounding “durable goods” because when confronting just what is important when faced with mortality. Like most people, I suppose, I hadn’t really thought much about the objects that fill our lives, and as my mother’s life was stripped down to the essential goods, I began to wonder about the matter of matter (as opposed to words/images, or more descriptively, eidolons).

In 2010 I came pretty close to putting some perspective on things when I tried to theorize about the relationship of craft to words, images, and woodworking (my latest sidetrack). To bring this decade long obsessive/compulsive spasm up to date, lately I’ve been building and thinking about furniture and household items (treen). I’ve thought several times that I should be compiling a bibliography of sources about this latest phase, which has moved far outside my usual comfort zone of art and literature. Thankfully, my wife has been teaching a seminar on rhetorics of craft which has brought new levels of focus to my scattered thoughts on the subject. We’ve been talking about craft a lot.

It dawned on me a few days ago that one of the reasons for the shift in subject areas (though not in methodology, strangely enough) is because I figured out a while ago that I am happiest when I am where I am. The place I live now was central to the Arts and Crafts movement in America during the early twentieth century. The original Stickley factory is just down the street from me. Consequently, it is all too natural to become obsessed with furniture history. After reading deeply on Arts and Crafts, the last month or so my attention has shifted to the Shakers (the original settlements are not far from me in the Hudson valley). In that shift, there’s been an interesting twist.

I’ve been pretty appalled the constant shilling for products by most writers on woodworking, even those who claim to be free from commercial interest. To acquire the best tools, seems to be a matter of constant worry for contemporary woodworkers. That attitude of connoisseur is pretty pervasive, particularly when boutique capitalism masquerades as anarchism. I haven’t been able to even consider building a thousand dollar workbench in expensive hardwood, or saw benches made of cherry wood, etc.. I really want to build furniture, not a collection of pretty tools. Visiting the workshops at Hancock Shaker Village revealed some unusual things– scrollsaws and lathes in every shop, for one thing. The scrollsaw has become a tool for fretwork alone, these days. But the shakers (who eschewed excessive ornament) still found solid uses for the tool, apparently. And most things in the Shaker shops seemed to be made of dull pine and poplar, not fancy hardwoods.

Shaker furniture used hardwoods when appropriate, but was not shy about using softwoods or paint when they would be suitable as well. Reading about some elements of furniture design in the UK in the early twentieth century, the phrase “fit for purpose” as a slogan appears. The language, taken from consumer protection law in the 19th century, makes sense. That’s a driving element behind twentieth century design in America as well, though it isn’t so clearly stated. I found myself wondering just why the idea of a cherry saw bench bothered me so much. After all, hardwoods are certainly “fit for purpose” for shop fixtures, they’re just expensive. Then it came to me— they are just plain ostentatious— conspicuous consumption of scarce resources for commonplace use. So “fit for purpose” isn’t the only factor in selecting material, it’s also important to me that there me some degree of humility.

Stickley furniture, with its quarter-sawn oak and heft is interesting to me but as a consumer product, it seems unsustainable. Only a select few can afford it. I like the philosophy behind some of it, and its solidness, but I’m afraid I’m slowly drifting away from it. I keep building Stickley style small pieces because they are nicely joined and economical in material for the most part, but I can’t see myself building the major pieces. My heart is headed somewhere else.

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