THE FURNITURE SOCIETY’S ANNUAL MEETING AT MIT
Copyright Vladimir Kagan 2010
The Furniture Society is a loosely knit but tightly bonded group of the best furniture designer makers in America and from around the world. They come in all sizes: Grizzly graybeards, beanie-hatted hipsters, young aficionados, and weathered craftsmen (a few with tips of their fingertips missing… a sure sign of a seasoned woodworker…I have had a mortal fear of my machines ever since I had to drive my best cabinet maker to the emergency room, holding his cut-off fingers in a towel…P.S. they did manage to sew them on again, almost as good a new!).
The Society meets once a year in diverse settings. This year’s conference: FS2010: FUSIONS met in Cambridge at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was all about the fluid relationships between mind and hand, tools and materials, maker and client, technique and theory…. The conference brought together craftsmen and women, designers, collectors, educators and curators. There could not have been a more prestigious setting. MIT is a Mecca of architectural experimentation. Every worthy architect of the 20th and 21st Century had been commissioned to create one of their illustrious buildings: starting with the Beaux-Arts firm of McKim Mead and White, they moved on to the esthetic modernism of Eero Saarinen, and I. M. Pei’s sensitive consructionism and on to Frank Gehry deconstructionist Architecture building.
Within these exalted Halls the Furniture Society’s celebrated their 13th Annual meeting.
MIT's $300 million Stata Center in Cambridge, designed by architect Frank Gehry, was completed in the spring of 2004. (In 2007 MIT's filed a negligence suit against Frank Gehry, charging that flaws in his design of the $300 million Stata Center in Cambridge, one of the most celebrated works of architecture unveiled in years, caused leaks to spring, masonry to crack, mold to grow, and drainage to back up! (So much for Avante Garde architecture!...Vladi)
Amongst MIT’s well-known graduates have been George Nakashima and Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s Car Talk Show maker. Ray gave the Keynote speech and kept us in stitches with his aside annotations. We learned that he is really not all that much obsessed with cars and drives an old family clunker. He, not so coincidentally, is also a skilled furniture maker.
Ray Magliozzi and Vladimir Kagan at Furniture Conference at MIT
The conference touched base on a broad range of subjects: Technology, going green, inspiration from the past, mind and hand connection and furniture forward. Heady stuff crammed into three days. Unfortunately, we were only able to participate the first day – and thereby missed other events including this year’s Award of Distinction given to John Cederquist – (last year, I was the fortunate recipient.) Unfortunately, other commitments forced us to miss the rest.
However, in our short stay we did take in a few of the workshops; visited three exhibits and had an enjoyable al fresco lunch with our old friend John Makepeace, who had flown over from England, to make a presentation the next day. Brooke Davis who is a whiz at working with C&C machines and recreates elaborate sculpting and 3D modeling in wood; Mark Bench, a delightful Englishman, living and working in Manhattan, is a member of the Board of Trustees and is deeply involved with the structure of the Society; Lili Jackson, Daughter of Ann Rockler Jackson of the Rockler woodworking and hardware supplier, and Scott Grove, a superb woodworker who worked for Wendell Castle (the bonhomie of furniture makers) as studio director and expanded his skills into other media such as Fiberglass and semi-precious gems. Scott presented some wild veneering techniques at a later workshop, explaining his pioneered wavy contour seam and a spiral match. Scott just informed me that he had won the 2010 Veneer Tech Craftsman Challenge grand prize AND also took a merit award in one of the four other categories. (No one had ever taken two out of the five awards in the past).
Scott Grove’s veneering technique on one of his chest of drawers
Another furniture icon at the conference was Garry Knox Bennett, A man the size of a Grizzly and the sweetness of a Teddy Bear. In the 60’s, Garry turned pot smoking from a sub-culture into a million dollar enterprise by inventing and producing a better roach clip. Today he is a consummate craftsman: His work is entertaining and adventuresome. Garry has had numerous exhibits and books written about his work. Check him out in a book called “Made In Oakland: The Furniture of Garry Knox Bennett”.
In recent years Garry created 120 chairs, each a work of art: Unique, often whimsical. 52 of them were exhibited in the Bellevue Art Museum in Bellevue, Washington and traveled to five other venues over the next four years. The museum published a catalog in a beautifully illustrated book titled “Call Me Chairmaker”.
For the members’ exhibit: he signed one of these chairs with an original roach clip and a two-dollar bill and the word “perhaps”. To explain this tongue-in-cheek humor, it is tied to an earlier exhibit that was titled Historical Woods: the exhibit’s premise: Woods acquired from historic sites…. The Poplar wood used to make his spin-off of Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair came from President Jefferson’s estate, (hence the two-dollar bill with Jefferson’s image on it.) The other corollary was that Jefferson was reputed to have grown hemp on his estate, (ostensibly for making rope and other useful items). Garry suggests “perhaps” with a roach clip)…. Jefferson was an innovator and was credited with having added the writing arm on a Windsor chair, as Garry did to the Z chair.
Vladimir admiring Garry Knox Bennett’s paraphrase of Rietveld’s Zig-Zag Chair
Among the interesting presentations we attended, I particularly enjoyed Douglas Green’s well-organized lecture, Design and Crafting in the 21st Century. He talked of his successful knockdown furniture collection, giving us ample illustrations visually and figuratively on their advantage such as shipping costs, ease of assembly and less obsolescence. He made a convincing case for licensing instead of craft production. (However, he did not convince me, as I have been there; tried it; and don’t like it) It seems that “The grass is always greener on the other side!” Doug has an idyllic 10,000 square foot workshop, fully equipped, in Portland Maine, which he is trying to bail out of. Anyone interested in relocating? Here is your chance…. Were I younger, I would bite on it at once!
Squeezed into our one-day’s tight agenda were visits to three exhibits of members’ works: The main exhibit in the Kresge Auditorium lobby, included works by makers from Historical Woods of America, who focused on projects made with recycled woods from historic sites such as Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and Jefferson’s Monticello. This exhibit was the brainchild of William Jewell and Jacques Vesery, both wood artisans. It was their vision to immortalize historic woods felled or harvested from America’s historic sites. The exhibit produced an amazing potpourri of works with spiritual legends written by each of the makers. A beautiful catalog accompanied the show and is well worthwhile acquiring or finding on the Internet: Historical Woods of America.
Below are just a few of the examples that captivated me.
Jaques Vesery's exquisitely turned and sculpted vessel in multiple woods and semi-precious stone
William Jewell's Console Table made of figured walnut and the skeleton of a Saguaro Cactus
The second exhibit: 6 Degrees of Separation in the Compton Gallery, featured woodworkers form the six New England states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
My apology to the wonderful New England craftsmen for the small photos of their work... I cribbed them from the internet.
The Fly Fish Cabinet is by Cunningham. The Textured Sideboard by Bart Niswonger. The sheet covered chair and table: ' Until Next Year' are actually carved in wood by James Sagui. The delicate Cephalopod is by sculptor Maario Messina---- and the amusing "Adorn-meant" cabinet by Mark Del Guidice
The third exhibit was furniture makers trying their hand at outdoor furniture. It was spread over the lawn of the Kresge Green and proved to be a fun place to rest our buns in the fresh air between a full agendum of events.
Erica and Vladi taking a break on a straw couch, part of the outdoor furniture exhibit
If you are interested in fine furniture making or just good craft, this is the group to tie in with. For more information on the Furniture Society, visit www.furnituresociety.org