Size is relative

For the past week I’ve been having a grand old time working on a smaller-than-usual commission: a 2/3-scale baker’s cabinet based on one I built a few years ago that Popular Woodworking turned into a video. That earlier cabinet was made for a client in Chicago; she recently commissioned the miniature version as a gift for her mother’s 75th birthday.

It’s so little! I thought, charmed by the unfamiliar proportions. When I texted my client a snapshot of the tip-out bin (which is all of 11″ tall), I couldn’t help commenting “Squeee!!!!” 

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A bit dusty, but you get the idea

 

That was before today. At lunchtime I opened my email to find a message from Althea Crome, queen of tiny knitting. We’d never met, but her reputation preceded her; Althea’s the one who knitted the star sweater and striped gloves for the main character in the movie Coraline. (Well, to be precise, she didn’t just knit one sweater and one pair of gloves. It was more like 14 sweaters and six pairs of gloves, thanks to the demands of stop motion filming. “I’d get these little body parts in the mail so I could fit them,” she said, calling to mind a bit of distinctly Tim Burton-esque imagery.)

“Why I am really writing,” went her missive, following a friendly preamble, “is because I was recently made aware of your work and it just so happens that a dear friend of mine is in town for a few days who I would love to introduce you to. I think you may have a lot in common and would truly enjoy meeting each other.

“His name is Bill Robertson (A.K.A. Wm. R. Robertson) and [he is] one of the finest miniaturists working in wood and metal in the world.  He is also an avid collector and self-made scholar of antique tools and techniques.  In 2015 he won the Joe Martin Craftsman of the Year award: http://www.craftsmanshipmuseum.com/Robertson.htm.”
She happened to include a link to an image of a miniature tool box, the same image that a friend had posted on Facebook a mere few days before, tagging my husband and me. The tool box was completely out of control: so tiny. And so perfect. When I see such things, my mind feels ready to explode – first with How?, then WHY?, followed by “OK, this person is a god.”
Obviously I was not going to say no to a chance to meet that guy, not to mention Althea herself. The two of them showed up just before 5 and sat down for a cup of tea in our kitchen.
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Althea is holding one of a pair of earrings. Inside the glass ball is a hand-knitted sweater at 1:80 scale, with about 80 stitches to the inch. No, you can’t really see it, especially in this picture, but even in person. It’s that tiny. The sweater is fitted on an armature made of malleable plastic that she eased into the glass while the plastic was still soft. How? Why? This person is definitely some kind of god.

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Bill brought over a miniature table. The frame is dovetailed together. All of the parts function just as they do in the full-scale version. He even selects wood that has the same relative number of growth rings per inch (in miniature scale) as the original piece.

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I know what you’re thinking. “OK, that top, at the very least, is plastic.” Nope. Each one of those 35 porcelain tiles was handmade and hand-painted (each with its own biblical motif) by Bill’s friend LeeAnn ChellisWessel of DemiTasse Miniatures. (http://leeannchelliswessel.com)

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Here’s a glimpse of the table’s underside.

Althea, a former respiratory therapist, has been knitting miniatures since the turn of the millennium. You can see her work here. Bill, who built race cars in his youth, has been supporting himself as a world-renowned builder and teacher of miniature furniture making for 40 years. And no matter how successful he becomes, he continues to push himself. “You can’t just float,” he says. “Each piece has to be better in some way than the one before.”
All of which was more than enough to blow my mind. Needless to say, my 2/3-scale baker’s cabinet seems positively elephantine.
If you’re going to Handworks later this May you’ll find Bill at his friend Chris Vesper’s booth.

David Berman of Trustworth Studios, Part Two

Wallpaper: both literally and figuratively in the background…the setting against which the real action takes place. Yawn.

Not.

I’ve been a fan of wallpaper ever since the early 1980s, when my friend Bronwen and I drooled over each new edition of the Laura Ashley catalogue. (I know, you’re thinking “Laura Ashley? How twee. And aren’t their paint colors now sold through Lowe’s?” But those 1980s catalogues were gorgeous productions, not to mention surprisingly forward-looking in their use of dramatic settings to showcase everyday products.) From Laura I graduated to Bradbury & Bradbury, whose swatches I could count on to lift my spirits on even the gloomiest day. Starting in the mid-1990s I became aware of more period wallpaper makers, among them John Burrows, Carol Mead, and the masterly Adelphi Paper Hangings. But for years I’ve had a special fondness for Trustworth Studios.

Among Trustworth’s offerings you’ll find E.W. Godwin’s fabulous Aesthetic creation Bamboo, as well as the luscious Hydrangea, based on an 1896 pattern by Lindsay P. Butterfield. But the main reason why Trustworth has become my go-to source for late-19th century style is Voysey–or more precisely, David Berman’s interpretation of the architect C.F.A. Voysey’s designs. They’re not just gorgeous to behold, but often also funny: Always clever, sometimes dark, they were created by an artist of small stature and large intelligence whose grandfather, an architect, knew Ruskin, and whose father, a reverend, was expelled from the Church of England for denying the doctrine of eternal damnation; he later founded the Theistic Church with help from prominent individuals such as Charles Darwin. More (much more) on that in my book on English Arts & Crafts furniture, which will be published in 2018 by Popular Woodworking.

For now, take a little romp through a fraction of the work by means of which Trustworth Studios patterns come to life. This is no case of crude cutting and pasting.

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The process begins with David tracing an original design, using a stylus. Here the pattern is Trustworth’s “Falcon and Lily.”

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Next begins David’s work with color. Look closely at the outlines of the lily petals and you’ll see that they are made up of two lines, one a medium terracotta, the other darker. The same will eventually apply to the stem; here, David is building up its texture.

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The pattern becomes richer. David is working on the colors and introducing texture to emulate that of the original design, in the following image.

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Here the pattern contains far more detail, but there is still more to go.

Lebus sideboard with Trustworth paper at Popular Woodworking shoot

Here’s “Falcon and Lily” as the background for the book cover shoot at the studio of Popular Woodworking in Cincinnati. That’s Megan in the mirror. As this picture shows, the effect of the paper is quite different when the pattern’s spread across a large area. Instead of reading as a distinct pattern, it imparts to the room a certain feel.

David Berman of Trustworth Studios, Part I

David Berman of Trustworth Studios is a man of uncommonly varied accomplishments. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised to follow his father into the family business, D. Berman and Son, which sold high-power electrical equipment. But after a stint as a purchasing agent at his father’s plant he rejected this white-collar fate.

“Boredom with the corporate world forced me into my true nature,” he says, recalling the satisfaction of changing his old car’s exhaust system on his off hours and the joy of restoring antique musical boxes to working order.

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David Berman at his restored 1901 Aeolian Pianola 65-note push-up player with Merryweather standing by

Berman moved to Massachusetts in his mid-20s, as did many of his college friends. It was the 1970s; as so many of us do today, you earned a bachelor’s degree (Berman’s was in English) and promptly found work in painting or construction. In partnership with a friend, he formed a company that specialized in rehabilitating old houses. Learning on the job, he found he had a knack for shingling. One day, while working on the roof of an oceanfront house, he happened to glance toward the water and saw the Mayflower sailing by. “I’m having a hallucination from heat stroke,” he thought. But it really was the Mayflower.

As his skills increased and his appreciation of historic buildings grew more refined, Berman took on more challenging projects. In 1979 he moved a barn to Nantucket and converted it to a house. He then constructed a frame house entirely from scratch: the fictitious house to which the barn might originally have belonged. The new “old house” would be used to accommodate guests.

The business partnership dissolved in 1982, and Berman moved to Trustworth in Scituate, Massachusetts, the iconic Arts and Crafts home of Henry Turner Bailey. “H.T.B.,” as Berman calls him, famously championed public education in the arts and authored the 1914 book Art Education. “It was like moving into Sleeping Beauty’s castle for Arts and Crafts,” he muses. He spent years restoring the house, hoping to purchase it from Bailey’s heirs.

While living at Trustworth he began making furniture in the style of New England antiques. “No one wanted to buy it,” he comments, so he turned his focus to furniture in the English Arts and Crafts style. An English course in high school had introduced him to late-Victorian literature; in an effort to bring the period to life, the teacher had shared a photo of the parlor at Wightwick Manor. Berman was entranced by the vision of wood-panelled walls, stained-glass windows, and Morris wallpapers, which he says “percolated in the back of my head.” The archives at Trustworth offered a treasure trove of research material. Berman immersed himself. Especially fascinated by the work of C.F.A. Voysey, Berman built a clock, numerous light fixtures in wood, glass, and copper, and a variety of furniture in his favorite designer’s style.

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One of Berman’s Voysey-inspired light fixtures made in wood, glass, and meticulously hand-cut metal

 

In 1994 Berman’s dream of buying Trustworth fell through and he moved to Plymouth, where he purchased a 1910 shingle style cottage. “Not really habitable,” he describes its state at the time, what with broken windows, a leaking roof, and no working plumbing or electricity. He threw himself into restoration, then ran the place as a bed and breakfast for a few years. In the meantime he returned to building furniture and lighting, the income from which proved barely enough to scrape by on.

It was at this point that Berman realized he could parlay his knowledge of historic architecture and interiors into period design consulting. Which brings us to the subject of wallpaper. The digital technology for printing papers was “just good enough” at the time. He taught himself to use a computer, and as the printing technology improved, his skills grew with it. Basing his patterns on meticulously researched original Arts and Crafts designs, Berman produces a growing line of wallpapers and fabrics for residential and institutional interiors, in addition to commissioned papers for historic houses. You’ll find them at the Peabody Essex Museum, the High Line Hotel, and other institutional and commercial locations, as well as in homes on several continents.

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An original Voysey chair with “Isis,” one of Berman’s Voysey wallpaper patterns

 

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says of his work translating original drawings and paintings by Voysey, Godwin, Mackintosh, and others into wallpapers and fabrics. “When I am drawing and have music playing, I am happy. It’s a bit like puzzle solving: You have to break [a basic design] down into color, and you have to figure out the pattern breaks. There’s also the bliss of color—things that shouldn’t go together, but when you put them together, they just go.”

Coming next: The nuanced art of period wallpaper design

A spirit-filled exercise

Please join us at Bloomington’s own craft distillery, Cardinal Spirits, on Wednesday, April 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. for luscious locally produced spirits (check out that copper still!) and a book signing.

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Putting pictures to names

A reader of Making Things Work remarked that it was nice to see a picture of Daniel (a.k.a. the returning hero), because it enabled him to put a face with the name. Here are a few others.

Mary Lee with drill

Saffron Walden view over rooftops to cathedral

The view from the attic room of our skinny house in Saffron Walden, on a rare snowy day in 1986. The beauty of this image makes my heart ache.

Nancy working circa 1976

I have often wondered how I came to be smiling in this picture, considering how much I hated my weekends working with my mother and stepfather on those houses in London. It wasn’t the work I minded, but the cold, which was miserable. Hence the many layers of clothing you see in this picture, circa 1976. (Don’t even ask why I was using a surform to flatten a board. That was the tool provided to me.)

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The munchies cart from which my [now extraordinarily law abiding and ultra-responsible] sister happened to take some cash circa 1969: a marvel of ingenious construction.

No exaggeration

Henceforth, UK and European orders of Making Things Work will be handled by Classic Hand Tools. But I will be a little sad not to be handling those orders personally.

‘Til now, those orders, along with others from Canada and the southern hemisphere (I am looking at you, Megan, and you, Chris), have been shipped by yours truly via the Stanford Post Office. The Wikipedia entry for Stanford doesn’t even bother to give a population figure, though the place has had a Post Office since the 1830s, which is to say, damn near as long as Indiana has been a state. Ray, the clerk, has been very good-natured about the unbelievably time-consuming customs stuff (which makes abundantly clear to me why some other publishers choose not to deal with international orders).

Still, the first order from England came from someone with a name so impossibly British that I had to wonder whether it was made up: “St.John Starkie.”

Uh huh.

Always glad to indulge eccentricity, I sent “Mr. Starkie” (nudge nudge, wink wink) a brief note informing him that postage to the UK would require an additional payment. You have to understand that when I read “Starkie” my mind ran immediately to “starkers,” a British euphemism for “naked.” But hey, if an editor at the World Book Encyclopedia circa 1969 was willing to address me as “Norman Stanley Hippietoe,” who was I to question this book buyer’s name?

Come to find (as many folks in south-central Indiana would say) that St.John Starkie (pronounced “sinjin,” not “Saint John”) is this man’s real name. And he is quite a character. Today I got one of the most delightful missives I have ever received from a reader. You can read it below. (Don’t worry; I got express permission to share it.)

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All of which is to say that if you thought my accounts of the English cold were exaggerated…well, NOT. As I replied to St.John at lunchtime today, I omitted my take on that unique Fenland weather phenom that is the headwind. Regardless of which direction you’re pedaling on your bicycle, it will bedevil you. (I imagined that most American readers would think I was, to use a good British saying, “having them on,” had I included this in my account. So I’m grateful to St.John for saving this particular day.)

You can follow St.John on Instagram at the_quiet_workshop (the quiet being a stark [ouch! don’t do that!] contrast to the daily reality of my workshop) and also via his blog: https://thequietworkshop.wordpress.com/.

New distribution for Making Things Work

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I’m thrilled and honored to share the news that Making Things Work will shortly be available through the following three distributors, which are listed here in the order in which they made arrangements with me:

Shop Woodworking

Lost Art Press

Classic Hand Tools which will distribute the book in the UK and Europe.

Thanks to Megan Fitzpatrick, Chris Schwarz, John Hoffman, St.John Starkie, and the guys at Classic Hand Tools.

One of these days my desk may be clear again. (Yes, that is a wad of cat hair in the foreground.)

 

Can you say “cluster”?

Thanks primarily to Megan Fitzpatrick at Popular Woodworking Magazine and Chris Schwarz of Lost Art Press, things have been busier than usual around our place over the past few days, which is to say: I’ve spent all too much time sitting on this chair, filling out FedEx forms online, and wrapping books for shipment.

This is not helping the jobs in progress in the shop.

NOT COMPLAINING.

Au contraire. We’re still talking about the break-even point (though we are, at two weeks in, approaching that point, thanks to the two folks in the first paragraph, along with a few others [Laura Mays? Freddy Roman? St.John Starkie? Thank you.])

The point of this post is to note that, due to the unforeseen but most definitely welcome volume of orders, I realized yesterday that I had purchased too few shipping boxes. So whether you’re in Moscow, Idaho, or your surname is Moskowitz, or you live on Moscow Lane (never before did I realize that countries, surnames, cities, and streets get so jumbled in this free-for-all that is the U.S.A.), your order may be delayed by a day or so. Please know that I’m on it.

Beauty Overload

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Chipping Campden, viewed from up the road following a shower

I spent last week in England doing research for a Popular Woodworking book on English Arts and Crafts furniture. Monday took me with my good friend Bronwen to the impossibly picturesque Gloucestershire village of Chipping Campden, where C. R. Ashbee moved his Guild of Handicraft in 1902.

Although the original Guild was dissolved in 1908 due to financial troubles–the move from London to Chipping Campden made it harder to reach the necessary clientele, an unfortunate (though predictable) problem that was compounded by a widespread economic slowdown–it was reorganized as a trust and operated until 1914. Some of the craftsmen continued their work independently thereafter.

One vestige of Ashbee’s Guild still operates today: Hart Silversmiths, located in a small workshop on the second floor of the old silk mill building on Sheep Street.

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Historical marker on the building’s facade

Here’s a brief virtual tour.

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Derek Elliott has worked at Hart’s for 35 years, since he finished high school.

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On the day of our visit Derek was working on this silver bowl, which started out as a circle cut from this sheet. The decanter is one of many variations on a signature Ashbee design.

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The view from Derek’s bench

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A wood stove stands at the middle of the workshop.

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A no-frills filing system takes care of invoices paid, which must by law be kept for several years (those are pinned to the rafters) and those still due (the white ones clipped in a sheaf).

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Amidst all the history, you will still find a few plastic-handled tools, modern light bulbs, and even a telly.

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The guest book includes evidence of a visit by a certain American architect in 1910.

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No doubt some wit will point out the oddness of the bolts on the outside of the door. Rest assured, there was a variety of locks on the inside as well.

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Visiting Chipping Campden was like bringing the pages of a Penelope Hobhouse gardening book to life.

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Lots of thatched roofs

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My dear friend Bronwen (left) drove us to Chipping Campden. We went for tea after visiting Hart’s.

 

On the Home Stretch

After more (many more) neurotic revisions than I would like to admit, the dust jacket for Making Things Work has at last been sent to the printer. Here’s the front cover:making-things-work-dust-jacket

We’re waiting for the final version of the text to come back from book designer Meghan Bates, then things will go into production, beginning with the long-anticipated arrival of fabric swatches for the binding. (Being a color junkie, I cannot wait to see the available colors.)

Here are some choice excerpts from the back-cover blurbs:

“…chisel-sharp, damn-funny…” – Jonathan Binzen, Senior Editor, Fine Woodworking

“…funny and sharp, occasionally pathetic, often brave, and most of all, inspirational…” – Chuck Bickford, former Senior Editor, Fine Homebuilding

Yes, occasionally pathetic.

“A must-read for those brave souls ready to sally forth into a creative profession where belief in oneself must never waver.” – Mark Harrell, Bad Axe Tool Works

“This book is riveting, pulling the reader into the author’s transatlantic story, including unrequited romances, conflicts about hinges, occasional slapstick, and sleepless nights spent worrying about budget, hardware, and design.” – Kathryn Lofton, Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, Yale University.

The book should be available for purchase by mid-March. I’ll be posting updates here, as well as on Instagram and Facebook.