or…Join me for a love fest
The publishing company Lost Art Press first came to my attention thanks to Jim Ferrell, a genial woodworker and tool geek who took a class I taught at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking a decade ago. After several years of prodding by Jim I subscribed to the Lost Art Press blog and gave it the occasional read. I was taken with the variety of content; I enjoy just about anything written by the whip-smart, sassy Megan Fitzpatrick, whose work used to appear at Lost Art Press more often than it has of late (give her a break; she’s restoring yet another old house while living in it), and I was intrigued that a woodworking blog published such esoterica as Suzanne Ellison’s research on peasant art in Lapland, not to mention the occasional kick-ass nugget of feminist woodworking history.
Then I read some advance publicity for L’Art du Menuisier. An oversized clothbound book of old-fashioned library quality, printed and produced entirely in the United States? With titles in French and drawings from more than two centuries ago? I had never spent $120 on a book. I especially had no business spending that much on a book of plans for such eccentricities as chaises d’aisances and voitures anciennes. But I was going to buy it, because any business that produced a woodworking-related book of such excellent form and content at this contemporary moment of e-publishing and knockdown-/wiki-up-everything was going to have my support, at least insofar as I could give it.
The Book of Plates, as the volume is also known, resonated with me because as someone who has made her living primarily from making things, I’ve been traumatized (that’s not hyperbole) by the casual way so many people complain about how much well-made things cost, only to drift into the now-well-worn lament about jobs going overseas. By the time 18th-century woodworking master A.J. Roubo entered my consciousness I’d spent a couple of decades silently talking back to those people (while sanding, cutting tenons, and routing seemingly endless dovetails for kitchen drawers) about what goes into making things of quality. The Book of Plates felt like a concrete expression of hope.
It’s not just a question of how many dollars’ worth of labor and materials go into making an object, or objects, plural; it’s a matter of basic respect. The way we think about things and their value says a lot about how we think about other people and their value, because it’s people who make things. Needless to say, this is a vast subject that could turn a comments section into a frontline battlefield, so forgive me for moving on instead of elaborating here. Even without elaboration, the point stands (if only at the level of a bumper sticker slogan).
A book is not just a means to information, but a made object in its own right. Hardly news, but worth restating. Just because we’ve been trained by our constant-consumption-dependent culture to think of books, along with most everything else, in instrumental terms, as mere vehicles for content (with the emphasis on content as the valuable component — the part that should supposedly be worth the most to us, the consumers), does not mean that’s all they are – or can or should be. You can find “information” on just about any subject at no charge on the web.
Which brings me to Chris Schwarz’s Roman Workbenches, or at least the first edition thereof. A slim, understated, letterpress-printed volume, it’s an exploration of the earliest workbenches we know of, to quote the description on its Lost Art Press page. I didn’t buy my copy; it was a gift, one I was thrilled to receive because I’d been intrigued by the quaintly formal frontispiece in advance promotions.
My first reading left me with a vague sense that the book was about much more than its title might suggest. It was clearly not just about how Roman workbenches function, or how to build them, but about discovering the Roman workbench as a form of utility furniture. Schwarz is a journalist by training, so his dogged investigative compulsion and his refusal to take accepted truths without question should come as no surprise. His often-humorous account of the winding road his research took him on offers guidance to those inclined to research other disused furniture forms.
But Schwarz’s research goes beyond the realm of words to practice. The sections on how he allowed the benches he built to teach him new ways of using his body to perform common operations more effectively are delightfully provocative (and no, these are not the reasons for the book’s PG-13 warning; I mean intellectually provocative).
How often do we see ourselves as students of our furniture? How often do we permit a “thing” to instruct us in its optimal use, instead of just dismissing something we find inconvenient as poorly designed? Schwarz sets an example of the open-minded detective ready to consider what unfamiliar tables, chairs, or cabinets can teach us about how those who made and used them worked. Such informed curiosity is a stark contrast to the usual mode of regarding things simply in terms of their usefulness to us. This is an attitude of rare humility and respect in the context of how we think about “stuff.”
If you let Schwarz’s discoveries percolate a while, you may find, as I did, that Roman Workbenches doesn’t just relate to Roman workbenches, but suggests – at least, by implication – that all the things with which we’re surrounded (our workbenches, spoons, hot water bottles, chaises d’aisances, wrenches, mopeds, and most definitely our books, whether budget paperbacks or deluxe editions, jewels of the bookmaker’s art) are quietly shaping us while we think we’re using them. Which raises another question: What kinds of things are we allowing ourselves to be shaped by, and what kinds of people are they turning us into?–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
Bonus recipe: Thanks to my friend Mary Beth for introducing me to the Martinez