Category Archives: Writing

All hail the book

or…Join me for a love fest

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Roman Workbenches: tiny but mighty. Despite their lack of aprons and stretchers, those Roman Workbenches can lift some weight.

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.

 

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Frontispiece with suitable Friday evening libation, a Martinez

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.

 

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I take great pleasure in discovering words such as oecus in contemporary woodworking literature. The word comes from the Greek oikos, which, millennia before it signified a brand of yogurt, was the word for house or home, and so, figuratively, a room. From it we derive English words such as economy and ecology. (Think about the implications, which are profound.)

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).

 

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Another delightful word: erotes. Sounds bizarre until you learn it’s simply a transliteration from the Greek plural of the word eros, i.e., desire. This word was commonly used to connote the god of love, a.k.a. Cupid (the corresponding Latin word for desire, as in our word cupidity).

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

Live and Learn

Some people have the vague notion that when you’ve been a woodworker for decades, you know how to do everything. If only. No one knows how to do everything. Experience in a variety of techniques may be transferable to new forms, but just because a technique will work does not mean it’s especially good in structural or aesthetic terms, let alone efficient to use in specific circumstances.

When faced with a woodworking mystery–say, a look I want for a finish, or some convincing 3-D effect I’d like to produce in an 1/8-inch-deep relief carving–I like to try to answer the question for myself before I seek the answer from others. The effort of thinking a problem through will often give me deeper insight into methods others recommend, and it’s especially satisfying when I find that “my” method is the one used by other woodworkers I respect.

I’ve enjoyed a few such moments while planning how to build a hayrake table for the book on English Arts & Crafts furniture I’m writing for Popular Woodworking.

Gimson table drawing

My contact at Bridgeman Images provided a hi-res image of Gimson’s original drawing for the table, which we will purchase the rights to reproduce in the book.

I chose this particular table based on an original drawing by Ernest Gimson that I came across online. The artistry in the rendering is delightful, and the table fit the bill when I was looking for a furniture form distinct from the other two projects in the book, a chair and a sideboard. It wasn’t until I was at the lumberyard looking through stacks of sassafras that I got wind of the fun in store for me, thanks to a message from Frank Strazza. “The challenge is getting all 5 shoulders to meet perfectly, everything is scribed to fit,” he wrote in an Instagram post to which he referred me. My blood ran cold. Then I adjusted my perspective: This table is a puzzle.

In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say across the Atlantic. Here are a few of the thrills I’ve enjoyed on this journey to date.

The lamb’s tongue
I love the look of a lamb’s tongue, but in more than 30 years of work as a cabinetmaker, I had never before had occasion to make one. I devised my technique based on what made sense, starting with a saw kerf to make the clean transition from chamfer to carving. I made a sample; it worked well.

Lamb's tongue trial

Yeah, it’s super rough. It was a quick experiment in a piece of discarded wood. But I figured out how to make a lamb’s tongue.

When you’re writing for publication, you want to be informed about these things. I was especially concerned that my use of the saw kerf might be way out in left field. So I did an online search. Up came a Lee Valley post written by Chris Schwarz, who starts with a saw kerf and follows through with a chisel, as I had.

Yes.

The joint between the stretcher and the legs
The hayrake table form I’ve seen published most often is based on one by Sidney Barnsley in which the stretcher meets the legs at a 90-degree angle. I’d seen the same leg-to-stretcher orientation in a gorgeous hayrake table made by Ernest Barnsley at The Wilson last spring. But the Gimson table’s stretcher rails meet the legs in a V—commonly known as a bird’s mouth in the realm of architectural moldings, which presents a challenge.

I could see the joint being an actual bird’s mouth (in molding terms, if not in ornithological terms), preferably with a tenon or spline to lock the stretcher mechanically in place. Not that I was sure about how I’d create that mechanical part. Alternatively, the stretcher could be notched into the leg.

This time I consulted Christopher Vickers, an English craftsman-designer who has built several variations on the Gimson hayrake theme; we met last spring when I interviewed him at his home in Somerset for this book. (Look out for a post on Vickers, coming soon. You’ll be blown away by his shop.) “Your first guess is almost correct,” he wrote back, “in that the legs are notched for the stretchers but with the addition of a short tenon on the end of the stretcher with a mortice (1/3rd width of the stretcher) into the leg.”

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Cool again. It’s so fun to learn a new technique that builds on stuff you already know.

Mitered mortise and tenon joint
The hayrake stretchers meet the center stretcher rail at 45 degrees, and the drawing indicates a pegged mortise and tenon joint. This all seemed fine until I experimented with chopping the mortises. How would I get the point at the far end, I wondered—that is, make a mortise that ended in a pointed V?

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A trial tenon for the hayrake-to-center-rail joint, placed next to the full-scale layout. I tried to cut that sharp far point of the mortise but wondered whether it was really necessary.

It seemed to me that it would make more sense to make that end of the tenon square, but I was worried that this might be cutting corners. (Ouch.) So I looked up Mike Pekovich’s article from 2012. Mike cut the far end of the tenon square.

Happy dance.

Hedge your bets by leaving parts over-length until you need them cut to size

It seemed like a good idea to leave the stretcher parts long, cutting each joint in a logical sequence called for by the structure. This way I wouldn’t cut the joint on one end of a part only to find I’d thereby made the part too short to allow for the joint on the other end. Leaving the parts long would also allow me enough material to redo a joint if I messed it up. If I was correct, the parts should come together like a puzzle. It was nice to see that Mike recommends just this approach in his article, although the joinery in that table has significant differences from that in the Gimson example.

And so it goes. We live and learn.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Why I married my sister

I published my latest book in March. Publishing it myself was the last thing I originally had in mind. I’m well aware of the stigma attached to self-publishing. Chris Schwarz puts it as starkly as anyone ever has: “In the media world, publishing your own book is akin to marrying your sister. Most self-published books are about encounters with aliens that involve wax paper and Wesson oil, or Klingon wildlife poetry, or recipes for curing cancer with celery salt.”

With Maggie 1963

She’s the one without the fake smile.

The book was a longstanding thorn in my side, albeit a thorn of my own placing. I started working on it a dozen years ago, fitting the writing in around the edges of my daily work. The book would respond to two of my professional peeves: (1) the widespread public ignorance of what it costs to make things when you’re doing so for a living and have to cover the many expenses, beyond labor and materials, associated with running a business; and (2) the romanticization of furniture making as a way to make a full-time living. My model, authorially speaking, was Michael Pollan; I hoped to present a detailed picture of what goes into making a table, a dresser, or a set of kitchen cabinets and explain the related costs – in existential, as well as financial terms.

One year in, I began to wonder whether I would ever find enough time to complete the research and get the necessary distance from my manuscript to do the subject justice. Out of the blue, a client asked me to write a book directly in line with my interest in period cabinetry for the Indiana University Press; she even arranged for a contract with an advance. How could I turn that down? Two years later, I had an opportunity to work on a book about another subject that has long exercised me: the way many of us form relationships with our home, especially when living without a human partner. That book was published by the same press. All of which is to say that it was easy to be distracted by writing other books with firm contracts, in contrast to the nebulousness of the book I still felt compelled to write but didn’t really know how to.

The book continued to nag. I worked on it when I could. One day I was working in the kitchen of an especially trying client, marveling at how Fawlty-Towers-surreal the job had become, and it hit me: Maybe Michael Pollan was not the best author-model for me. Maybe David Sedaris was a better fit.

I went back to square one, making many of the same points, but now through humorous tales drawn from real life. A friend put me in touch with a literary agent who had secured not one, but two lucrative offers from prestigious presses for her husband’s book. The agent graciously discussed my book and agreed to represent me. We worked together for several months, during which he provided some good critical feedback. But I never quite felt we were on the same page.

When the time came to discuss pitching the proposal to publishers, the question of blurbs arose. “Of course you know who the obvious choice for a blurb is,” the agent said matter-of-factly.

“Sedaris?” I wanted to respond, but kept my mouth shut, knowing that Sedaris is on what he calls a self-imposed “blurbatorium.”

“Jimmy Carter!” the agent exclaimed with a note of triumph.

My heart sank. My agent and I really weren’t on the same page. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a serious fan of Carter, the man. But he doesn’t strike me as the right woodworker to blurb a book in which the F-word appears four times in the first two pages. I couldn’t reconcile the former president with the ribaldry that colors daily life for so many of us in the crafts and trades. What I needed was someone edgy, with contemporary clout.

“I think Nick Offerman would be more appropriate,” I replied.

“Who’s that?” the agent responded.

Maggie and I 1962

She has always been the cute one hamming for the camera.

It was starting to look like I would need an alternative plan. As anyone in the book world is aware, barring some inside connection it’s all but impossible to get an East Coast publisher to look at a manuscript without an agent. Getting an agent is a challenge in itself, and I’d already had a taste of what working with one can entail. I wasn’t even sure I’d want to write a version of my book that my agent was likely to deem marketable. And if I got a contract with a big-time publisher, I would face the prospect of who-knows-how-much-more reworking to bring my manuscript in line with an editor’s vision for what he or she thought the book should be.

Shortly after this dispiriting conversation with my agent, I was discussing my projet with Megan Fitzpatrick. She urged me to publish the book myself, having it printed and bound by one of the firms used by Lost Art Press. “You may not sell as many copies,” she said, “but you’ll make more money [on each copy] than you would with a commercial publisher.”* I took her statement with not a pinch, but a pound, of salt. As one of my editors in the world of woodworking periodicals, she was familiar with my work in words, as well as wood. But she hadn’t even read the proposal for my book, let alone the manuscript. For all I knew, she and everyone else might consider it a load of rubbish. What if I couldn’t even sell enough copies to break even?

In the end, my agent and I parted ways on friendly terms, and I took Megan’s advice. I sent the manuscript to some of my most discerning friends for critical feedback, then hired a professional copy editor, book designer, and graphic artist to ensure that it would be as close as possible to a commercial publisher’s quality. It was a big financial risk (OK, a drop in the bucket compared to the risk taken by Lost Art Press to bring Roubo Deluxe into being, but a big financial risk relative to my resources); I had to borrow the several thousand dollars it took for printing and binding.

Fortunately, Megan and Chris Schwarz both wrote enthusiastically about the book and recommended it. Thanks to those who bought the book on their (and subsequent readers’) recommendation, I broke even after two months. Huge relief. Another early reader saw to it that a copy found its way into the hands of Nick Offerman, who wrote the kind of blurb a writer can only dream of.

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Photo via Instagram, courtesy of Offerman Wood Shop

These poignant, honest, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious but always masterful stories are so much more than woodworking anecdotes – they are nakedly human moments…. A necessary read for any aspiring craftsperson, but just as requisite for the clientele. I can’t decide in what retail section this book should be displayed – fine woodworking? Sure, that’s easy, but the integrity of Ms. Hiller’s voice, the tenacity of her principles, and the respect with which she endows honest, hard work compel me to suggest instead the shelves of philosophy, self-help, etiquette, or even religion, goddamnit.–Nick Offerman

Selling a book becomes a job in its own right. I’m grateful to everyone who has read the book and recommended it to others.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*I’m always shocked when I hear someone talk about authors “getting rich” from their books. Sure, some best-selling authors make a good amount (a few make a very good amount) of money from book sales. But many authors make $1-$2 per copy in royalties. The odds are tiny that sales of Making Things Work will ever cover the cost of the time I invested in writing, let alone promoting the book. But when you feel compelled to do something, you do it.

 

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.

Behind the feathery crown

Whether or not you find a piece of furniture attractive at first sight, your opinion of the piece will certainly be enriched by insight into how it was made.

For years I’d seen a grouping of pieces made by the Showers Furniture Company prominently displayed at the Monroe County History Center:

Showers 2 Showers 1

I thought them grotesque: gaudy, cheaply made, masquerading as something of higher quality than the ample signs of their factory production revealed. But in the course of researching and writing my book about Hoosier cabinets I developed a surprising appreciation for such modest furnishings, which, precisely because of their factory production, were affordable for millions of families during the early 20th century.

So when you look at the odd piece in the snapshot below, where my friend Mary Beth and I were hamming it up for the camera at the opening of a furniture exhibition, I hope you’ll see beyond the goofy, two-dimensional “crown,” the overwrought legs, and the busy mix of wood species to the solid materials, traditional craftsmanship, and scholarship I invested in the piece, which I produced as part of an educational project funded by an Indiana University arts grant.

State Museum Opening w MBR

***

This page from a 1933 edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog shows the china cabinet pictured above. This model and the other pieces in the suite were sold for several years, into the '30s.

This page from a 1933 edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog shows the china cabinet and sideboard pictured above. This model and the other pieces in the suite were sold for several years, into the ’30s.

This magazine advertisement shows another popular Showers product: fancy cabinets for radios.

A magazine advertisement shows another popular Showers product: fancy cabinets for radios.

My design followed many hours at the Indiana State Library researching Showers pieces from the early 20th century. It’s a riff on the mass-produced treasures of the 1920s that flaunted the day’s most popular trends for everyman. What’s contemporary about my take is the use of materials that were locally grown or salvaged{1}, with traditional joinery in place of fabrication processes designed for mass-production.

To wit: Traditional mortise and tenon joinery for the drawer section of the three-part ensemble…

Corona 039

… and dovetails, of both the sliding (a.k.a. “French”) variety, as seen below, and the socket variety, cut by hand, in the making of the drawers.

Here’s a shot of the drawer case’s framework–what you see here is the front, where the drawer face will eventually go–routed with a dovetailed slot that will hold the decorative bracket at the left side of the front. The decorative bracket destined to be glued into this dovetailed slot lies on the bench.

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To make the legs for the base framework I turned the rounded sections on the lathe, then carved the flutes by hand with a gouge and mallet.

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Here’s the base assembly with its front and back rails and center stretcher:

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and now the base frame with the drawer case and drawer:

Corona 007

For the solid walnut top of the base ensemble I wanted to carve a gadrooned edge similar to the one on this Mission style library table I’d seen at a junk shop, but without the intermediate veins:

gadroon

My first attempt resulted in this simple version–carved, to be sure, but not what I was aiming at:

Corona 038

After a carving course with Mary May and before the opening of the State Museum show, I made a new top with better carving that looks more “rolled.”

corona edge carving

The door, like the carved top of the drawer assembly, is made from walnut with traditional mortise and tenon joints designed to fit a rabbeted frame. Here’s the top rail with its tenon partly cut:

Corona 020

and here’s one of the mortises with apologies for the fuzzy shot:

Corona 015

The door is hung on traditional non-adjustable butt hinges:

Corona 024

Next came the scrollwork, my favorite feature of the original Showers pieces that inspired Corona Plumosa. Hands-on investigation of the Showers suite at the Monroe County History Center (with kind permission from then-director Diane Ballard) revealed that the original scrollwork was cut from a material not unlike our contemporary medium-density fiberboard (mdf). Armed with this precedent I chose a sheet of discarded 1/8th-inch-thick mdf that had come to my shop as protective packing for an order of custom-veneered panels. Once I’d calculated the dimensions and layout of the scrollwork, allowing for the parts that would be concealed behind the rabbet, I made a full-scale pattern in 1/4-inch plywood and checked everything for size:

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… then cut it out using a jigsaw, spokeshave, and files. I actually preferred the unstained version of the scrollwork shown here:

Corona Negra 4, 4.30.12

… but knew that it looked too contemporary for my piece.

Looking through the door in the image just above, you can see one of the animal faces formed by the burly maple when I bookmatched the panels for the back. I didn’t even see the faces until months after I had completed the piece, when I was showing the maple to a client who was considering using the remaining boards I had in stock for a dining table top. He pointed out the faces.

The finished upper cabinet:

Corona 046

{1} Burly silver maple from Joe Davison of Davison Hardwood Quality Specialists in Spencer, Indiana; quartersawn red oak salvaged from a tornado-felled tree that had once grown on the site of Indiana University’s first home; and walnut from a tree that had lived on my husband’s property in western Monroe County.

 

 

 

Interview with Johnny Grey

Issue number 231 of Fine Homebuilding magazine includes my interview with British kitchen designer Johnny Grey, creator of the Unfitted Kitchen.* Due to space constraints, the published version contains only a fraction of the material I took down during a telephone conversation that was over an hour long. Here’s a version with some fascinating bits that had to be excised from the Tailgate interview. Square brackets indicate words inserted for clarity or relocated from other parts of the interview for narrative flow.

1.

What were some of your early influences?

My father was a general practitioner in London. He loved making things. We had no money–you can imagine the scene in postwar Britain–but he said, “I’ll always buy you tools and materials if I can.”

My mother was a bit of a romantic. She had this great passion for the Sussex Downs, [where] she bought a sweet little abandoned cottage. She had a strong vision [for its restoration]; it wasn’t going to be added onto or poshed up. She [also] bought a gypsy caravan and kept it parked in a field at the cottage, visiting on weekends. I was conceived in it. [Eventually there were five kids—four boys and a girl] in a house with just two bedrooms. The caravan became our third bedroom. [But it also played another important role in my life.] Being made of painted softwood with a canvas roof, the caravan was always leaking. It became a rite of passage for each of us to fix this wretched roof. [That was how we] learned woodworking.

2.

What was your training in design?

I studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London [during the ‘70s] It was a place of intellectual ferment, a design hothouse. I was exposed to incredible ideas. Ivan Illich dropped by and gave a talk. Buckminster Fuller gave a talk. Lyall Watson launched his book Supernature [there].

3.

How did you get into kitchens?

It was all a big accident. I disliked the corporate world and loathed the business of my hours being “owned” by other people. Because of my rather bohemian background in Sussex, I felt I couldn’t handle a job where I wouldn’t be making anything. The thing about kitchens is, you can do a bit of everything—design, making, meeting the clients.

Today, the kitchen has become a real place. It used to be a second-rate room for women and servants. In the ‘70s, people began to realize that there was a real role for a kitchen company: to plan the big picture–layout, flooring, lighting, etc.–in addition to cabinetry.

4.

Why “unfitted” kitchens?

I have a strong emotional bond with furniture. [My great-grandmother became an antique dealer after her husband died. My mother, too, loved antiques.] While studying architecture I ran an antique business. I had to develop my own sense of style very quickly, since in that line of work, your living depends on being known for a particular style.

5.

Do you remember any particular kitchen from your early days with special fondness?

[My first job], the Gothic kitchen, was tremendous fun. Every piece in the room was from a different period of gothic, but it had a sort of happenstance unity. My client, Sam, invited the features editor of Harpers to dinner. Before you knew it, Harpers had commissioned a story—Sam would write the recipes, and I would write about the design of the kitchen. A Helmut Newton[-like character] photographed the client sitting with his bottom in one half of the sink, his legs hanging over into the other, and a stuffed parrot on the stove. It was really about being rather lunatic and enjoying ourselves. Don’t forget, at the time, all people were buying were those Poggenpohl[i] kitchens. This was a protest against that.

I was also being egged on by my aunt, Elizabeth David, who wondered, “Why do people want those plastic kitchens that are so hygienic?”

6.

Where are your kitchens built?

[We work with several workshops.] [Some are] bespoke quality, the best furniture money can buy. Some are [outfits] that have moved from joinery into cabinetmaking; they’ve got their costs under control [and have] some very good craftsmen. [We also work with] very small furniture mak[ing shops], using them in groups. We don’t want [the furniture] to match anyway, so it’s perfect.

7.

Where are you now in thinking about kitchen design?

When I first started out, nobody thought the kitchen would be anything of consequence. I want[ed] to steer it into its own territory, where [kitchen design would] stand on its own as a profession. Many people think the kitchen is a place where you fling cabinets around the wall, but I respect the kitchen. I think it’s our best chance of creativity in the home, because it plugs into so many different aspects of home life.

Bringing neuroscience in has been another piece of the puzzle. [The kitchen] is the most emotionally high range room. [Sharing home-cooked food] around a table in your kitchen is the high point of the day, the essence of family life. You have a chance to look outward and inward at the same time, and connect with your family. The hormones that make you human are more likely to be in operation when you’re around the table than at any other time. You have to feel safe. It’s got to be the right time of day to fit into [your] rhythm. [The kitchen] has to make you feel good. It’s got to have enough room to move around and to invite guests. It really has become this absolute room for sociability. You can’t have democracy without a place where you can enjoy the reason for living.

When I published The Art of Kitchen Design, it was the first time anyone had written about the sociable role of the kitchen. Neuroscience validates that social role.

I think I arrived at the right moment, really. What happened to the kitchen would have happened anyway, I think, but I’m glad I was there to be part of it.

*Warmest thanks to Johnny Grey for consenting to this interview and to Chris Hoelck at Fine Homebuilding for his help in getting the piece to the published page.

Vacation reading

A long-anticipated weekend vacation  in New Harmony, Indiana, site of two early-19th century intentional communities, was made all the more thrilling by a trio of books. 

For background, we took along New Harmony Then and Now, a portfolio of artful photography by Darryl Jones with an essay by Donald Pitzer on the history of the place.

Anticipating some time to read for pleasure, I also brought Eric Sandweiss’s newly published book, The Day in Its Color, about salesman-turned-photographer Charles Cushman–who turns out to have been a native of Poseyville, less than ten miles from New Harmony. Sandweiss’s evocative descriptions of the area in which Cushman grew up enabled me to see that sparsely populated corner of the Hoosier state with new eyes.

The Wabash River seen across farm fields from New Harmony

Drama for the weekend was supplied by Edith Sarra’s essay about the Patoka Bottoms, which will appear in an edited volume on historic preservation to be published in the autumn of 2013 by the Indiana University Press. (Sorry; this book is not yet available.) It’s a ghost story of sorts, filled with mystery and adventure. On our way home Mark and I spotted, to our great excitement, the historical marker Sarra mentions in her essay. It stands at the point where State Road 57 crosses the southern Indiana portion of the Wabash and Erie Canal, that mid-19th-century aqueduct,  now defunct, built at monumental cost–not just in dollars, but in workers’ lives.

View down the north side of the embankment

Mark stands in a section of the Wabash and Erie Canal bed, now long dry, which was elevated above the Patoka River bottoms

Small world

What do 19th-century painter T.C. Steele, Harvard philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, and Kurt Vonnegut have in common? I discovered some fascinating connections while researching a story about Steele and the Arts & Crafts Movement for Bloom Magazine.

1

Richard Lieber

1869-1944

Cousin of Hermann Lieber, who was T.C. Steele’s close friend and patron

Founder, Indiana State Parks system

Great-grandfather of Frederic Lieber

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Lieber

2

Hermann Lieber

1832-1908

Bookbinder from Dusseldorf who opened and then operated H. Lieber & Company Art Emporium in Indianapolis

Premier patron of T.C. Steele

(Photo is reproduced from The House of the Singing Winds at the first link below)

http://shop.indianahistory.org/SelectSku.aspx?skuid=1000220

http://maxkade.iupui.edu/indianapolis.html

3

Theodore Clement Steele

1847-1926  

Painter

Founder of the Portfolio (often called the Portfolio Club) in Indianapolis, an organization for artists and writers

http://www.tcsteele.org/site.asp

4

Bernard Berenson

1865-1959

Art historian

Brother-in-law of Ralph Barton Perry, the grandfather of Rachel Perry, author of T.C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists: 1896-1914 (Indiana Press, 2009), and so…

Great-uncle of Rachel Perry

http://www.itatti.it/

5

Ralph Barton Perry

Philosopher at Harvard University

Brother-in-law of Bernard Berenson

Grandfather of Rachel Perry

http://www.giffordlectures.org/Author.asp?AuthorID=137

Glass and cabinetry designed by Brandt Steele for sons of Hermann Lieber

6

Herman P. Lieber

Son of Hermann Lieber

In 1909 Brandt Steele designed a set of stained glass windows for Herman’s home. Brandt’s design appears on page 20 of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Winter 1994.

Herman P. was also the grandfather of Peter Lieber, aerial photographer (see below)

Robert Lieber and Carl Lieber

Sons of Hermann; patron and friend, respectively, of T.C. Steele’s son, Brandt

Circa 1905, Brandt Steele designed a cabinet for Robert Lieber’s home. The design appears on page 20 of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Winter 1994.

7

Brandt Steele

Brandt Steele (Photo from Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Winter 1994)

Son of T.C. Steele and his first wife, Libbie Lakin

Artist and designer

For an informative article about Brandt, see “Work Worth Doing: Brandt Steele, Designer and Potter” by Barry Shifman (Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Winter 1994; available from http://shop.indianahistory.org/ 

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=35956249

 

 

8

Herman B Wells

(1902-2000)

11th president of Indiana University

Chancellor of Indiana University

Founded the Indiana University Press

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=794746

http://newsinfo.iu.edu/OCM/releases/wellsrem.htm

9

Bernard Perry

Hired by Herman B. Wells as Founding Director of Indiana University Press

Father of Rachel Berenson Perry

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/pages.php?pID=27&CDpath=13

10

Frederic (Fritz) Lieber

Great-grandson of Richard Lieber

Cousin of Kurt Vonnegut

Friend of James Capshew

http://www.nrhillerdesign.com/press/pdfs/Kitch_Oak_SalvagedGlass.pdf

Peter Lieber stands in front of a painting by T.C. Steele

11

Peter Lieber

Aerial photographer

Cousin of Frederic (Fritz) Lieber

James Capshew stands next to a bust of Wells

12

James Capshew

Professor of History and Philosophy of Science

Friend of Fritz Lieber

Biographer of Herman B Wells, Indiana University’s visionary educator (forthcoming from the Indiana University Press)

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=794746

13

Image from alternativereel.com

Kurt Vonnegut

Author and artist

Cousin of Fritz Lieber

Kurt’s parents, Kurt Sr. and Edith, were invited shortly after their wedding to join the Portfolio (often referred to as the Portfolio Club), an arts related organization founded by T.C. Steele.

Forthcoming biography of Vonnegut by Charles J. Shields: http://us.macmillan.com/andsoitgoes

14

Rachel Berenson Perry

Artist and art historian; author of T.C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists:1896-1914, published by the Indiana University Press, of which her father was the Founding Director

Member of the Portfolio (often called the Portfolio Club) in Indianapolis, an organization for artists and writers founded by T.C. Steele.

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=84462

What’s it worth?

A Harris Lebus sideboard from DK Antiques, UK


A reader submitted a comment on American Bungalow Magazine’s blog in response to my story about defunct English furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus. She had seen a sideboard similar to one of those pictured in the article and wondered whether it was worth the price being asked.

I am not an appraiser, I responded, and I am always struck by the notion that one can actually say what a piece of antique furniture is worth, considering the basic fact that value is a social construction. Unless you are buying furniture primarily as a financial investment (and let’s be honest–few of us are), antiques are worth whatever you are willing to pay; the art of valuing such objects comes largely through the stories we tell about them (Who made this chair? Where was the maker trained? Was the artist’s grandfather a famous explorer? Perhaps the piece once belonged to a famous family?), and those stories are subject to change, depending on memory, documentary evidence, etc.

The sideboard that inspired my American Bungalow article is a good case in point. When the owner bought it, he was led to believe–by an honest and well intentioned dealer who did not at the time know anything about Harris Lebus–that it might have been made for Liberty. The Liberty connection made the piece seem eminently worth the price he paid, although the same price struck him as excessive once he learned about the piece’s actual provenance.

But here’s the thing. As a professional furniture maker, I ask myself whether anything about the piece changed because of its lack of connection to Liberty, and of course I answer “no.” It’s still a knockout in terms of design. It’s still well made (though not all Lebus pieces were so well constructed). It’s still a truly functional piece. And I think to myself (and am suggesting that you, if you have read this far, also think to yourself), Perhaps we should reassess our notions of value with respect to Lebus artifacts. This goes not only for pieces made by Lebus, but by other makers, too.

When it comes to putting a price on objects of beauty and utility, have confidence in your taste. Professional appraisers in all fields have their place, but their methods tend to be inherently conservative–that is, based on documentable examples of past sales. Every so often someone comes along–it has to be someone wealthy enough to bust the valuation ceiling–and pays far more for a piece than anyone ever thought reasonable. Suddenly we permit ourselves to view that piece, and potentially others by the same maker, as more worthy of our attention and esteem than anyone would have imagined possible. But isn’t there something a little embarrassing in the notion that we need an expert (or a celebrity) to validate our own sense of value? Isn’t this a bit like the emperor who had no clothes?

Obviously if you’re spending someone else’s money, buying primarily for financial investment, or investing on an organization’s behalf, you should engage a professional appraiser. But in ordinary circumstances, the kind most of us face, if you love an object and can afford the price being asked, by all means buy it. Don’t be overly concerned about what it’s worth. Many–and quite possibly most–dealers, like the majority of contemporary artisans, are not attempting to fleece you, but simply to make a living and cover the costs of doing business. If people give you a hard time for supposedly having paid too much for a piece, don’t let them get under your skin. Just tell them that to you, the piece is worth what you paid. By doing so, you will join a movement to rethink the value of artifacts made by those (whether the Harris Lebus Manufacturing Company or your neighbor) who furnish the homes of ordinary people, rather than those of rare wealth.

Harris Lebus and a lovely coincidence

In 1995 I came across a gorgeous book by English author Lorrie Mack, The Art of Home Conversion: Transforming Uncommon Properties into Stylish Homes (Cassell, 1993). It’s a compilation of stories about homes created from structures as diverse as a flour mill, water tower, stables, various types of factories and shops, and several less uncommon yet equally breathtaking churches and barns. The buildings themselves were amazing, but most compelling to me was a piece of furniture—a hallstand shot through a doorway in the entrance to a former fruit and vegetable shop. A vision in aged oak and beaten copper, it married gothic and Golders Green. I hoped I’d have a chance to make one like it someday.

Photo courtesy of Art Furniture, London

In 2002, during a slow patch in the shop, I bought a curly white oak log from a local sawyer and built a version of the hallstand modified for contemporary use. A feature about the piece was published in Fine Woodworking[1]. Eventually I sold the hallstand to a pair of English professors who had the perfect space for it in the entryway of their Tudor Revival home.

A few years later, while visiting an acquaintance who had amassed an enviable collection of Arts and Crafts furnishings and decorative objects, I fell in love with a breathtaking sideboard. Would he mind if I made a reproduction? Business being slow (translation: being effectively broke), I made my version using plain sawn red oak—a lot more affordable than fancy quarter sawn white. (The original had not been made of quarter sawn either, though its old-growth brown oak was far more elegant than my fat-ringed red.) Instead of copper panels I used art glass with copper foil[2], and I had door and drawer pulls fabricated by a local sculptor[3].

The dealer who’d sold the sideboard was under the impression that it had been made for Liberty. The piece itself had no identifiable maker’s mark. But the owner’s curiosity was piqued by my interest, and he made some inquiries that revealed the sideboard had been produced by a company called Harris Lebus.

You can read all about this in the Summer 2010 issue of American Bungalow magazine. But what you won’t find there is the tale of coincidence that follows.

I had never tried to identify the original hallstand’s maker. There wasn’t so much as a hint in Lorrie Mack’s book. After my article appeared in Fine Woodworking, a reader had contacted me to say she owned one of the original hallstands, but she said nothing about who had made it. Now that I thought about it, there were some strong similarities between the hallstand’s architecture and that of the sideboard. I wished I could contact that reader, but her message and email address had been lost in a laptop fatality.

American Bungalow agreed to publish a story about Harris Lebus. My former employer, Roy (“It’s all problems”), a longtime friend, generously offered to pay my airfare and put me up in his home near London so I could do some further research. In the limited time available I visited the Bruce Castle Museum, whose staff were extremely helpful in providing photocopied documents, including an informal history of the Lebus company written by a family member; walked with Lebus researcher Paul Collier around the Ferry Lane Estate, site of Lebus’s Tottenham works; found some excellent leads at the Geffrye Museum in Hackney; and pored through many packets of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century catalogs and other documents at the Westminster Archive. I would later follow up these leads with further research into genealogy and the turn-of-the-century context in which Lebus operated.

Though identifying the hallstand’s maker was not an official goal of the research trip, I was  hoping to satisfy my curiosity. Surely in all these documents I would come across a picture of the hallstand. But I didn’t.

One day, while using a public computer at a visitors’ center in Kingston, I typed in yet another search for “arts and crafts hallstand,” just for the hell of it. This time, unaccountably, I found what I was looking for. The hallstand had indeed been a Lebus product.

It was a thrilling discovery. At that point I had made only five major spec pieces in a cabinetmaking career spanning 28 years. What were the odds that two of those five should turn out to have been based on original pieces made by the same British manufacturer—one whose name I hadn’t even heard of before finding its wares so lovely that I wanted to make my own versions?


[1] http://www.nrhillerdesign.com/press/pdfs/011165072.pdf

[2] www.anneryanmillerglassstudio.com

[3] http://cyclops-studios.com/