Friday, July 21, 2006

Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar

This is the text from a recent lecture/slideshow I gave to a conference of furniture makers, designers, collectors and academics, called the Furniture Society. For the last several years, our community has been extremely caught up in a debate over the definitions of Art, Craft and Design. I meant to sit down and write an academic treatise - but it turns out that's not really me, so what came out was as much a spoken word performance as anything else...
Sorry I can't share the slideshow portion - I don't know how to do that kind of thing yet, and haven't decided to share my work with y'all yet, anyway. Let it suffice to say that beyond talking about my own work, I showed several examples of what could easily be considered "Studio Furniture" from the late 19th Century. The common accepted theory is that Studio Furniture began in this country in the late 1930's/early 1940's with the work of Wharton Esherick. I ain't buying it, and here's what I told 'em:

So, they gave me this stage, and told me I could talk about anything I want, and resisting the incredibly attractive urge to just get up here and talk about myself, I thought it’d be much more fun and entertaining to get up here and attack a lot of ideas and words and jealousies and bitterness and all of us and maybe even a little of society in general. And, I thought the best way to start doing that would be to get up here and talk about myself.

I’m kind of new here – I’ve only been designing my own work for about 5 years now, and I feel like I’ve only really just begun to find my voice and actually say the things that I’d like to say for maybe the last two. Now, I’ve gotten a bit of attention over the last two years, some of it for reasons I like, and some of it for reasons I don’t like, and I thought that was worth talking about, as well.

Dave Hickey, in his keynote address last year, talked about how we don’t get to call ourselves, “artists,” that that’s for others to decide. Now, I agree with that notion, but the practical reality is that a) nobody likes to let others define who they are, and b)at best, we give ourselves names if only to give us something to strive for. At its worst, we use those names to sell ourselves as something we are not, but rest assured, we’ll be talking about that later.

So, in giving myself something to strive for, right now I’m calling myself a designer. I’m already a skilled craftsperson –false humility aside, I’ve worked really hard over a lot of years to become a skilled craftsperson, and I know that making things out of wood is something I’m very good at. Now, I don’t feel like that’s a boast, because it’s something that isn’t very important to me – that is to say, it’s immensely important to me, but only as something I should own and then completely forget, it’s a given, like having a command of the English language. If I want to get up here and speak eloquently, I have to have an understanding of vocabulary, and pronunciation, and grammar. But if I’m thinking about those things as I speak, then I’ve completely failed in my ability to communicate.

Maybe we should backtrack a little bit – I first learned this concept as a musician. Most of my life has been spent as a drummer and percussionist. I played my first gig at 12 years old, and I thought I was a little badass. As a jewish kid trying to play black music in an Italian neighborhood, everyone told me I couldn’t do it, and working steadily through high school, I thought I was a big badass. Then I went to music school, and they immediately showed me how much I didn’t know, and how much I couldn’t communicate because I had no real command of the language. So I spent the next three years totally immersed in technique and history, often being told that it would take a good five years to forget everything I’d learned, to unlearn it enough to be able to speak, and say something worthwhile. Of course, as I left school and went on tour in Europe, I assumed they meant that for everyone except me, but I was wrong, and it did take five years to really find my voice, and begin to say the things I wanted to say, and get hired because I sounded like me, and not just as someone’s sideman. But once I got there, I found that I really did have something to say. In fact, I found that I had so much to say that I eventually wanted to be up front on the stage. Being a lousy singer, I started writing and doing a lot of spoken word – real angry young man Bukowski/Henry Rollins kind of stuff. So in that vein, I ‘self-published’ my first book by breaking into a wall street office and printing a thousand copies, and I bound them myself, and I sold them all at gigs. I was totally lost in the art of it all, loud and proud of my ability to be myself. So I rode that wave for a few years, fighting as I continued to learn that the music business was more about commerce and marketing than it was about music, and spoken word, at the peak of it’s popularity, was becoming more about white people coming to a nice place to safely hear an angry black man use the word, “nigger”.

I bailed. I’m obviously simplifying the whole thing, but I couldn’t live with the hypocrisy, I hated everything about what I was doing except the moments I was on stage, and that just wasn’t enough. Coming home from a tour of Japan in ’95, I took a job working for a guy named John Fischer, a North Bennet St. School star, making very high end custom furniture, and I fell in love. I started the process of learning a language all over again. I thought I had found a way to do something that felt more worthwhile, and that it was something I could do to make a living without getting caught up in the ‘art’ of it. Some lessons, you just have to learn over and over before they sink in.

Turns out, I’m just not that guy. I do get caught up in the art of things. That’s just who I am, and it took an awful lot of pain and struggle to realize that and make peace with it. So having gotten caught up in the art of making furniture well, and then realizing that it’s only the means to another end, I’m just beginning to forget all that I’ve learned as a maker and becoming a designer, and I’m having a great time using my voice, and for the first time in years, really starting to speak again. And here I am at 41, just young enough to be excited about where it’s all going, and just old enough to think it’s all gone to hell.

So, let’s take a look at that path, and talk about what it is that we do. I want to start by challenging the notion that what we do, and most importantly what we’ve named ‘studio furniture,’ is anything new.

Last weekend, I took home a book – a catalog from the Art Nouveau exhibit at the National Gallery in DC back in 2001 (which by the way, totally changed my life and direction). I’m working on a bed design for a couple in Austin – really sculptural posts that wrap around and into the frame, surrounding a contoured headboard wrapped in shagreen, and I thought this book might be a fun reference point.

I pulled a handful of slides out of this book, examples of the kinds of things we’ve done over the last 50 years or so that we think are new ideas. I think I probably could have done this with any time period going back to Egypt, but since my scanner is home and my library is at the shop, I just used this one book. Let’s take a look at some different examples of “studio furniture.”

(slide show)

Somebody, and I honestly don’t know who it was, came up with the term “studio furniture” to describe work that was pretty diverse - it wasn’t done one way, or trying to say one thing, it didn’t use a set group of materials or techniques. It was predominantly a series of people with academic backgrounds as opposed to traditional apprenticeships (but not always), and people more concerned with expression than with commerce (but not always). We talk about the ways in which it helped craft intersect with art and both intersect with design, and we talk about it as though that was a new thing, when in fact the only thing new about it was possibly that it was often the designer doing the making of the actual piece, which was uncommon in previous generations, but I would argue that although the designers of past work may not have actually fabricated the objects they are widely known for, they had a much deeper understanding of the crafts used to do so than the designers of the modern era, and that is enough. And furthermore, there are many works by many artists throughout history, particularly large public sculptures, where the artist and the maker are separate people. And even when that’s not the case, it all gets pretty grey when you start talking about employees and assistants, fabricated parts and casting, etc. A piece intended to make a permanent statement or to last as a part of history need simply to be made well – and it is about the piece itself and the person who conceived of it and saw it through, by whatever means. The whole “maker as artist” or “artist as maker” argument is only relevant when the artist possesses some particular skill that makes them the most qualified to achieve the statement being made.

The other common argument for what is studio furniture is the notion of ‘one of a kind’ pieces, but I would make a counter debate that almost all of the furniture that is seen as art throughout history has been singular, and that the people behind those pieces are most often labeled, “designers.” Why?

Look, this stuff is fun to play with as an intellectual exercise and it’s necessary to apply words and titles to the work for academic or historic purposes, or to aim what an individual is doing at a particular market, but it’s all smoke and mirrors when it becomes an elitist argument. When it’s used to feed an already existing chasm and distance one another in an already ridiculously insular world, then an already circular argument becomes completely counter productive for all sides, and it all ends up meaning nothing at all.

EW Godwin coined the term “art furniture” back in the 1860’s. In 1925, Le Corbusier said that, “Decorative Art can no longer exist any more than the styles themselves…Culture has taken a step forward and the hierarchical system of decoration has collapsed.”
We live in an information age – everything anyone is doing can be accessed almost immediately, people can travel the world on a whim, and everything informs everything else. The lines that once separated the fine arts from the decorative or the applied arts have more than blurred, they’ve practically vanished! Rap stars have clothing lines, clothing designers have furniture lines, furniture designers make sculptures, sculptors are landscape designers, the Whitney is showing movie premieres and the Ipod is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art! People are running from the word Craft like roaches when you turn on the lights, Art has become temporary and meaningless, and Design is the new art.

We look at the way things have gone and when there are people with a fine arts background using furniture as a means of expression, and if anyone takes any note of what they’re doing or what they’ve done, then furniture makers, long ignored throughout history, want to stand up and shout, ‘HEY! What I do is an art, and you need to notice me and I want to be put on the same pedestal and paid a similar rate for my work!’

And these things become circular and they create camps and great big chasms - and that’s where the Furniture Society is right now – oh, man have we got camps:

We’ve got the hobbyist reproduction guys, the guys being quietly brilliant in their basements, and building perfect versions of 17th 18th 19th century masterpieces, and getting lost in the art of long past craftsmen and indulging in the elaborate designs that were only used by royalty and robber barons and we all love you guys, we love you – you’re the only ones who are truly honest about what you do and who you are, and you have real jobs and you can always have a roof over your heads and a good meal and you can be well dressed – well, you could be well dressed if you had any idea what that actually looked like – but you can sit happily on the sidelines with a beer, poking fun at the rest of us and reading Fine Woodworking magazine and taking carving seminars at North Bennet St. School!

But those guys have a natural descendant – they lead directly to the the next camp: The Krenovashimians. Ah, the romantics. You’re our poets. You’re in love. You’re in love with the flow and the rhythms, the colors and the patterns of the grain, the shimmer of the figure, the sweet sweet sound of a well tuned handplane cutting the surface, the beautiful long ribbons of the shavings flying past you and rolling into little curls on the floor, and that precious moment, that moment when you take that freshly sharpened blade, and you shave that little patch on your arm just to see how expertly you’ve tuned that precious little blade, and you take your perfectly flattened free edged slab of beautiful figured walnut and you lovingly butterfly all the cracks and you place it ever so gently on a simple stand that serves only to accent and display this gorgeous hunk of nature’s goodness, or you take some time tested traditional form and you subtly contemporize it with fiddleback maple and some handcarved bubinga finger pulls and you caress that surface with hundreds of coats of sam maloof’s oil and poly mixture and you wouldn’t even think about putting a plywood back on that baby and you can’t stand that cartoon furniture that circus furniture it’s not even functional and what I do is beautiful because wood is beautiful and a properly planed and perfectly polished piece is positively perrrrrfect and people love it, I know they do because they come to the craft shows and they tell me how beautiful it is and they buy it from me I just wish they’d pay me more for it because what I do is a CRAFT – it’s elevated craft, in fact it’s ART.

So now, of course, those guys have a natural descendant – they lead directly to the next camp:
Los Artistes. Our artists, the lost souls of a craft world gone by. A creature most often found in the ivory towers of academia, they are the students and the teachers, the thinkers and dreamers. When found out in the world of commerce, they are more commonly referred to simply as, “waiters and waitresses.”
These are our innovators, the trend setters, and they are always up on the newest hottest materials and the newest hottest ideas and today, right now, somewhere, one of them is going to build something with an environmentally responsible material with a really cool name like Ply-Boo, and it’s green baby, it’s green because it’s grass, and it’s made in a factory in a country with absolutely no environmental laws whatsoever and it uses more adhesives and abrasives to manufacture than any other sheet goods and it’s shipped here over thousands of miles of land and sea and each sheet comes individually wrapped in plastic and it’s green because it’s grass…

Ok, so maybe I’ll just use cork or corian or concrete or carbon fiber and I’ll cast some colorful cunning shapes and put them all together in a crazy way, maybe an upside down chair or a painted box that’s really tall and thin with a leg sticking out of it, or maybe I’ll just put a little tiny drawer in it, a little teeny tiny drawer so I can call it furniture and I can put beautiful polka dot milk paint over my careful carving gouge marks and then I can place a little action figure just so on a little shelf and only I will know what it means but it will be thought provoking and people will visit galleries and little museums with recently changed names to see it and they’ll write about it and tell me it’s revolutionary and that’s how I know I’m an artist I just wish someone would buy it from me.

Make no mistake guys – this is exactly how silly we look sometimes. And that’s ok, that’s what, in a lot of ways that’s what we’re about, actually. Lots of diverse people doing lots of diverse things – on one hand, that’s what makes this a vibrant group - the problem is that right now, at a time in history when design is often being seen as art, we’re being ignored. The boom of the previous generation of makers has ended, naturally. And that boom rode on the wave of a fine art boom that coincided with it. Well, we have another boom going on right now, and it’s design that’s at the center of it. And here we are, the Furniture Society – a group of designers and makers, students and faculty from programs with the word ‘furniture’ in their titles (not art, but furniture) – and right now we have the opportunity to jump in and be honest about what we are – Furniture Designers, and be involved in a new boom. But we’re so busy trying to be fine artists that we have generations of former students who are now teachers with no idea about techniques and the history of design, and we’re sitting here bickering over what to call ourselves, and declare what we’re not, that no one is paying any attention to us, and we’re missing the whole thing. We’re still so stuck in the ‘what’s happened to craft?’ question, and the 30 year old desire to be seen as art rather than craft, that no one’s noticed that it’s design that people want.

And it’s design that I want. I’m sick of myself and I’m sick of this debate. I see this as a time when everything has become disposable and cheap, and life moves way too fast, and people pay too much money for crap that will fall apart in ten minutes, and they’re surrounded by technology all day all the time, but they do like high design. And I want to give it to them. And I want to give them a taste of luxury, like a gourmet meal. For the exact same reasons the designers during the Nouveau and the Deco periods did, I like using opulent materials and opulent methods, and creating furniture that is luxurious and tactile – furniture to me, particularly when it’s trying to be artistic, is the best of both form and function. Furniture is sexual and sensual, it’s meant to be looked at and to be touched, to interact with the human body – interesting shapes are meant to be fondled and caressed, textures played with. A chair that cradles the entire body and gives it comfort while at the same time providing the owner something interesting and unique to look at, a piece that imparts style to the room in which it lives, and adds something special, is a successful piece, and nothing short of that is for me. I want to straddle all our camps – I like the idea of new materials and concepts and shapes that are unexpected and more importantly I want to incorporate the new camps, the ones outside our little sphere here, and I want to create pieces in which it’s a given that they’re well made and that the surface sings as it should, but more than that I want the lines to speak, and the materials and the intensity of the shapes to suggest opulence and luxury, not because I want the piece to be expensive but because I want to rebel against the cheap mass production of everything, the shallow mallification of every city we have, the trendy hypocrisy of poorly made and poorly designed ‘eco-friendly’ products destined for landfills, the way the corporate profit model has gone beyond the places it should exist and entered into our institutions of learning and culture – our schools don’t sell education anymore, they sell credentials. Our museums exist only to show their sponsors that they are still relevant and a cool place to throw their fundraising parties. There is no more help here for us from the NEA, what galleries do still exist are struggling just as hard as we are, and their necessary financial relationship with their artists is rarely feasible for most of us. I want to make objects that will still speak generations from now of a small group of people within an ugly moment who still gave a damn about taking their time, and really savoring the taste of something wonderful in their mouths or in their eyes or on their bodies, instead of slamming down a big mac as they go from starbucks to home depot to walmart while they talk on their cellphones and check their email – I live in a country that isn’t good at anything anymore, and when we cease to be a world power, and history writes about an America that didn’t speak Chinese, I want my work to be seen as some small last gasp just before we got so fat we sunk the whole damned thing.


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