In our tenth episode, Brian Boggs chats with Jon Binzen, editor of Fine Woodworking Magazine. This 30+ year friendship began in Berea, Kentucky and extends to this day. Enjoy their conversation which ranges from their first meeting in Berea to the craft/studio furniture movement of today to their beliefs about the goals of fine furniture design.
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TOPICS COVERED IN THIS EPISODE:
- Jon Binzen & Brian discussing the origins of their friendship, Taunton Press, and other woodworkers in Berea such as Rude Osolnik, Kelly Mehler and Warren May.
- The Craft/Studio Furniture movement and the differences of small factory furniture manufacturing, along with Brian’s experience of designing for Moser & Lie Nielsen and his attempt to integrate CNC into his furniture shop.
- Their mutual passion for woodworking and belief of design as an expression of care for the client.
Brian: Welcome to another Ask Brian Boggs Show. I have a guest for the first time with me on the show, Jon Binzen. Jon and I go way back, some 30 years, doing articles together for Fine Woodworking Magazine. I must say it’s been a pleasure working with Jon every time. It’s always fun to work with someone that you’re writing an article with, and they already know what you’re going to say before you said it. Or you could write a sentence that makes no sense at all, but they already knew what you were going to say anyway. It makes my job a lot easier.
Brian: Jon, welcome to the show.
Jonathan: Thank you very much, Brian. It’s great to be here.
Brian: Jon, we’ve been working together a long time. You were saying that we met before you started working with me on articles?
Jonathan: Yeah. You started doing woodworking in ’82, was it?
Brian: That’s right.
Jonathan: Because I did too. I had gotten out of college in ’80 and by ’82 I started working in woodworking shops in Philadelphia. The first place that I worked, I found this stack of old black and white Fine Woodworking and kind of went, “What is this?” And then a couple years later at another shop, everybody read Fine Woodworking and I got a subscription. In one of the first issues I got, there was an article about Berea. Soon after that my girlfriend and I, or a couple years later, this is I think ’87, we went out to Berea. I heard she had family in Kentucky. Paris, Kentucky. Her aunts lived out there.
Brian: Don’t dare call it Paris there.
Jonathan: And we visited Berea, and it was really fascinating. And we met you. We met Kelly Mehler and you and … Oh, the guy who did the-
Jonathan: … dulcimers.
Brian: Warren May.
Jonathan: Warren May. And there was another guy who did … I don’t know what they … Maybe they were Windsors, in his garage.
Brian: Oh, that was Dave Wright.
Jonathan: Maybe Dave Wright. We met him. I’m a little fuzzy on which trip I met him on. But in any case, we met you and you were working in, it seemed like it was a little room in your garage.
Brian: That wasn’t even a garage.
Jonathan: Wasn’t it in your garage?
Brian: No. At that time, I was working mostly in the backyard and there was this six foot by 10 foot storage room-
Jonathan: That’s what it was.
Brian: … that I converted into my workspace.
Jonathan: It was this teeny little room.
Brian: Yeah, literally 60 square feet.
Jonathan: That was very inspiring to me. That trip really was an eye-opener. A bunch of other stuff happened. I looked overseas for a while, but when I came back in ’92 I applied for a job, and I started working in Fine Woodworking in ’93, in February. That first year I got in touch with you but then soon thereafter, Taunton started a new magazine, Home Furniture, and I gravitated toward that immediately.
Brian: I loved that magazine. It’s so sad that it didn’t fly because everybody that I talked to that read it just loved it. The articles were just enjoyable. They weren’t how do to something, but they were about somebody’s work. A lot of us had great hopes for that being a really good opening to, potentially, the market because that was the thought. Wasn’t it?
Jonathan: That’s what we were hoping. That it would somehow connect makers with the market.
Brian: We need that now, so bad.
Brian: Wine Spectator does that for winemakers, you got Cigar Aficionado, and other trades, other magazines. Fly fishing has its magazines.
Jonathan: It’s interesting, I was just reading about wine publications, and it’s incredible the kind of reach they’ve got. I mean millions of readers.
Brian: Well the kind of impact they’ve had. You talk to the average person at a fine restaurant, and they can tell you a lot about wines.
Brian: I don’t think in the ’80s … That was pretty rare in the ’80s.
Jonathan: Yeah. The average person in a restaurant is not going to tell you much about fine furniture, so that has not changed.
Brian: No. And they want you to leave quickly, so the next person can come in and eat, and they want you to leave because the chairs are so bad.
Jonathan: I remember Pete Galbert saying at one point how he never was attracted to Windsor chairs before he got into woodworking, because he just associated them with kind of crappy reproductions in bad restaurants. Yeah, so when Home Furniture started, I contacted you, and there was an article that another editor snagged away from me, which was the first time you appeared in it.
Brian: A Chair Built for Comfort?
Brian: That had the ladderback on the cover?
Jonathan: Yes. And then exactly how they detailed the ladderback back. I was determined that that wasn’t going to be the end of the story. And a couple years later, we did-
Brian: Evolution of a Chair.
Jonathan: Yeah, Evolution of a Chair. With you.
Brian: That was one of my favorite articles.
Jonathan: Well, mine too. And your chair had a huge impact on me. The way you worked on it, right from that first visit in ’87 or whatever that was. And you described how you were working on that chair. And then when I got back and worked with you on an article almost 10 years later, you were still so deeply working that thing. The way you were evolving every little piece of it was really inspiring, and that it was so comfortable and gorgeous. And that this is against a backdrop of art furniture at the time, and studio furniture that was all about pizzazz and incredible wood and over the top technique that was at the expense of really careful attention to every detail.
Brian: James Krenov really had a big impact on me with that. He liked simpler woods, he liked the straight grain, and he liked matching the grain. That’s always had an impact on how I think about what the emphasis of a piece should be, and it’s never … We’ve got a curly maple starburst tabletop right there, but that’s a way to play with a round form, and it’s not really exotic wood. But it’s been interesting to … Thinking about sitting here with you and then thinking about the impact that Fine Woodworking magazine has had on me and remembering the first time I encountered … Well, the first time in encountered the magazine itself was at a party at a friend’s house. The old black and white versions of it were spread out all over this table, and I took leave of the party and just started looking at the magazines.
Brian: But the first time I encountered anyone from Taunton was when Jim Cummins was in Berea doing that article. I had made about six chairs, but I happened to be Rude Osolnik’s tenant. I lived right across the street from Rude Osolnik. For those of you who don’t know who Rude Osolnik is, he passed away in the ’90s. He was a very renowned wood turner. Any wood turner would know who he is, and he’s got … I think the Osolnik gougeis still being sold, that he designed. But, anyway, for a budding woodworker, he was a pretty incredible landlord to have, and very understanding if we couldn’t pay rent one month. Anyway, he was being interviewed by Jim Cummins for that piece on Berea woodworkers. Rude said, “Well, Jim, come on over here and meet my tenant. He’s making a chair, I think, now.” Rude didn’t give me any warning. He says, “Brian, Jim Cummins and I are coming over right now, is that all right?” “Sure, whatever.”
Jonathan: I can still see that picture of you from that article. Was that taken by Jim?
Brian: Yeah, Jim who’s what, like six ten-
Jonathan: You’re standing there with your chair.
Brian: Yeah, so I didn’t have any notice. It was just the chair that happened to be there was chair number six, I think. Even then, I thought it was just coming over for curiosity, and he asked if I minded if he takes a picture of that chair. He did, and that’s what went into the magazine. One of the things that was even more impactful of that particular visit is he knew John Alexander personally, John Alexander who wrote the book I learned from, and encouraged me to connect with John. I was telling Jim the book taught me what I know now, but I have a lot of questions. There’s still a lot more to know. He said, “Well, just call John. He’s just a regular guy. He’s a lawyer, but he’ll be happy to talk to you.” So I did, and John and I became friends until he passed away last year, two years ago.
Brian: Another thing that happened over the years, but even from that point, being published that early on when I really wasn’t … I didn’t think of myself as Fine Woodworking magazine material yet. I had just made six chairs, but I thought, “Oh, geez. I better get it together because I’m in the magazine now.” So it kind of sped my learning pace up. I felt like, “Geez, people are going to expect things from me now, I better show up.” So I made sure I did. Each subsequent article amplified that same feeling for me that people are taking me seriously, I better get serious. I better make sure that I’m the craftsman they think I am. That’s not so anymore so much, there’s other things driving that. Now I’m just excited about the work, but it’s been interesting watching, outside myself watching that intensity change with each new exposure. I guess, my articles might have had an impact on other people, but they’ve probably had more of an impact on feeling pressure to perform for me.
Jonathan: It’s funny about Rude Osolnik, because I remember on an early trip to Berea, you must of sent me up to see him, and I remember driving by myself. It was springtime. It was beautiful drive uphill to his house.
Brian: Poverty Ridge, he called it.
Jonathan: Poverty Ridge, and he was an incredible character. When I visited, he had to be … Must have been 75, but he felt ancient. He was still working in his barn-
Brian: He worked until he couldn’t physically anymore.
Jonathan: Yeah, I remember he had these huge stumps that he would somehow get up on his lathe. He had winches and whatever he needed, but I most remember it was evening, or getting to be dusk after he showed me the shop, then he took me into his house. He was living on his own by then, his wife died, and baching it, and he wondered if I wanted some moonshine. You’re talking to a kid from Philadelphia, and this is my first experience. He serves it and it’s literally in the ceramic container with the little finger hole on it, and it was like lightning. It was … I was just, “Whoa, that was so painful to drink.” That’s my key memory of Rude. I was thinking that probably a lot of people don’t know what Berea was at the time that you lived there. Maybe still is, but what the … Maybe you should explain about that.
Brian: I think is again. It certainly had a lull, but Berea, through the history of the college, I think more than anything else, became what was eventually officially the crafts capital of Kentucky. That happened through the efforts of the college early on to kind of harvest the talent and economic potential of Appalachian crafts in support of the college, and they did this by having craft sales. Crafts made by area people. Baskets or pottery or whatever, but eventually bringing that into the college and teaching students how to make crafts that would be sold to raise money for the college. Of course, people graduated from that and not all of them left town, so they would set up shop.
Jonathan: Including you.
Brian: Well, I went to Berea College because I had heard about Rude Osolnik.
Jonathan: Oh, really?
Brian: Rude was running the craft-
Jonathan: He was a teacher there?
Brian: He was a teacher there, but by the time I got enrolled he had gone, but his reputation had stayed. The guy that was there when I showed up was not somebody I wanted to learn from. I didn’t find that out until I was already in college, so I studied French and philosophy for a year and a half before I dropped out and taught myself how to make chairs.
Jonathan: Oh, I didn’t know that. I thought you went for academics and then dropped out-
Brian: No, I went to learn woodworking.
Jonathan: Oh, no kidding.
Brian: You know, what’s kind of funny was the point of exit for me was in philosophy class studying Socrates. Socrates at one point said, “The only people that know anything really, are craftspeople.”
Brian: Because it’s real, it’s tangible, physical, real stuff, and you know how this material’s going to respond from your experience, or you know about the material. You know how to make that, and that is real knowledge. So much else is just … Like philosophy, it’s kind of esoteric stuff that we can talk about, but you can argue all day long about the validity of that. But I thought it was … “Forget this, I’m going to go teach myself craft.” At the end of that semester I dropped out.
Jonathan: When I visited, it’s a small town, but there were I don’t know how many dozen craftspeople working there.
Brian: There were more than two dozen in the mid ’80s, and we had the Berea Crafts Association, Berea Craftsperson’s Association at that time. It was a pretty successful little organization. We put out our brochure and we try to coordinate some marketing efforts. That lasted until someone became president who shouldn’t have become president of the organization and pretty much did it in. Other things that happened around that time, around … That must have been the late ’80s, 2000. Excuse me, late ’90s, 2000. There was kind of an exodus of woodworkers from Berea. Not because they were leaving Berea because they were sick of Berea, but either retiring, not doing well enough in business and burning out, passing away like Rude Osolnik. There was another turner there whose wife shot him, and that was the end of that.
Jonathan: That’s always a tough one.
Brian: It’s a tough one. That was a tough one for the community, actually. Abe Harper.
Brian: Then it was down to Warren May, Kelly Mehler, Doug Haley, and myself. So there was just not the momentum in town that there was before. The association was not working like it had. Magic just wasn’t there for me. Recent visits, it sounded like it’s growing again, and the people that I’ve talked to in crafts are excited again. Hopefully it’s back, and back to stay, but there’s a long enough history there and enough momentum currently that I think it will stay a crafts center of some sort. Having the big artisan center there is a big help.
Jonathan: People were selling, everybody was. Right from the beginning, though, everybody … And maybe this is just always going to be the way everybody’s struggling for a way to make a living at it. That’s been a constant, I’d say, throughout, but things have certainly changed in other ways. People were selling through galleries and also craft fairs in the ’80s. By the end of the ’80s things had really started to … Even though there were … I would say, there were still over into the ’90s, through the mid ’90s there was a lot of attention paid to studio furniture, but people were struggling more to sell it. By the late ’90s I got the impression that everybody started feeling like maybe this is going to end. That this was a style like Chippendale. As you look at furniture styles of the past, like a relatively definitive beginning and end, and that’s it. Then you move onto something else. Maybe craft furniture or studio furniture is something like that, even though, stylistically, it’s-
Brian: It’s not as cohesive.
Jonathan: It’s not cohesive, but maybe the whole idea that maybe you make this stuff in a certain way does kind of give it a coherence, and it’s just going to end. By 2000 I was hearing that from a number of people. My personal experience is I don’t feel like I am really that good at assessing trends, but mostly I’m drawn to the individual piece of work. That’s what really excites me, and I never seen a slow down in the production. There’s always somebody else making something really cool, but many of the people that I knew from the ’80s and ’90s are … Naturally, they’re getting older and slowing down a bit for that, but I felt like through the odds, a whole lot of wonderful makers were essentially shutting it down, whether they moved on to something else entirely, or they just were not making as much, it was happening.
Jonathan: Then, more recently … At the same time that that was happening I was seeing a kind of gradually gaining momentum, a bunch of younger makers coming along who were more focused on … They were interested in design, but also thinking, “I want to make a business out of this.” So they were thinking about the design of the business and of production and, “How can I make this thing in order to make a living at it?” Where earlier on the people that I worked with in Philadelphia in the first half of the ’80s, and the myriad of people that I interviewed after that, it was largely about getting away from being in business. Reasons that brought them to woodworking in the first place was, “I don’t want to go to law school, and I don’t want to be in business.” It was about self expression, was the paramount thing. You would see a lot of pieces that were extraordinary and you’d just look at them and went, “there’s no way you’re ever going to get paid 50 cents an hour for making that. It’s so much work.” I was starting to see by 10, 15 years ago, more people were saying, “Hmm, I’m going to figure out a way to make this work financially.”
Brian: There’s some interesting things going on now which are kind of colliding with the history, the trajectory that you’ve been talking about. One is that furniture manufacturing in this country, having been mostly shipped to China and other countries that can work cheaper than we do, there’s a return of furniture manufacturing now, going on now, but not at the scale that we had. But a lot of different smaller shops. Another thing that’s happening at the same time is computer numerical control technology is getting better and cheaper, and the machines are getting smaller, or designed for smaller shops, because that’s the American market now. Not necessarily the one person shop, but the four person shop, and sometimes smaller, so that technology is within reach. That’s going to change, and is changing, the economy of production on the smaller scale.
Brian: In the ’70s that kind of deal was just not really thinkable that you could have that technology in your shop. We’re still talking 40, 50,000 for a serious industrial machine, but ShopBot’s making some machines for a lot less than that. What that does is it changes the game. From Krenov’s approach, you had to spend a decade learning to work by hand with precision, now you don’t. You need to learn how to program a computer, so you can have the fun of design without the rigor of technique.
Brian: That’s been, I think, the demise of the craft for a while, is it’s just so hard to learn all the stuff. So young people weren’t coming in.
Brian: Now, you can just learn how to run a computer, basically. Learn how to draw on the computer, and you can make things. Hopefully, some of them will actually learn about the material they’re working with.
Jonathan: That’s the other interesting aspect of it is, the other quite separate thing happening currently is a rise again of purely hand work, or much more purely hand work woodworking. Green woodworking, it’s kind of remarkable. I went to Greenwood Fest.
Brian: I was going to ask you if you had gone to that.
Jonathan: Yeah, and it was incredible. I mean, it was … I felt like it was 1972. It was this kind of fervor and passion for what people were doing. The sharing, it was a very communal ethos, and beautiful work being done. I’m seeing a lot of it around. It’s not just an isolated thing. It raises the whole question again of how you make a living doing that, but I think the … I don’t know. We’ll see. A lot of the people who were there I think were not intending to make a living at it. People who were attending the festival, a lot of them, I think, were doing something else and this was their hobby. It’s an incredibly gratifying hobby. You can get deep, deep into it. It’s a lot of pleasure involved. There you have that on one side and small shop CNC on another, but there’s also the in between, I think. That’s what I was talking about. There’s some really wonderful work being made by people who haven’t spent 10 years doing the Krenov approach, but they’ve studied enough.
Jonathan: They’ve gone to Center for Furniture Craftsmanship for a year, and they know their material and they know how to build. They’ve also gone to RISD, and they know design. So they’re kind of putting those components together and making some fabulous stuff. I’ve seen more and more of it, and I’m really hopeful that that kind of small business can provide a living for people. Something that I remember from early ’80s, the guy that I worked for, Josh Markell, in Philadelphia, would talk about he went to Italy for Fine Woodworking, did an article for them about small shop woodworking and how the whole industry worked there and came back feeling like, “Wow, we’ve got to get some people.” Because we knew a lot of terrific furniture makers, but they were all kind of in this teeny shop mentality. So how can we get someone who really knows their material and their craft to get their designs manufactured on a larger scale? You’ve been there.
Brian: I’ve been there, but not with success. I have not found a great way to have things manufactured.
Jonathan: I remember you had a … There was a passage with Thomas Moser, so what was that experience?
Brian: Tom had approached me to design a ladderback chair for their line. They liked the style of my ladderbacks, they didn’t want to copy it, but they wanted to bring my design sense into their portfolio. That was intriguing. I remember I called you to get your advice about whether or not that was a good idea. I had no idea what I was stepping into, and after talking to a number of people I thought, “What I’m stepping into is clearly …” And everybody was in consensus that what I was stepping into was an education. Whatever that education yielded, as long as I didn’t put myself in the situation where I was going to lose a lot, you know, you pay for an education no matter how you get it.
Jonathan: Or your parents do.
Brian: Well, you owe them for life, so … But seriously, that was my attitude going in, and I think that kept me sane with all the different changes going on with the design. I designed a chair that was very much to their liking. Tom liked it, his staff liked it, they were tweaking the design a little bit to make it a little bit more Moser. I think I had already done a pretty good job of that because it didn’t look like my work, it looked more like the Moser theme, or the Moser aesthetic. But they decided to change it a lot because while it fit their aesthetic, it didn’t fit their production. It’s business first there.
Brian: And businesses that are successful, I guess are business first successes, you know, mentality.
Brian: They make some good stuff, but I couldn’t play that way.
Jonathan: Yeah. That’s interesting because … you feel like they’re more … He was on the small end of things as a manufacturer at that point, but now is it more…?
Brian: I think still that … I think he’s looked at among furniture manufacturers as one of the small guys.
Jonathan: He’s got what?
Brian: Last there was over a hundred employees, 150, I think, the last time I heard about that number, but that’s been quite a while.
Brian: And we’re talking 12 years, or 15 years ago that this was going on.
Jonathan: What about the experience of having your spoke shave produced?
Brian: That’s been almost all fun. It was partly because I didn’t take any big risk with it. I needed a spoke shave so I made one. The students I was teaching all wanted one, so I thought, “All right, I’ll make a bunch of them.” So I had a pattern made and a mold made and castings done and the machining done on it, and then I would tune them up in my shop and make handles for them. Then eventually had handles made for them. It was a kind of hand tuned manufactured product. I made probably 200 of them, and I’ve got to the point where I think, “You know, that’s a good time to stop.” But I didn’t want them to stop so I sold the rights to the production to Leonard Lee at Lee Valley. I was very careful about where to go with it, but Jerry Glaser and I, Jerry Glaser of Glaser Turning Tools. He and I were good friends, and he was good friends with Leonard Lee. I just wanted his thoughts about … I was in a very vulnerable situation, there wasn’t a contract that was really going to protect me against someone who wanted to take advantage of the situation.
Brian: Contracts will only go so far. I wanted to go into business with somebody that I could trust. His review of Leonard Lee was just glowing, and Leonard was that guy. He was just a great guy to do business with. They produced a half round spoke shave for a while. Then we started talking about the flat one and they decided to go their own way, and now they’ve got their own line. I don’t know what happened. Who told Tom Lie-Nielson about this, or if it just was a coincidence, but within a short period of time Tom Lie-Nielson called. I think I was still having those conversations with Leonard Lee. Then Tom Lie-Nielson called and wanted me to design a line of spoke shaves for them, so it made it easy to finish my conversations with Leonard Lee because now Tom was talking about not just a spoke shave, but a line of spoke shaves.
Brian: There’s more to come with that, but Tom could not be better to do business with. He’s just been fantastic. They’ve done a great job with the tool from the quality standpoint. They’ve been very receptive to feedback, so that’s been really good. But that’s where the … I think part of the success of that was the design of the products fit to the manufacturer of the product.
Jonathan: Right, that’s what I was thinking.
Brian: With the Moser story, I think there was a mismatch in the design of the product, and that came from early conversations that I had with Tom Moser about the chair that led me to think a certain way about the manufacturing of it. He actually flew me up to the plant, and we had a tour of the plant so I could better understand their manufacturing, but by the time that happened I had already mostly designed the chair. I think had I had a better understanding of … I was going to say their limitations, but really their pattern of working, by visiting there before doing any design work, and spent more time doing that, we could have had a successful design experience together. I think that my idea of what they were strong at, or what their process was like, didn’t fit the thing that I was creating for them to make, and that’s never going to work.
Brian: That’s exactly the problem that we’re running into trying to have anything else manufactured. This bar stool behind me, the topless bar stool, the backless bar stool, we priced it to a company, and they could make it, but the first thing they have to give up is the bandsaw texture. They can’t bandsaw with precision. There are CNC bandsaws, but they’re still not set up to do a cut that would be a finish cut. They’re set up to get the part ready for less CNC routing. So the thinking is really different there. I was seeing the potential of the bandsaw as something that could actually create the finished shape of the piece, and that’s what excited me about that whole design, is having the manufacturing footprint be part of the surface design. The same way that the spoke shave finish, or the draw knife finish in some of my ladderback work was an important part of the surface design. It told the story of how the piece was made, but that story, those trails, those cuts, formed a piece whose surface had manufacturing integrity written all over it.
Brian: They couldn’t do that. They say they could make the tool, but then it’s a CNC cut thing and it’s all smooth. Then I thought you kind of lost the heart and soul of it. Then another one that we talked about briefly was … We actually had a major mess trying to get the Sonus chair manufactured. We made parts for a company to do that. They claim that they could hit the tolerances. It took them a month of trial and error before they could hit the tolerances that we were hitting in our shop, and they had a $500,000 German CNC machine. They finally got it so we said, “Let’s roll with it.” And they proceeded to ruin every piece of wood we gave them. It was our wood at our cost, and we’d already machined it to specs. To the specs that they said they needed in order to successfully make these parts. They didn’t make a single part right. It was a piece that was designed kind of for CNC type, for manufacturing production.
Brian: Recently, about a year ago, we had another company look at it. They said, “Oh, yeah. We can do this. We’ve got five axis CNC machines, we’ve been making chairs as a company for 150 years. But the first thing we’d have to do, we can’t match the wood like you do.” Well, the whole chair was designed as a showcase for beautiful wood grain and matched grain. If you throw that out in the first sentence of the conversation, what do you got? I don’t know what I would design for sure as something that could be manufactured, but unless it’s veneer, solid wood grain matching is not a fit for the factories. It’s not. And that’s where companies like this really shine.
Brian: And they’re not going to do bandsawn veneer, they’re going to do the sliced veneer, which just does not have anywhere near the same structural integrity. We were playing with some rotary cut sweet gum veneers, and when we put that in the vacuum press, if there’s tape on it, like even just double stick tape, we’ll pull that tape up and it’ll rip veneer out with it.
Brian: But it won’t do that on solid wood because a veneer’s all cracked up to begin with. It’s not held together anymore by its own lignin, whereas this bandsawn veneer is. I hate to leave that. That’s something really important to me about the integrity of the piece. If we have something made by manufacturing we’ll have to figure out a way to design so that the wood grain is not the theme.
Brian: And that’s going to be hard.
Brian: So I would. Yeah. I don’t know of a company who’s … Including Moser, I don’t know of a company who’s manufacturing and matching solid grain the way small shops do.
Brian: I think that the fewer small shops that are there, it’s like the less fine wine there is out there to educate the sommeliers or the people who are becoming at least familiar with how to pick out a bottle of wine. They’ve never had good wine, how are they going to pick a bottle of wine?
Brian: If you’ve never experienced really fine furniture designed the way we do, how are you going to know what you’re looking at? So we need more of us out there.
Jonathan: Right, crank it out.
Brian: To create kind of a tipping point of interest. We’re not even in the minds of … We, not just our shop, but this whole body of craftsmen that we’ve been talking about, for the most part is not in the minds of the consumer, and that’s our biggest problem. Not competing with each other. Fine Woodworking does a lot for that because … And this Greenwood conference that you were just talking about, do a lot for feeding an enthusiasm and building a connoisseurship for this thing that we do, and without that there would be no market for us.
Jonathan: Right, there’s no more galleries, essentially.
Brian: We can’t make enough noise, we can’t educate enough, but Fine Woodworking, and to a degree, Popular Woodworking are building a fan club for the likes of us. A lot of our customers read Fine Woodworking. That’s how they know about us, or that’s how they know about fine furniture, and that’s huge.
Melanie: What’s the future?
Brian: Looking ahead-
Melanie: Further opportunities.
Brian: Looking ahead and seeing some of these young people coming on now and thinking about what you’ve seen in 30 years, what’s your best hope for the next 20 years? Or 50. It’s hard to think about 50 years now, but …
Jonathan: I’ll do 20. I don’t really have a hope for it except to keep seeing more good stuff from a selfish standpoint. With all the changes we’re talking about, flowing through it all, for me, it’s the passion of the person. Whether they’re doing everything by hand or they’re using all machines, or they’re in the Krenovian camp or the Tage Frid or the Thomas Moser, it’s the designer and maker who’s really passionate about what he or she’s doing that will attract my attention anyway. And successfully showing that in their work. One thing that we were … What’s kind of interesting to me is that there seems to be a bit of a rise in the number of women in the field.
Jonathan: All throughout my time at Fine Woodworking and Home Furniture, et cetera, and even before when I was working in the field, it was pretty much all men. Unfortunate, but just was the way it was. I always felt bad as an editor that I didn’t present more work by women, but it just wasn’t there. At least I wasn’t finding it. In recent years I’m seeing more and more and more, and it’s really marked. There’s some wonderful work being done by women makers now, and a lot of it, so that’s an encouraging thing to me.
Brian: You were talking about passion for the work, and I think that that’s probably the most important ingredient in everything that we do. Not just in the furniture that we make, but the way that we relate to our clients, and then the way they relate to the furniture after they have it in their home. I think when that’s alive in the makers, it becomes alive in the work and it transfers to everybody that experiences the work. That’s what keeps it worth doing, regardless of what styles or how it’s made or what the material is. That relationship with the client and their relationship with the work and the maker, change their experience of living in their home with that kind of furniture.
Brian: It just brings an aliveness to an interior that isn’t going to be there if it’s all just colonial factory made stuff that you don’t feel a relationship to.
Jonathan: Right, and it kind of relates to the approach the maker takes, that there’s something to me, and the furniture that I find most compelling is made to invite use. Something can be beautifully designed, but if it’s a bit standoffish, it doesn’t make the cut for me. I remember going to Wharton Esherick house in Pennsylvania, which is where I really had my awakening about furniture making.
Brian: We went there together.
Jonathan: Yeah, we did. As a boy my mom took me there, and I remember just going, “Wow, everything in this place is made specifically to be used.” To be touched, to be appreciated visually for sure. He was extraordinary aesthetically, just visual aesthetics, but it was all thinking about you. The drawers under the bed, I’m like, “Yes, drawers under my bed.”
Brian: But there was also a lot of … It was almost like animation to it, and it was just his personal quirkiness.
Jonathan: Yeah, but it was alive in the work. The coat pegs that are carved to resemble the people who worked on the house, and a lot of the aesthetic flourishes and tendencies are definitely very unusual and expressive of him. I bring him up because I think it’s that kind of … I think he had it in absolute spades, this intention to make something, even though he was kind of a cranky guy, and apparently could really be hard to take, his work is so open to you. Everything is so wanting to be used and touched. And whatever the approach, whether, as we were saying, CNC or green wood, or anything in between, if the user is foremost in the mind of the maker, that’s a good start.
Brian: It has to do with that relationship, and I think that that takes it away from the materialism of the object. It’s that transfer of human touch, the transfer of human inspiration, creativity, passion, and love of the craft. This is just then a vehicle for that. It happens to work as a table because my cup has stayed right where I wanted it to the whole time.
Jonathan: Hasn’t moved.
Brian: Yeah, those intangibles are what’s worth all the rest. It’s fun to display craftsmanship in the process, but I don’t know if that’s … I think that it is possible to create that relationship and to create something that someone is … It’s like children’s art, not that it isn’t great stuff, but it’s not necessarily going to make the museum. But every time you see Livy’s drawing on the wall, you know, it’s right here.
Jonathan: Yeah. Hits you in the feels, as they say.
Brian: Hits you in the feels.
Brian: Yeah, and that’s what it’s about. It’s a vehicle for expression and I would say even a … Well, language is different, but it’s a way of communicating directly something that is felt and experienced. That can be communication happens between the designer, maker, and a consumer.
Jonathan: Right, and it’s interesting because I have the same feeling about sculpture and painting, 2D art, which I also adore. My thoughts about what’s the impact, why is something appealing to me? It’s kind of the same thing. It’s the, “Do I feel the emotion in this piece?” Is it making me feel something that is powerful? Yet, for furniture, I don’t want furniture that looks like sculpture, and I think that part of the reason is that to get that potency, to get that emotion and passion in the furniture, is all to do with use. It’s not just visual. Even if it’s really cool looking, it’s not going to really do it for me unless it’s also appealing to me as a user. Somehow those two things are kind of … Even though furniture makers with great sculptural gifts, the work’s not as interesting to me. Not as successful.
Brian: There has to be an expression of care for the client and whether you care that they’re going to have a really positive experience with this piece.
Brian: For me, it’s wherever they touch it has to just feel lovely. Not necessarily smooth. Here there’s draw knife marks.
Brian: It just has to feel like you’re feeling, when you’re sitting in that, you’re feeling what I wanted you to feel because I designed that to be that shape and that texture.
Jonathan: Right. Yeah, this is really cool. The whole time we’ve been talking I’ve been just kind of rubbing the texture on this.
Brian: People do that. They’ll come in here and their hands are all over everything.
Jonathan: Isn’t it funny? It’s totally unconscious.
Brian: People will come up here, there’ll be people on the floor up under the table looking at everything just because it invites that. That’s kind of the medicine for what we’ve created. In homes full of things that are not made with that, they deaden your sensitivity to what you surround yourself with because you’re not rewarded by being sensitive to that stuff.
Brian: Where this you’re definitely rewarded. There’s all kinds of treats to pay attention to.
Brian: Jon, it’s been really fun to talk about all this.
Brian: I know we go back a long way.
Jonathan: We do.
Brian: And we could talk a long time.
Jonathan: Thanks a lot. Good to see you again.
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 9
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 8
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 7
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 6
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 5
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 4
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 3
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 2
The Ask Brian Boggs Show – Episode 1