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Workshop Worthy of Awe

A rainy day in a great workshop

A rainy day in a great workshop

Dave’s workshop is down a few steps from the kitchen, but feels like entering a sanctuary. A place dedicated to creative work. I had the privilege and honor of spending an afternoon with Dave Fisher – one talented, creative, imaginative artisan. Everything in the compact shop space had a purpose, from the razor sharp tools within easy reach of the well worn

_MG_0286shaving horse, to the decorative carvings and pictures peaking out from every nook.  Each a reminder that the pursuit of excellence is also a pursuit of beauty. We talked for hours and could have talked for days about carved wooden bowls, design, and how the curves from a Hosta leaf in the back garden can inform the eye. Dave is a great example of a contemporary artisan who is extending our craft tradition by honing both his technical skills as well as his creative intuition.

 

I’m working on article profiling Dave’s approach to design in my Design Matters column for Popular Woodworking Magazine. Keep an eye out for it.

 

George R. Walker

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Designer’s Alphabet, Z is for …………….

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durer-latin-zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Furniture designs often reflect the culture of the time they were conceived. Culture itself is a loaded word, that endless struggle between the old oak of tradition and the winds of change. At first glance that 18th century chair may seem like an easy read to a modern eye, and smugly pigeonholed as “old brown furniture”. But a close study reveals a creative work influenced by the opening of international trade routes, social upheaval uprooting crafts and guilds, and sensational archeological discoveries firing the public imagination. And that’s just a pinky dip into the zeitgeist that expressed itself in a simple old brown chair. One of the oddities of zeitgeist is that the artisans of any particular age might have had a narrow view of the spirit of their time, but what they knew was by taste and smell. We moderns look back with the benefit of history yet never able to quite reach back to taste and smell.

 

While the zeitgeist of past centuries was a series of complex tapestries, the zeitgeist of our age is an explosion. We have labels to  describe the furniture of today like green, retro, disposable, sustainable, kitschy, hip, contemporary, edgy, sleek, honest, architectural (if it has one straight line), sculptural (if it has one curved line), one of a kind, industrial, chic, and bling. Often these words are combined to create new genres like retro-industrial-chic.

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This AMC Gremlin has a “Sport Package”, not sure it helped.

 

The string that connects the zeitgeist of our age with ages past, is that every era produced designs that deserved a quick death and every age stumbled on a chord and produced something timeless that deserved living on in designs of the future. Perhaps that’s what we are all searching for as designers.

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This ends my journey through the Designer’s Alphabet. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

 

George R. Walker

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Designer’s Alphabet, Y is for ………..

 

Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)

Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)

 

 

durer-latin-yorkshire chair, a regional chair form produced in the latter half of the 17th century in Britain. More broadly they fall under the umbrella of Charles II oak chairs (1660-1685). They were also produced in nearby Derbyshire, and sometimes refereed to as Derbyshire chairs.They had a few features that set them apart from the earlier Jacobean chair designs and hinted at some of the changes to chairmaking in the coming 18th century. Yorkshire chairs

An arcade is a row of arches supported by colunms.

An arcade is a row of arches supported by columns. (Bonhams)

departed from the Jacobean perpendicular chair backs with a solid plank splat, and moved to a more open back that tilted slightly to conform to the human frame. The open backs were often crested like the crown of a hill, or arcaded with a series of arches supported by small columns. To my eye the proportions are lighter than the earlier chair designs from the 17th century, perhaps a nod towards things to come in the chairmaking world in Georgian era in the 18th century.

 

Note: Thanks to Jack Plane for helping me track down some information on these chairs. I originally began looking for an American “York” chair. All roads came to nothing with only one poor example far removed from these English chairs. Sort of a dogs breakfast, cobbled together by committee. If you have a photo of an American “York” chair, pass it along and I’ll post it.

 

George R. Walker

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Designers Alphabet, X is for…….

Vintage Mahogony Planks from "American Lumberman November 1908"

Vintage Mahogony Planks from “American Lumberman November 1908″

durer-latin-xylon, Greek root word for wood. I must admit – X had me stumped. Also Xyloid, an adjective meaning resembling wood or ligneous. If I go through the designers alphabet again I may have to double up on another letter and take a pass on this one. Here’s a link to a great furniture grade wood supplier I highly recommend.  Horizon Wood Products. Great people to work with and xylon to drool over.

 

George R. Walker

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Just want it to be done

Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz, 1606-1682

One year ago Jim Tolpin and I were axehandles and elbows in final edit mode for our manuscript BH&E (By Hand & Eye).  I was struck by how much work is involved down that final stretch and I just wanted it over with.  Sort of like a large furniture project. It starts with the excitement of picking just the right figured boards to unleash something beautiful. That excitement gives way to a different kind of pleasure when the shaping and joinery begins, more like a long hike in the woods. Every good hike has a few brambles to muddle through, but the pleasure of building makes up for the hilly spots. Yet, near the end I always just want to get it done, shed the saddle and roll in some clover.

But this was different. After Jim and I high fived and broke some glass, we went right back to the fun of sending each other articles, links to historic engravings, and random thoughts about how our craft might have solved a problem. Rather than moving on, we continued to moving in. We’ve only scratched the surface as much of this knowledge can only be pried loose at the point of a tool. Jim’s still eager to test out every idea at the bench, and I can’t resist flipping over stones in the creek bed. A year later, actually three years later for the two of us, we are more convinced that the tradition has so much to teach us about how to see. And with each piece of knowledge we become more convinced that the traditional tool set is the key to breathe life into it.

I’m headed out to Port Townsend in March to share this knowledge in a design workshop. There are still a few spots left, so if you are game for a week of eye opening discovery, sign up.

George R. Walker

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Designer’s Alphabet, V is for ……..

Carved Volute on Windsor backsplat by Richard Grell, Photo by G. Walker

Carved Volute on Windsor crest by Richard Grell, Photo by G. Walker

durer-latin-v is for volute. The Oxford dictionary defines a volute as a spiral or twisted formation or object. For the furniture designer, a volute is a graceful way to terminate a line. No doubt inspired by the unfurling organic forms that abound in nature, volutes are employed in endless variety, from the massive scrolls that grace an Ionic capital down to countless tiny detailed carvings. Most of the historical design books include a section on how to DSCN1103generate a volute with a straight edge and compass. At first blush this seems a bit useless for a woodworker as the actual layouts in furniture are too small to layout with a compass, akin to neutering a hummingbird. For that small carved volute on the end of a chair arm, a freehand layout is needed. Recently I was speaking to a group at the Woodworking Workshops of the Shenandoah Valley and we discussed this freehand layout dilemma. I proposed a little experiment. First I had everyone draw a small volute freehand about the size of a silver dollar. Then we whipped out our compasses and walked through the steps to draw a large classical volute complete with all the 9hieroglyphics and voodoo. Amid all the stumbling and some cursing, I could hear the “ahas” bubble up as the logic clicked at everyone’s fingertips. Finally everyone executed another small freehand sketch, this time using using the knowledge they had just gleaned. Here’s one example of a before and after.  With a little practice and this knowledge, anyone can quickly and easily draw a graceful organic volute.

First attempt is on the left.

First attempt is on the left.

George R. Walker

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Great interveiw with Jim Tolpin

Design - Back to Basics 2

It seems like yesterday I was wrapping up my keynote address on furniture design to a packed house in Chicago. Then a woodworker down in front raised his hand and posed a question I didn’t know the answer to. A little embarrassed, my brain froze and I fumbled through an awkward ” I don’t know”.  The woodworker was Jim Tolpin and he hung around after the event and peppered me with more questions I didn’t know the answers to. That was the beginning of a great new friendship that eventually led to the two of us collaborating on our book “By Hand & Eye. They say that co-writing a book is a recipe for wrecking a friendship, but  in our case we must have lost that recipe. As the project reached that point where it’s a slog (as all books do), my respect for Jim increased as his inquisitive mind and generosity of spirit rubbed off on me.

Charles Brock interviewed Jim for the November edition of The Highland Woodworker . It’s worth a look.

George R. Walker

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Visit a great woodshop

Richard's new shop, the site of this weekends SAPFM meeting

Grell’s shop, the site of this weekends SAPFM meeting

Richard Grell’s woodshop lies at the end of a tree lined gravel lane. I dropped in the other day to see Richard in action teaching a child’s Chair class.

Grell made his sole living for forty years making Windsors and was often sought out by serious collectors and auction houses when the need for museum class reproductions arose. These days he’s changed course and in his words, “Do a download, and offer that forty years of craft knowledge to woodworkers”.  A rare opportunity offers itself this weekend with the Ohio River Valley Chapter (ORV) of SAPFM hosting it’s fall meeting at Grell’s Hudson Ohio shop. Aside from our usual crew of furniture makers from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia, this is a special treat for folks up north in the western PA or NY area.  The ORV usually meets in  southern Ohio locations (West Virginia also), so this a a chance to attend an ORV event in your neck of the woods. Any non-SAPFM members wishing to attend and check out one of the premier woodworking furniture groups in the country, contact me at georgewalker.design@gmail.com for more details. This is a weekend you won’t want to miss!

Here’s a short video about SAPFM

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The Bells of Agnone

I’m always a sucker for any story about keeping a traditional craft alive. So a small foundry casting bronze bells for a 1000 years got my attention. At 2:20 the master bell maker explains the simple geometry behind the bell design. Those darn simple ratios seem to turn up everywhere! See this short video of the bell makers of Agnone Italy.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50147140n

George R. Walker

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Designer’s Alphabet, Q is for …….

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durer-latin-qis for quaint. A trade name for a number of lines of furniture produced by the Stickley Brothers in Grand Rapids Michigan. They began using the name “Quaint Mission”, attached to a line of mission inspired furniture and then subsequently used the term as a brand to market lines of factory made furniture under the names Quaint Arts & Crafts, Quaint Tudor, Quaint Manor, and finally Quaint American. Here’s a link to a Quaint catalogue from the early 20th century. Quaint

Note – Thanks to Donna Hill for helping me find a solution to the letter “Q”. I decided to forgo the ubiquitous “Queen Anne” since according to Jack Plane at Pegs and Tails, we Americans cannot keep our Queens (or kings) straight.

George R. Walker

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