Packing cases, weatherboards, fencing wire, garden stakes, picture frames and thread spools. Arthur Boon used all of these (and possibly more) to make his chairs.
Arthur Boon lived and made his chairs in Billy’s Creek near Dorrigo, New South Wales, Australia. His biography is largely dependent on his relative’s memories (not all of whom agree on the details). It is believed Boon was born in 1882 in Parramatta, as a young boy moved to Kangaroo Creek near Grafton and the family eventually settled at Billy’s Creek. According to Arthur Boon’s nephew, Stan Boon, Arthur was a life-long bachelor and not fond of extended visits by family or friends.
“He had an apple orchard and a vegetable garden. He kept a number of sheep. He read a lot and for a while worked for a sawmill. He was also a keen carpenter and built a second house for the family to live in…He built a carpentry shed, a barn, a sulky shed and a harness shed. He made some furniture and chairs, some photo frames which he elaborately carved…He died in the house he built and was buried in Dorrigo cemetery. He was 73-75 when he died in 1956-58…”
The back is made of garden stakes separated by cotton reels (thread spools), the seat is a section of a wooden packing case and the legs and stretchers are more garden stakes and thread spools. The back and seat are connected with fencing wire. Green paint can still be seen on the legs and stretchers.
The folding deck chair is made of tongue and groove weatherboards. The angled back is adjustable and the chair is unpainted.
Except for the seat, this chair looks to be made of picture frames and frame parts.
This is the front view of the chair at the top of this post. The back and seat are made of tongue and groove boards. The legs and stretchers are alternating garden stakes and thread spools with thread spools forming ‘feet’ for the chair. Boon added two more spools under the front edge of the seat.
The underside. The museum noted remnants of red and blue paint on the back of the chair and the legs.
A few more details. On the left: an angled insert made of picture frame mounding between the back and seat, a few more thread spools and half-spools decorate the side. On the right: the garden stake running behind the seat back, the decorative half-spool is missing from the end.
‘Make do’ furniture was, as the term implies, furniture made until there was more time to spend, and materials were available, to make better-quality pieces. As quickly as they were able, families that were newly-arrived in the bush made plain and practical tables and chairs. There wasn’t a need for paint or any decoration. Do Arthur Boon’s chairs fit the description of plain and practical, or was he up to something else?
Unless he or she is making a production run, a chairmaker tinkers with every part and constantly pushes the strength, stability and comfort of a chair. Boon was between (approximately) 28 and 38 years old when he made the four chairs in this post. These wouldn’t have been the first chairs (the necessary plain and practical ones) he made. I think he was tinkering and experimenting.
There are decorative elements added to each chair. The folding deck chair has a peaked back and the back is adjustable. The back of the the second ‘thread-spool’ chair has a curved top and has spools added for embellishment. Two of the chairs were painted. Boon could have made chair legs without thread spools and he could have made all his chair backs of tongue and groove boards. He had two items that aren’t normally associated with chairs and he found a clever way to use them: thread spools and picture frames.
The thread-spool legs are certainly quirky. The legs have a glancing relationship to turned legs, perhaps the country cousin of the block and vase pattern. Maybe that was Boon’s aim and he improvised with garden stakes (the block) and spools (the vase).
The picture frame chair is impressive in its ingenuity. And I think this chair, in particular, sums up Boon’s ‘make do’ approach. He used available materials (he made and carved picture frames), each frame could be a chair part (the back, legs and stretcher combined) and he used parts of his frames to fill in the rest. I like to think he was chuckling to himself as he made this chair.
My first thought on seeing the photo of this chair was, “that certainly is an armchair.” It turns out that was the maker’s intention – to make a visual pun of an Armstuhl.
The chair was made by Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Zilm, known as Wilhelm, when he was in his late 60s. Three of the four chairs were later repainted and decorated by one of Wilhelm’s youngest sons.
A Very Short Zilm Family History in Australia
After King Frederick William III mandated a new Lutheran church service many “Old Lutherans” rejected the change and, to avoid persecution, decided to migrate to other countries. Groups of Old Lutherans migrated under the leadership of their pastors with many going to Australia and North America. Five members of the Zilm family left their town of Goltzen in the Brandenburg area of Prussia in early 1838: Johann Christian (known as Christian), his wife Anna Dorothea, their sons Wilhelm and Friedrich and Christian’s brother and sister.
The family sailed on the ship Bengalee and arrived at Port Adelaide in South Australia in November 1838. The Zilms and about 50 other families helped to found the town of Hanhdorf (about 28 km southeast of Adelaide). On arrival in Australia, Wilhelm was weeks short of his 11th birthday and his brother Friedrich was 7.
By 1853, the much larger Zilm family decided to go north to the Barossa Valley and helped found the community of Nain. In 1875 Wilhelm, now age 48, moved with his wife and nine of his children further north to Booleroo. He had acquired 450 acres to clear and to ultimately grow wheat.
The Zilms named their Booleroo homestead Pantakora, and in addition to the family home, there was a workshop for the farm (originally the first house they built) used for equipment repairs and blacksmithing and another small building for carpentry work.
Wilhelm and his sons had both the metal and woodworking skills required to run a farm. They were able to make and repair farm equipment, furniture and other wares for the home.
When Wilhelm arrived in Australia he was of an age when a boy might enter an apprenticeship. He certainly helped his father as the newly arrived families built homes and made serviceable furniture. Wilhelm would have had ample opportunities to observe and help men who, although they originally migrated to farm, had trained as carpenters and cabinetmakers (some of whom would later resume their former occupations). Finally, he was a member of a community that migrated together and worked together for the benefit of all. Passing along needed skills, such as metal working and woodworking, was a value to the entire community.
Chairmaking at Pantakora
The woods used to make the chairs were red gum and other eucalyptus species. According to Noris Ionnou’s research, the carpentry bench was essentially a huge table with a thick red-gum top (about 20 cm) and splayed legs. With this basic setup, Wilhelm and his sons made staked tables, chairs and stools (all of which readers of this blog will be familiar).
The chairs seats average 4 cm in thickness and to lighten the weight of a chair (except the “full hand” chair in the topmost photo) the central part of the underside of the seats were carved out. Seats were not saddled. Chair legs were squared or rounded and staked and wedged to the seat. The back slats all have the same shape: narrow at each end tapering to a wider middle. Two of the four chairs have two round spindles (or sticks) in the back rest. The crest rails are a tablet form and have a slight curve. Screws were used to attach the crest rail to the back slats.
Wilhelm used well-known construction techniques to make his chairs. Was a similar style made by other branches of the Zilm family or other Old Lutheran families? Did he develop the look of his chairs, or was it learned from one particular furniture maker? We don’t know, but there is a consistency in all the known chairs he made.
The carved hands aside, his chairs were a local style, made for daily use and to meet the needs of the family. The carved hands were his unique addition for his and his family’s enjoyment. In other words, Wilhelm made true vernacular chairs.
Decoration and a Few Other Details
Wilhelm made two types of chairs with hands. The “full hand” has four fingers including fingernails! As related by family members, Wilhelm carved the hands to replicate the natural action of hands draped over the end of the chair arm. He was also fashioning a visual pun: he put “arms” on an Armstuhl (armchair). This chair is also heavier than the other three and was the chair he sat in.
The other three chairs have small knuckles (or closed fists) at the end of the chair arm. The arms of one chair curve outward (chair No. 1 in the large photo above) and there are only three knuckles. This is the chair Wilhelm’s wife sat in.
The other two “knuckle” chairs each have four knuckles with chair No. 2 having the addition of two back spindles.
The four chairs are dated 1895 and the original paint color was yellow. A nice, bright accent in a pre-electric and dark home interior.
There is some thought that the chairs are gendered. Wilhelm and his wife each had a specific chair and perhaps each family member had their own specific chair. It is very common for the parents to have specific chairs and the kids to each have their own until they grow up and move on (and then a younger sibling grabs that chair). I really don’t see a lot of difference between the knuckle chairs. It is one thing to make a chair for your wife, a lovely sentiment, but that does not necessarily give the chair a specific gender. Also, when the chairs were originally made they were all the same color and did not have the decorative designs we see on them today. So, I don’t see a gender factor.
At the time of Wilhelm’s death in 1906 (at age 78) his three youngest sons were living at Pantakora: Christian, Jack and Paul. Christian, a bachelor, inherited the farm and later left it to Jack. In 1937 Jack (also a bachelor) gave the farm to the married Paul.
Paul, the youngest son, is responsible for the designs on chairs. About 1910 the chairs were painted black. White, orange and red-brown paint was used to decorate the knuckle chairs. Other chairs he may have decorated are either in private hands, destroyed by later family members or otherwise lost.
The crest rails and the shaped back splats were outlined in orange. Legs were painted with concentric orange circles and the seats were given curved lines in orange and white. Swirls, leaf shapes, flowers and suns were in white. Dots were added to fill in the background. On his mother’s chair (chair No. 1) hearts, a common German motif, were painted on either side of the seat. (Note: design details on chairs Nos. 2 and 3 are difficult to see due to the low resolution of the photos.)
According to his family, Paul painted and decorated furniture and woodwork in the Zilm home. He also liked to carve. His designs incorporate both German motifs and elements often used in aboriginal rock, bark and body painting.
Outlining the shaped back splays and chair arms and then adding a central line simulates a skeleton and has similarities to the X-ray style of aboriginal painting. Outlining a figure and filling in spaces with dots are also a familiar part of aboriginal painting. Paul’s use of orange, red-brown and white, colors that can be obtained from the earth, are another element in common with aboriginal painting.
When the Zilms moved into the Booleroo area, well before full European settlement, there were still aboriginal peoples living nearby. How much contact Paul may have had with them we don’t know. But he was a creative sort and seems to have appreciated the colors and designs he saw.
When the early German migrants arrived on the frontier of South Australia the first concern wasn’t to make beautiful furniture, but to build shelter. Furniture had only to be serviceable. Later, serviceable could be replaced with the familiar styles formerly made in Prussia. But as time and distance from the home country lengthened different chair styles developed. Regional differences also developed (consider the numerous variations in Welsh stick chairs). Influences from the new homeland were also absorbed by the furniture maker.
These four chairs were made when the Pantakora homestead was well settled and Wilhelm had several grown children to run the farm. After a half century of arduous work he had some time to enjoy making chairs that where a little different, a bit whimsical. He had time to indulge his sense of humor. Fifteen years after the chairs were made, Wilhelm’s youngest son, born and raised in Australia, repainted the chairs and joined symbols of the old home with the new and permanent home.
Multiple sources are reporting the sad news that Garry Knox Bennett, a giant in the furniture making world, has died. He was born in 1934 in Alameda, Calif. The following is excerpted from “The Difference Makers,” by Marc Adams (2019).
Garry Knox Bennett is an American icon in the field of woodworking. He studied painting and sculpture at the California College of Arts and Crafts and is a self-taught furniture maker living in Oakland, Calif. His trademark is the combined use of fine metalwork and woodworking. Garry’s work is in private collections as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C.; the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City (formerly the American Craft Museum); the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama; the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; the Oakland Museum of California; the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and more.
A major retrospective of Garry’s work was initiated at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City (formerly the American Craft Museum) in January 2001, which included a showing at the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition was documented with an extensive book on his work: “Made in Oakland: The Furniture of Garry Knox Bennett.” Garry has taught and lectured extensively in the U.S. as well as in Canada, Australia and the U.K. In 2004, he received the Award of Distinction from The Furniture Society and was honored as Fellow of the American Craft Council. In 2011, Garry received the James Renwick Alliance Master of the Medium award in Washington, D.C.
On the Professional Side After leaving the California College of Arts and Craft in 1960 to pursue painting and welded-steel sculpture, Garry found work in the Bay Area making sculptural light fixtures for homes and commercial buildings. Work was sporadic, however, and commissions from his paintings, sculptures and art shows were not enough to ensure a consistent income for his growing family. Garry searched for an avenue that would allow for a base income to enable him to focus on his art.
Garry and his lovely wife, Sylvia, had an opportunity to build a home and live in a rural setting on land owned by Garry’s ex-stepfather, a rice farmer in Lincoln, Calif. The plan was for this “rural living” to afford a modest livelihood as part-time property caretakers and part-time artist. On the outside it seemed an ideal way for Garry to grow in his work, but the reality was otherwise and they returned to the Bay Area after five years.
Still looking for that “thing” that would generate basic support, Garry discovered the next opportunity through friends who had a shop in Berkeley, Calif. They approached Garry about making some jewelry, primarily earrings. It was the 1960s and the beginning of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury “hippy” days – anything large and dangly with beads was hot! During this time, Garry designed and produced peace symbols, roach clips and assorted “hippy” accoutrements. His company, “Squirkenworks,” was started in 1965. Garry viewed himself as a commercial sculptor and artist who sold to both a wide counterculture market and an upscale clientele.
His choice of material was brass brazing-rod, which he had used in his sculpture. It was cheap and readily available. The work was a huge success and evolved into a major line of precious-metal jewelry, which was sold in stores across the U.S. Henri Bendel in New York City was a customer. The result was a stable income for many years, allowing Garry to retreat and focus on his personal work.When Richard Nixon outlawed drug paraphernalia in 1974, Squirkenworks ceased manufacturing, and the “Summer of Love” segued into the “Death of the Hippy.” An era was over. Garry, however, chose to expand the plating shop that he had set up for his production work and offer precious-metal plating to other manufacturers. The shop is still operating as Gold Seal Plating today.
Garry’s move to functional work was possibly initiated by his early light fixtures. One of his commissions was a fixture that started at a front door entry and traversed the entire home, following the ceiling through the living room and ending in the dining room – illuminating one of Garry’s paintings that the client owned. Initially he worked exclusively with metal, which included a series of metal clocks. His first series of functional work, Cloud Clocks (all metal), was exhibited at Gump’s, then a world-renowned fine and decorative arts gallery in San Francisco.
He gradually moved toward some very primitive wooden casework. At first his only woodworking equipment was an old table saw that he used when he built his first house on his ex-stepfather’s farm. Garry found cabinets intriguing and started making some simple and, according to Garry, “very crude by woodworking standards” cabinets with drawers that often incorporated elaborate light fixtures attached to the casework.
An old friend who had a gallery in San Francisco was about to open a new gallery for furniture and glass and asked whether Garry would be interested in exhibiting in a group furniture show. Although Garry didn’t consider himself a furniture maker, he was interested in being included. So he turned to a group of like-minded young furniture makers in his area to see what kind of work was being produced. Although the majority of work at the time was impressive, he noticed there seemed to be far more attention paid to intricate dovetails while overlooking some pretty basic design concepts. Most work lacked visual excitement, shape and color. The door was open for a California-style furniture earthquake.
Noticing the extreme focus on joinery, fine wood and lots of dovetails by many of these makers, Garry decided to make a piece of furniture for this new gallery exhibition that was visually exciting. Garry said, “there is much more to making an interesting piece of furniture than just fancy wood and joinery.” He intentionally set out to show that an untrained person could execute reasonable joinery and make a special piece that can become more than the sum of its joints. His now-famous “Nail Cabinet” was born.
This piece was a reaction to the decree that “the wood is paramount.” For Garry, wood was one vehicle to an exciting visual outcome. Design, function and excitement were far more important to him than the fact that an exotic material was used. The “Nail Cabinet” was conceived as a statement. And, to be honest, Garry grossly underestimated the reaction in downtown San Francisco that it would generate. Many perceived it as an abomination and sacrilegious (to put it mildly). With the criticism came unexpected attention. The labels of renegade/Philistine etc., opened a door that Garry was ready to enter. From that point, Garry put painting and sculpture on the back burner and it was furniture full-speed ahead.
This little bit of notoriety enabled Garry to comfortably explore a divergent approach which he found to be exciting. After the “Nail Cabinet,” the public would not be shocked by what would follow. Coming from an art background, his base was composition, balance, design and visual excitement, all of which were missing from most of the furniture at the time. Garry moved beyond the “California roundover” (referencing the soft edges given to most of the work being done in the late 1970s on the west coast). He was able to produce quality work without the sophisticated skill and training of the east coast approach to furniture making.
His life is unique in that his choices have been made by just following a thread that has allowed him to do exactly what he wants to do in his own fashion, which is not an easy task. Garry underplays the business of art, but it exists. It is the conscious act of embracing anything that will enable you to do what you wish in the manner you choose. He lives by a simple rule: Set up a challenge and then go for it; success or failure, the effort serves to expand one’s abilities.
On the Personal Side I first contacted Garry about teaching at MASW in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2005 that the dream became a reality. Garry agreed to do a workshop where students, along with Garry, would make a table that would be auctioned with proceeds split 50-50 between The Furniture Society and the Roger Cliffe Memorial Foundation. Made from walnut, the table featured a breadboard top with massive through-mortise-and-tenon joinery, which is typical of the GKB style. When completed, Garry and each student signed the underneath of the tabletop. The table sold for more than $10,000….
Garry likes to enjoy life to the fullest. He is witty, artful, funny, clever and maybe every now and then a little sinful. Seth Stem, professor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), once told me that he invited Garry to be a guest lecturer at RISD. Somehow the story goes that Garry’s flight arrived very late and by the time he got to Seth’s house it was the middle of the night. Pounding on Seth’s door, Garry yelled, “Where’s the beer?” I’m not quite sure if that story is true (it might have been something harder than beer), but Seth warned me that having Garry teach at MASW might be an experience. Seth knows that I’m a straight shooter. I don’t drink, smoke, cuss, gamble, use drugs or any of that “sinful” stuff, and when Seth heard I had invited Garry to teach at MASW, he thought he better give me a heads-up.
Although I had talked to Garry often, I never will forget the phone conversation we had before his first trip to MASW. The concern in his voice bordered somewhere between terrified and repentant. “Marc, before I come to Indiana I have just one question. Now Indiana, isn’t that one of those Bible Belt States?” He promised me that he would be on his best behavior. As it turns out, Garry was a true gentleman and was one of the most gracious, polite and wonderful instructors I have ever had. At the end of his first workshop I will never forget saying goodbye in my driveway. He took me to the side and told me what it meant to him to be a part of our program, then gave me a big brotherly hug and drove away – straight to the bar.
Throw a spanner in the works, and even the smoothest-running machinery will come to a stop. Most of the time you can diagnose the problem, make a quick repair and get back to business with minimal delay.
But when the spanner takes the form of a pandemic, not so much. You can moan and groan, lament lost income and opportunities, retreat into a funk. If you’re lucky, you may reach a point where you recognize yourself as weirdly liberated from the everyday grind and be open to new directions.
This is how I found Australian woodworker Bern Chandley when we spoke at the end of September. Ordinarily a prolific and highly focused designer-builder of contemporary chairs, Bern, based in Melbourne, has spent much of his time over the past few months laboring over a single piece of furniture: a small settee in blackwood. “I’ve had very limited time in the workshop this year,” he says. With schools closed, he has been helping his wife, Alice, home-school their 9-year-old son, Flannery. Since March, Bern has had just two or three short days a week to work in the shop; a curfew has kept him from staying into the night.
The settee is a commission, the form and joinery – Nakashima meets Wegner, with staked legs (both curved and tapered), steam-bent spindles, a hand-scooped seat and stretchers that swoop up to support the arms – a new paradigm in the Chandley repertoire. There are more jigs than usual, as well as more machines, including a PantoRouter. There’s not a single right angle. Even though he’s getting paid well for the piece, the pay won’t cover the investment required to puzzle out the making. “But because it’s a new design,” he reasons, “it’s going to give me a whole lot of other chairs.” The sculptural piece of seating will become a mainstay of his build-to-order portfolio, so he’s putting in the work to make all of the processes readily repeatable. “I want them all down pat,” he says, because efficient production is important to how he makes his living.
Family & Starting Out
In July Bern turned 50. “Aging has never been something that has particularly preoccupied my thoughts,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I’ve always felt birthdays were a good excuse to draw in close the ones you love and that the warmth of their returned love is a reflection of the happiness I’ve achieved in life. I don’t care how old I am each time I feel it, just that I’m feeling it. It is life affirming.
“Today as I turn 50, in this time of physical isolation, I count myself incredibly lucky to spend the day on remote learning with my son Flann Brian Chandley, Grandson to Brian Frederick Chandley, my beautiful Dad, who we lost just a little more th[a]n 6 months ago today. Every time I think of him I’m flooded with longing to see him and speak with him. We miss him an enormous amount. He was and is, along with Mum, my greatest inspiration to be as good a person as I can be. As I look at my son, as he looks at me, as we talk to each other I’m aware of how lucky I am to have had such brilliant role models. Dad’s in my thoughts daily but I feel him especially close today.”
You can chart how important Bern’s family is to him in his voice. Nothing in our conversation makes him more animated than the stories he tells about family members, each anecdote filled with detail and color. Most of his ancestors came to Australia from Ireland. Some arrived against their will, he notes, referring to the British practice of exporting convicts to penal colonies in the late 18th century. Others came as farmers looking for opportunity. Farming remained central to the family for generations. Bern’s father, Brian, was one of nine children born on a farm near the port city of Geelong (pronounced “Ja-long”) in the state of Victoria, about 50 miles southwest of the capital, Melbourne.
The family lost the farm during the Great Depression and had to move into Geelong to look for employment. His paternal grandfather, Bill Chandley, went to work at a factory. Bern has fond memories of Bill, who was “already quite on in years” by the time Bern came along. Bill had one leg that was longer than the other, due to a bout of polio he suffered as a child. The family didn’t own a car, so he got around by bus. “He knew all the bus drivers in Geelong by their first name. He rode on a bus with a little airline bag and his rollie (handrolled) cigarettes. He was a very warm, lovely fellow,” Bern remembers, then adds in the kind of detail especially important to a child: “My nana” – her name was Nellie – “made a sponge cake for everyone’s birthday.”
Bern’s mother was a nurse-midwife, his dad a diesel mechanic fitter and turner. “You call them engineers over there,” he offers, “like toolmaking – working with heavy machinery.” Geelong being a port town, many businesses were involved with shipping.
In 1986, at the age of 16, Bern left school to start an apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner. “I’m from a big working-class family,” he says. “I’ve got a million cousins who are all tradesmen. I’m one of four kids; my older brother was the first in our extended family to go to university.”
It was meant to be a four-year apprenticeship, with time alternating between coursework at trade school and work for a boss who ran a house framing business. At school Bern studied building methodology – stairs, joinery techniques and traditional handwork with dovetails and mortise and tenons – not because there was a market for that kind of work (there wasn’t), but because the curriculum hadn’t been updated in years, for which he gives thanks. On the job, they framed houses; Bern has vivid memories of building pitched roofs in eucalyptus, “big, tall, straight-grain trees used in construction.” The roofs would then be topped with weatherproof corrugated steel. That way of roofing is long gone, he says; these days builders simply install trusses.
Bern finished his apprenticeship early, at the age of 19. Typically an apprentice would stay on with the boss who’d sponsored the training, but these two didn’t get along. “He was a bit of a hammer thrower,” Bern says – “a good carpenter, but always the most hated person on the site. The day I finished my apprenticeship, I quit-slash-he fired me. We had a big fight on the site.”
After a few more carpentry jobs he was ready to leave Geelong. His older sister was training to be a nurse in Melbourne, so he moved there. For two years he worked as a hospital orderly, an experience he found fascinating. “I was suddenly confronted with life and death. I was still a silly young bloke. I had to come to terms with people dying on a regular basis…and form an understanding of it…. Nurses are amazing. They’ve just got to carry on, no matter what.” He worked in the emergency room. “You’re on the front line,” he says. “There are some horrific injuries. People were thrashing around, semi-conscious, and you had to hold them down.” Part of his job was to help the nurses wrap cadavers in plastic and take them to the mortuary. “It knocked the immaturity out of me, which I’m very thankful for.”
In his 20s he did some traveling around Europe. On his return, he found his way into building sets for television, theater and American movies that were being filmed in Melbourne. Each gig lasted almost a year. One of these productions was set in the Second World War; when the crew couldn’t find a specific piece of period-authentic furniture, they brought him a picture and he figured out how to make it. “I was just knocking the [props] out, out of MDF and pine,” he says; the painters on the set “were magicians” who made the stuff look like it was built of mahogany.
“The thing with set building is, it’s very good for problem solving. The designers are notorious for giving you the easy measurements” while leaving the challenging stuff involved in curves and angles for the set builders to work out. “Depending on the job, there could be nary a right angle. ‘Star Wars’ had the most curves and angles. That’s space ships for you!” He points out that this was before CNC routers, so you couldn’t just pop what values you had into a computer. “You had to work it out yourself. You had to be very inventive.”
He’d always had an interest in furniture, so Bern filled the time between jobs with furniture commissions, taking on “anything and everything” – tables, cabinets, built-ins, carpentry jobs. He realized that making furniture was what he really wanted to do and started his own business, getting work by word of mouth. Without a shop, he built things in his backyard, or in the client’s. “I got it done,” he says. He persevered and learned from his mistakes.
Between 2005 and 2016 he shared space in group shops, a good way to build up a business when you don’t have the capital to tool up on your own. Needless to say, it could be trying; people had different priorities and interests. The others were building furniture part-time, whereas he was running a business. Eventually he concluded he needed a space of his own.
He got to know his wife, Alice Byrne, as a friend in 2006. It was summer, and Bern was in Paris. Alice happened to be there, too; her boyfriend, Alan, had been awarded a traveling scholarship. An oil painter, she’d been in Paris seven years before as the scholarship’s inaugural winner. She and Bern spent some time together visiting galleries. “I was smitten,” he says, “in the sense of ‘I’ve really got to meet a girl like Alice.’” After about a week, Bern went on his way, not knowing whether he’d ever see her again.
But shortly after he got home to Melbourne, Alice’s brother George called with news that Alice was back. Alan wasn’t with her; he had returned to Sydney. Soon after, Bern and Alice went on a first date, a pub meal and dancing – with George. They’ve been together ever since, and were married in 2009.
Alice put her painting aside when she got pregnant, concerned about the health risks of solvents. After Flannery was born, in 2011, Bern was the family’s main breadwinner. Alice went back to work outside the home part-time when Flann was 2; she manages an art supply shop that does both retail and wholesale work, along with specialty painting services such as framing and stretching canvas. Although she still has a studio space, she has largely put that work aside while raising Flann.
The Move to Chairs
Like many of us, Bern started out in “bespoke” (custom) work. In retrospect, he sees custom work as “a bit of a trap you can fall into. That’s the best way to burn yourself; if you haven’t built something before, you’re not ever going to get paid enough to sort out all the preliminary stuff before you make it. But it’s the best way to learn a lot.”
He stuck with custom work until about 2010, building tables, cabinets, whatever a client might want, while working part-time for a fellow woodworker, Alastair Boell, who had a school, the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Alastair was eager to have Bern teach, but Bern had always hated public speaking. “It kind of terrified me.” He gave it a try. He’s glad he did. When Alastair invited Peter Galbert to teach a class on North American Windsor chairs, Bern assisted and found himself smitten with the joinery. Pete, Bern says, is “egoless. Very comprehending, very inventive as a maker… a very inspiring teacher.” In fact, so inspiring “that from that moment all I wanted to do was make chairs.”
Pete encouraged Bern to visit the States and teach at his school in New Hampshire. They made it happen. He taught one class in 2018 and two in 2019 on a chair of his own design that he calls the “No. 14 Chair” – “after Thonet,” he laughs, “because I’m shit at naming things.”
He still makes other forms when he’s really keen on a particular piece, but chairs have become his livelihood. Here we return to the topic of efficiency. “You have to have your own product,” he believes; that way, you’ve got the jigs and processes in place. People order one (or 14!) of that thing “and you can just go straight to work, without thinking” – at least, in principle. He admits “that’s easier said than done.”
He now teaches chairmaking classes at his shop in Thomastown, an industrial area on the northern outskirts of Melbourne. With block walls and a concrete floor, it’s around 2,000 square feet in a gray brick building surrounded by old factories. Teaching has changed the nature of his business, injecting a welcome bit of variety. He keeps classes small, with no more than four students at a time, so that people with different skill levels can all keep up, and he tries to design each class so that students at any level of experience can get something from it.
Teaching has also proved a stabilizing influence in economic terms. “It’s more lucrative than general chairmaking,” he says. “It can afford you that little bit of extra time.” He’s come to regard a few teaching gigs through the year as “economic pillars” around which he can schedule the rest of his work and hopes the higher income from teaching will allow him more time to develop new designs. In Bern’s view, a good chair design combines durability, structural integrity and comfort. “I love designing chairs. Developing them is the most fun you can possibly have.”
People come to furniture making via many different paths, but Leslie Webb is the first furniture maker I know who got into the field through a gig as a nanny.
“I had gone off to college [at Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine] and was completely lost in terms of direction,” she began, by way of explanation. “I found everything at college interesting. But when I thought about ‘do you want to do this for the rest of your life,’ it wasn’t THAT interesting.” She worried she might not have any direction at all.
So Leslie decided to take a break. Everyone she knew thought she was throwing her life away, and she remembers how scary it was to make her way forward against that disapproval.
It was around 2000, and she had to get a job to support herself. “I was looking through the newspaper at help wanted ads. I saw this ad; it said ‘childcare in exchange for an apartment.’” It was a start; at least she’d have a roof over her head, even if the job didn’t come with income. She wrote a letter of introduction, explaining that she’d babysat in high school, even if she understood that didn’t amount to much experience. It turned out that Julie, the mother, had family members from Texas, Leslie’s home state; she was born in Georgetown in 1978. Leslie thinks this seemingly tenuous connection may have been helpful. They hit it off at the interview, especially after realizing that Julie’s grandmother was at a nursing home in a small town called McGregor; Leslie’s mother was working with elderly patients as a physical therapist, and as it happened, she knew Julie’s grandmother. “It was such a weird thing!”
After a series of interviews Leslie got the job. She got along well with the family, who treated her well. She still keeps in touch with the boy she was caring for, who is now a young adult.
One day Leslie spotted a Moser catalog on the kitchen counter with a pile of mail. “At breakfast I was randomly flipping through and thought, ‘Oh, it would be so cool to build furniture, because it’s beautiful, but it’s useful too.’” Robert, the father of her charge, told her he knew basic carpentry and would be happy to teach her.
Robert was a fine arts painter who did massive paintings – 8’ long x 4’ high – for which he made his own frames and shipping crates. So she started helping him build crates in his Brunswick studio.
“I was cutting a 2×4 for a crate,” Leslie recalls. “I remember using a chop saw and seeing the blade sinking into the wood and I knew ‘this is it.’”
She worked as the family’s nanny for about three years. In her spare time, she tried to build some pieces of furniture but got stuck because she knew the quality she wanted to produce but didn’t know how to get there. There were no woodworkers in her family to ask for advice. YouTube videos were not yet a thing; the only resource she knew about was Fine Woodworking, which she read but found largely over her head.
Leslie concluded she was going to have to train through a program. She’d been in Maine long enough to know about the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, so she checked out its website and found the nine-month program was soon launching. The deadline was just around the corner, so she submitted an application and was delighted to learn she’d been accepted. Her mom was worried about Leslie’s ability to support herself as a furniture maker. Her dad, a doctor, was “not supportive at all.” As the youngest of her parents’ four children, she thinks she was his last hope for one of them to go to medical school.
“I so enjoyed the entire process,” she says of her training at CFC. “I really enjoyed being able to design my own pieces. The first two projects are teacher-designed, to build hand and machine skills, respectively. The rest you design yourself, up to a point. I enjoyed the process of having an idea and figuring out whether it would work or not. And I still do enjoy that process, so much.”
For joinery, she focuses on traditional mortises and tenons, dovetails and miters with reinforcement. “Nothing too out of the box. I gravitate aesthetically toward contemporary stuff – pretty stripped-back designs that don’t have a ton of adornment. Sometimes integral tenons, sometimes floating.” She usually makes her own floating tenons. “I don’t always let the tool dictate. Sometimes I modify what the tool can do so it’s not dictating.”
Today Leslie works in a small shop, a converted two-car garage in Georgetown, Texas, where she returned to live around 2011. Some of her work is commissioned, some done in small batches and some on spec. Outside of Instagram, I first became aware of Leslie’s work when I saw a few pieces on exhibit at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, N.C. They were flawless – beautifully made and elegantly designed. She is also one of the women and woman-identifying makers whose work was juried into the Making a Seat at the Table exhibition in Philadelphia from October 2019 through January 2020. She has done lots of shows over the years, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, Architectural Digest Home Design Show, International Contemporary Furniture Fair/ICFF, and Wanted Design.
Furniture making is an economically precarious field, especially for those whose livelihood depends on their own income alone, without help from a partner. By the time she moved home to Texas, Leslie had already weathered the Great Recession. “I went through the crash in 2008 with my furniture business and it was awful,” she says. So she’d been thinking vaguely about how she might add another income-producing dimension to her work. “One day the idea popped into my head: I wonder whether I could sell HNT Gordon tools over here.” There was no retail outlet in the States; the company is based in Australia. “I realized it would be a whole other thing,” but she reminded herself that furniture making has its own stresses. The idea stayed in the back of her head; it wouldn’t go away.
Over the years she’d bought some HNT Gordon tools for her own use. After pondering for two or three years, she decided to start with those. As part of her research she gauged interest among her woodworking friends. “People were hesitant [to buy HNT Gordon tools] because [the company] was overseas.” Some told her that the ordering process was unclear to them; others worried that there might be hidden fees for international orders and so on. Finally, she contacted the company to inquire. Terry, the head of the business, was on board. So she decided to try.
In late 2019 Leslie started Heartwood Tools, which specializes in high-quality woodworking tools. “It’s going really well!” she says. In fact, “it has temporarily taken over. If I had known that the pandemic was coming when I launched it, I probably would not have done it. But it has exploded – I think in large part people are spending more time at home and doing more furniture making.”
Do You Deserve a Good Caning?
Caning – for stools, chair seats and small tables – is another corner of the furniture-making world in which Leslie is making her mark. Over the years she has used pre-made sheets for caned work, but then she learned how to do it herself. “I’ve always liked caning,” she says. “We had dining chairs with caned seats when I was little. I remember being fascinated that they could hold people, child or adult. It didn’t seem like that should be possible.” She likes being able to introduce color into her work but hates to dye or stain wood. Caning (seat weaving?) offered a way to combine natural wood with eye-popping colors. “I don’t dye the caning. I have experimented with that, but was not happy with the results. That led me to look elsewhere for color, which led to cotton rope and paracord as weaving materials.”
She taught herself how to weave. “Once you know how to do Danish cord, it’s not that intimidating.” She’d taught herself to use Danish cord using “The Caner’s Handbook”. A couple of people on Instagram also let her “pick their brains.”
Why Furniture Making?
“I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating ‘why furniture making?’, says Leslie, “mostly because it still seems like such an ‘out of left field’ passion when I look at my life. I have never encountered another subject which so thoroughly engages all parts of my brain, creative and analytical. Dreaming up new designs while also agonizing over 32nds [of an inch] and adding fractions in my head? Sign me up. Time in the shop also forces me to be completely present in the moment. Drifting off in thought for even a brief moment can result in ruining a piece or worse, a shop accident. Grabbing a hand tool or turning on a machine is the fastest way to leave my worries behind. I think the thing that keeps me coming back for more, though, is the continual chase for improvement – and not compared to others, but to what I have accomplished previously,” she says. “Even after 20 years, I don’t feel like I have mastered anything, and I kind of like that. There is always a new specialized niche skill to learn or a mistake to be fixed. It is a humbling pursuit; there is nothing like messing up a process I’ve done hundreds of time to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. I could come up with a multi-page list of why I love woodworking, but the truth is I am not sure how much logic controls the things we love; we simply do.”