Ten years ago today, I resigned as editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, which was the best job I ever had. When I handed my resignation letter to Publisher Steve Shanesy that morning, I wasn’t angry or even disgruntled. The truth was that I had simply lost hope in the company I loved and fought for daily. And I was curious to find out if I could do any better.
There are lots of ways to measure a business. My metrics include: Am I eating? Am I happy? Am I sleeping at night? My old bosses at F+W Media preferred to use top-line revenue and EBITDA.
So this post is for them. It took us almost 14 years, but thanks to hard work, a good dose of luck, some close friends and a lot of good customers, Lost Art Press is now as big (actually, a little bigger) than Popular Woodworking Magazine was at its peak in the early 2000s in terms of both revenue and EBITDA.
I’m a Southerner, so I must immediately apologize for that small boast, and I swear on a stack of fried chicken legs that it will never happen again. My hope is that, if you are thinking of starting your own business or trying to leave the corporate world, you will find encouragement in that statement.
You can do it. Without a business degree. And with your ethics intact.
Books that purport to be a “history of everything on a topic” are almost always crushingly disappointing. They are pretty, light on details and focus on the low-hanging fruit you could find on Wikipedia. When these sorts of books make it into my hands (usually as gifts) they end up getting pulped – so they don’t deceive others.
I was therefore skeptical of “Atlas of Furniture Design” – if only from the title. But it was published by the Vitra Design Museum, for which I have great respect. And so I decided to take a look.
The book’s title is indeed deceiving. It is not an atlas of furniture design at all. It is an atlas of chair design. About 90 percent of the objects in the “atlas” are chairs or chair-adjacent objects (stools, low tables, daybeds, settees etc.). Plus some tables and shelves.
But that’s OK, because the book as a whole is an overview of industrialized furniture design from 1851 to the present. The book’s timeline is divided into five major periods: 1780-1914, 1914-1940, 1940-1973 and 1973 to 2017. Each period includes an illustrated history of the technology, culture and design sensibilities that shaped the period. And then there are hundreds of pages of the objects made during that period.
Each object (usually a chair) is put in context – where it came from and what became of it. There are all the facts you need (of course) such as gross dimensions, materials and designers. Plus an engaging history of the object that goes beyond the shallow museum cards in most decorative art wings.
Plus, at the end of each time period are pages and pages and pages of objects of (seemingly) lesser importance with some details. These objects fill in the gaps between the more important iconic pieces.
The last section of the book is a who’s who of designers, with short biographies of the people and companies that brought these designs to life.
All of the information is gloriously cross-referenced (sometimes in crazy ways), which makes the entire book a delight to explore.
Also, as an object, “Atlas of Furniture Design” is a technological feat. The 1,028-page book is assembled from smaller book blocks. Some are different paper stock. Other book blocks are different sizes so you can quickly find your way to a particular date range.
All of this is glued and casebound into a huge object that is still humane. It sits easily on your lap as you browse through it. I have already lost many hours paging through the book and dipping into areas of furniture design of which I have no knowledge (the 1970s?).
At 160 Euros, this book is an astonishing bargain. It took more than 20 years to produce and is a manufacturing achievement as well as an informational one. The book was released in 2019, and I hope it is in print for many years. But you should buy one now. You never know when books like this will disappear.
“Atlas of Furniture Design” is available in either English or German from the Vitra Design Museum, and it is sold by a variety of sellers worldwide.
On Friday, Lucy and I walked to get some dinner at a Mexican restaurant after a typical and trying week of work. As we were finishing up, my mom sat down with one of her friends, Sandi, at a table next to us.
Before I could even say hello, my mom’s table was swarmed with people from the neighborhood who stopped by to chat. I stood up, and we talked for a few minutes. As I left, I kissed her on the head and said, “Love you, mom.”
Affection is completely out of character for me in a public setting. And as I walked away, I wondered what had gotten into me. On Monday, I found out.
My mom, Jean Terry West, died unexpectedly overnight. As I’m sure most of you know, losing your parents can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. One of the ways I deal with grief is writing and building. And my coming days are going to be filled with that and taking care of the arrangements and my family.
In the meantime, I’d like to repost this essay I wrote last year about her and her importance to Lost Art Press and my life as a woodworker and writer.
I miss her already.
— Christopher Schwarz
At Popular Woodworking, we begged readers to send us submissions for the magazine’s last-page essay called “End Grain.” The problem was that almost all the essays we received had the same theme. It was such a problem that the theme became its own compound adjective.
Me: So what’s the essay about?
Fellow editor: It’s another grandpa-was-a-woodworker-so-now-I-am-too piece.
To be fair, my grandfather on my mother’s side truly was an accomplished woodworker. He taught me quite a bit about the craft and inspired me to be a woodworker. So I am in the sizable cohort that I appear to be mocking (though I am not).
Instead, I want to call attention to a fact we sometimes forget. Here it is: We are not clones.
When I write about the woodworking I did as a kid, it’s easy to focus on – duh – the woodworking parts. My grandfather was an enthusiastic woodworker, and I spent many hours in his Connecticut shop making things. My father was also a woodworker and a carpenter and a mason and a talented photographer (and 100 other things). And it’s easy to explain my interest in the craft through those two people.
But that’s just shorthand. And it’s incomplete.
As my father got older, his patience for work in the craft grew veneer thin. When he was younger, he would spend months laying hundreds of bricks by himself (sometimes with the help of my mother) as he started beautifying our first home in Arkansas. After he designed the two houses for our farm, he spent most weekends there (dragging us along whenever possible). These houses took more than a decade to construct. But despite the overwhelming task, he moved forward every week, joist by stud.
Once in his 60s, however, he confessed to me that he’d lost the drive to take on big projects. He was still interested in making things. But he wanted things to be quick. He wanted to learn to turn. And to carve small objects. Up until the end, his hand skills and his mental acuity never wavered. When he did pick up the tools, it was humbling to watch. But it was more difficult for him to ignite that spark. And to keep it going.
I think about that a lot. I have now entered my 50s, and I still want nothing more than to build things day in and day out. For years I worried that I would turn into my father and lose the ember that’s necessary to tackle difficult furniture pieces.
Luckily, I am not a clone. I am also the product of my mother.
My mother, now in her 70s, is as active and entrepreneurial as she was in her 20s or 30s. As a kid, I watched her teach natural childbirth in our traditional (some might say backwards) Arkansas town. She started a restaurant there, and then she worked at restaurants and catering businesses all over the country (Dallas, Santa Fe, Connecticut, Little Rock). Today, she still runs a catering business from her house and cooks every week as a volunteer at our local shelter. And she still embraces new technology (we’re both exploring the world of cooking with sous vide and an Instant Pot these days) and new ways of working.
She has had a more tumultuous life than my father, especially after they broke up. But she doesn’t give up. And she always finds a way to make things work, whether that’s throwing together a great meal with scraps or starting her life over in a new city.
So while it might look like Lost Art Press and my love for woodworking is the direct result of my time in the workshop with my grandfather and father, that’s not quite right. It’s my mother’s influence that gave me the strength to give the finger to my corporate job. And in the 1990s when I failed at my first publishing business, it was my mother’s genes that gave me the strength to say: Hell yes, let’s do this again and start Lost Art Press with my business partner, John.
And it’s also her genes that likely will keep me going.
As I get older, my patience for woodworking has only increased. I am still interested in learning new (and sometimes very old) techniques. And John and I have a business – publishing high-quality woodworking books – that is as ridiculous on paper as running a restaurant or a catering business. But we make it work.
So while grandfather might have been a woodworker, it’s important to also remember this: Mama was an entrepreneur.
Writing a book is a lot easier than completing the writing of a book.
With more than 500 pages of “The Stick Chair Book” written, designed and ready for proofing, I should be thinking about the foreword, the appendices and the bibliography. But instead, tonight I am picking through my “boneyard” – a pile of chair parts that I have been tending like a compost pile since 2003.
That’s because as I was finishing up the drawings for one of the comb-back chairs in the book, my brain pooped out a new arm design. This new arm fixes a small design flaw that I have been struggling with for months.
As many of you know, “force-poop” is never a good idea. Not in the brain or otherwise. And inspiration comes when it comes. Sometimes when you bear down, and sometimes when you least expect it. (Please don’t read this blog entry to your children or pets.)
Thank goodness for the boneyard. Within five minutes I had all the parts I needed to make a new comb-back. Oak legs, ash stretchers, maple seat, poplar arm, cherry comb and sticks from cherry and old heart pine.
So there will also be paint.
I don’t like keeping scrap around (just ask Megan), but I make a huge exception for chair parts, and they fill up a bunch of five-gallon buckets in my cellar.
And if the chair turns out like I hope, then perhaps I can finish the book with the updated drawings.
Registration for 2021 classes at our storefront opens at 10 a.m. (Eastern) tomorrow, May 17. We have only a few classes scheduled as we are trying to ease back into the new world. As you can imagine, a lot has changed both in Covington and with our business.
Some of our favorite restaurants have closed, but new ones have opened. We’re working on some new kitchen and bathroom facilities for visitors. And Brendan Gaffney has left us for Upstate New York.
One of the biggest changes has been the strange new barrier that has emerged between Ohio and Kentucky because of bridge construction. The old Roebling Suspension Bridge is closed entirely for repairs. The main bridge, the Brent Spence, is being fixed and repainted, so getting across the river is more difficult than ever because of continual lane closures and the giant condom that has enveloped the structure. As I write this, even our pedestrian bridge across the Ohio River is closed because a large stone fell from one of its piers.
So if you do plan to take a class, I recommend you stay on the Kentucky side of the border (no, you don’t need a passport, just bring a jug of corn liquor). There are lots of great hotels and Airbnbs in Covington that are walking distance from the storefront.
Here are the three classes we’re offering this year:
We hope to offer a few more classes before the end of 2021, but we are waiting to see if instructors will be able to travel. And if students are willing to sign up.
I’m not going to teach here or anywhere – at least for now. One of the after-effects of the pandemic has been how our publishing business has grown (almost four-fold). Keeping Lost Art Press running smoothly is more than a full-time job for me and John.
Like it or not, however, I’ll still be helping the instructors out during the classes. That means making sure there’s enough toilet paper, helping students who need assistance and occasionally brandishing the “encouragement whip” when the dovetailing slows down too much.
If you haven’t taken a class here, it’s important to remember that we are not a school. We don’t have an ice cream machine or a masseuse. But we do offer high-quality instruction, tiny classes with only six students, excellent workbenches and a walkable historic neighborhood to explore.
Plus Bean, the three-legged shop cat.
So if you are ready to travel and to attempt talking to strangers, I hope you’ll consider joining us. All we ask is that you be vaccinated against COVID-19. You can read more about that decision here.