Few can claim that they’ve made a novel or uncompromising break from the design of their time. Whether we are interpreting, imitating, recasting or reacting to the designs of others (consciously or unconsciously), few designers add truly original elements to their forms.
For many, a search for novel design eventually leads them to “outsider” or “folk” art. While the definition of outsider art is problematic to nail down, it often revolves around a character whose drive to express themselves in a given medium isn’t influenced by or born of trend, opinion or feedback – and some of the best examples come from those who were compelled in an extreme manner by some compulsion, often psychological. This compulsion not only serves to improve the technical abilities of the artist, but accelerate and iterate their creative designs, letting them sprint rather than walk off the beaten path.
Mixing compulsion and a lack of technical ability is not necessarily a non-starter in the visual arts – when building furniture, however, there are certain baselines of ability that must be met for a piece to function as a usable object. Thus, the “outsider” furniture maker must have three things: a certain level of technical skill, the compulsion to make and a mind capable of design leaps and novelty.
Chester Cornett, the “Craftsman of the Cumberlands,” had all three, in spades. Having learned traditional Appalachian chairmaking from his grandfather and uncle growing up, his technical skill with the simple hand tools he used was not simply adequate, but expert, even masterful at times. He was extremely compulsive, driven to constantly work at making chairs, making not only countless traditional forms but exploring a wide array of non-traditional forms as well, like rocking chairs with three or four feet, all manner of carving styles and motifs, even various materials like willow, upholstery, hickory bark and an array of different woods. He even made and modified banjos and guitars in his spare time.
This technical practice made him a great chairmaker and earned him a reputation among his fellow chairmakers in southeastern Kentucky. What made him exceptional, novel and unique among them (and what has drawn Chris and I to venture around Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to see his work) is the coupling of this technical ability and practice with a positively different kind of creative brain. Cornett had a a rough life, to say the least, suffering extreme post-traumatic stress from his time in World War II and discord at home, with chronic illness in his children and marital issues. While this strife certainly caused Cornett significant emotional and psychological hardship, it seems that part and parcel along with it came a mind that was able to make creative leaps in design. Whether it was crossed wires or new connections, there is no denying his ability to come up with novel furniture forms. Add his feverish desire to iterate and his technical skill to his novel designs, and you’ve got a furniture maker worthy of investigation.
Of all the chairs Cornett made, one of the most extreme examples of “out” thinking applied with real technical prowess is what he called his “Two-in-One Bookcase Rocker, Masterpiece of Furniture,” one of a series of two-in-one rockers (each had eight legs and four rockers, or two chairs worth). At the time in 1965, he called it his masterpiece, saying “I never made nothin’ like it in my life. There ain’t nothing in the world like hit. That’s why I call it my masterpiece.”
Cornett made the chair for Michael Owen Jones (a folklorist who studied and wrote a book about Cornett) in place of the traditional seven-slat rocker the author had ordered. Cornett clearly was making a chair he thought befitting the author by including the appropriate book storage – but this chair is not simply a visual portmanteau of bookshelf and chair. While the added storage indicates a certain practicality of design, very little of the rest of the piece’s creative decisions are so straightforward. The maker chose to enclose the entirety of the chair with pinned panels (a total of 17 panels filled the spaces between the 12 posts and six shelves). Perhaps most notably, the top of each of the seven panels that make up the sides and back of the chair is adorned with a spoked half-circle, upon which Cornett carved the inscription “Old, Kentucky Made Buy Chester Cornett’s Hands Engle Mill.” (Cornett was, as Wendell Berry once noted, an “undaunted speller,” and his phonetic spelling of words like “buy” (by) “hit” (it) and “chire” (chair) not only appear in his writings and letters, but are often carved right into his work.)
As if the bigger picture of this chair wasn’t enough, it is absolutely full of details and curiosities far beyond the meaning of such half-circle motifs. The pins used to attach the shelves and affix the tenons in their mortises feature two distinct carving patterns, one faceted and the other fluted. Each octagonal post ends in a beautiful drawknife-carved finial. Each leg is tenoned to the rocker below, but instead of whittling down the leg to a round tenon, Cornett carved the tenon in a rectangular fashion, providing further glue surface and strength.
There are two things I like most about this chair. For one, it’s a chair after my own heart. I’m a “flat worker” (as Tim Manney once chidingly called me, in place of cabinetmaker) and if there’s a chair that aspires to be casework, or the other way around, it’s this one. I’m already dreaming of how floating panels and bent-lam rockers could make their way into the same piece.
The other thing I adore in this piece of furniture is the credibility that is somehow pervasive in what should be a ridiculous piece of work. Cornett was indeed an expert in dealing with wood – having rocked and moved the piece around while examining it, it feels solid and well joined at every point of possible weakness. The pins are carefully carved, the finials are a perfect example of refined handwork, the tenons are carefully staggered to allow for proper joint strength. The form may be humorous but it was made in earnest by skilled hands, and the end result is a chair with significant presence. I’ve taken the measurements, and I’ve got the reference photos – without a doubt, this chair, maybe more aptly called a “chire,” is now on my short list of builds.
Thanks to Ellen Sieber and her staff at the Mathers Museum in Bloomington, Ind., for their time and patience in helping us through the museum’s incredible archives. The museum’s collection of Cornett’s work is astounding and well kept – I look forward already to visiting them again.
Normally around this time every month Chris writes a blog post to tell you that the Lost Art Press storefront in Covington, Ky., will be open on the coming Saturday. But with Chris visiting his (kind of) ancestral homeland, it’s up to me to announce and host the storefront’s open house.
And so, we’re going to do things a bit differently this weekend. Of course, the storefront (at 837 Willard St. in Covington, Ky.) will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday (June 9). But this week, I’ll be setting the shop up for a particular set of activities: whittlin’, chire mekin’ an crown craftin’.
Yes – this weekend, in keeping with the recent research Chris and I have been doing on Chester Cornett, I’ll be setting up the shop for a number of Appalachian craft activities.
I’ll have three shavehorses out front for making posts and rungs for chairs. I’ll be attempting to encourage (coerce?) people to join me in making simple shaved parts – the rocker I’m hoping to recreate has quite a few.
I’ll have tools and green wood for some good old fashioned whittling and (Kentucky-style) slöjd – at last month’s Appalachian festival here in Cincinnati I picked up an old book full of different woodcraft projects from the mountains from which I’m pulling a few fun-looking projects.
We’ll be playing the movie “Hand Carved” all day in the front room, which is an incredible documentary film made by Appalshop on Chester Cornett, following him through the process of making one chair.
We’ll also be making some paper crowns in the style of the Craftsman King of the Cumberlands.
If you’re looking for more to do in the area this weekend:
We’ve said it a few times, but the Kentucky Folk Art Center is less than two hours away from the shop in Morehead, Ky., and with its funding in jeopardy, it may be closing its doors in the next few months. It is well worth the trip, and there are three chairs by Cornett on display currently.
Chako Bakery Cafe is only two blocks from the shop, and by around 9:30 a.m. on the weekend there is an incredible array of Japanese baked goods, savory and sweet, that bring in Japanese expats from hours away.
The Swing House at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati looks amazing – suspend yourself from a three-story tall swing in a beautiful space. Both the CAC and CMA museums have free admission, with special exhibits costing only a small special fee.
Editor’s note: This is the third Chair Chat with Rudy and Klaus where today we discuss not one but three chairs.
Please note that we don’t have much background information on today’s three chairs. We don’t know their countries of origin nor when they were built. And we only have one picture for each chair.
We don’t authenticate chairs – we just talk about what we like and don’t like based on the photos. One more note: A few of you asked why the second chair chat was more tame than the first. Answer: We’re still finding our groove. As always, salty talk follows. Don’t read any further if watching “Animal Planet” makes you blush.
This post is a continuation from a series of posts following a “read-along” or book club of sorts. This week, I’ll be discussing a second chunk of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov, up to page 51. Next week, we’ll reading up to page 69, and you can leave comments and questions about pages 51-69 in the comments section below, which I’ll answer and incorporate into next week’s post. One note: a focus for next week’s posts will be the picture pieces in that section of the book, in particular the Oregon pine violin cabinet, the chess table and the music stand, so give those a good look!
The first essay in this second section, from pp. 24 to 27, is classically Krenovian writing – it weaves its way through a half-dozen topics, roughly orbiting a prompt about approaches to woodworking and education. I could have included it in last week’s writings. It has more in common with the first essays of the book in that it’s somewhere amongst critique, observation and a call to arms. But it is a great three-page bit of writing, if you don’t mind the jump-cuts in topics.
The most interesting part of that first essay is the discussion of the roles of schooling. There is a lot of personal experience there. By the time of this writing, Krenov had taught in a few schools, and he hadn’t been happy with the situation at any of them. One note jumps at me, in particular:
Education assumes (in order to justify itself to trustees and public) the role of being both selective and “democratic.” This is often disastrous, and results in work on a level of generalities.
The best is by its very nature selective: why not accept it as such? This doesn’t make crafts as nostalgia or entertainment or therapy less justifiable. It’s simply that as a dedication, as the center of one’s life, craft is one thing – and as anything else it is a different and separate matter.
Both are needed. Between them we should have an enticing dialogue. But force them together and you get gibberish.
Krenov would never fall on either side of the “democratic” or “selective” tug-of-war that he saw occurring. From this passage, you might think he would consider himself in a camp with “the best.” But later he refers to himself as an amateur – certainly more on the “democratic” side of things. But maybe he is an amateur that has taken his craft “as the center of one’s life?”
This isn’t a critique of his writing or reasoning – in fact, as Ryan Stadt noticed in last week’s comments, it’s one of the things I appreciate most in this book. It’s contradiction, or maybe something more like exploration, trying on different outfits or approaches and seeing what each one evokes. It leaves a lot to consider for its readers, and yet still forms a cohesive impression of Krenov, if not firm descriptors. “Dedicated amateur” is both a fitting title and nonsensical.
I also mentioned that you might want to look at the 1967 Craft Horizons article “Wood: The Friendly Mystery” last week, and I hinted it might be relevant here. That article, too, is typically Krenovian in structure – a bit rambling and stream-of-consciousness. But to my eyes it doesn’t stagger. It’s more like a quick jog between pointed thoughts.
To give you some insight into why I picked the Craft Horizons article to accompany this week’s passage – you may have noticed that in some cases they were one and the same. One of Krenov’s more poetic passages (I remember it was frequently present at the school) is the last paragraph on p. 32 of “Notebook,” beginning “I stand at my workbench.” You may have seen it on the second page of the Craft Horizons article, too.
But it isn’t just this one paragraph that repeats. In fact, according to Craig McArt, an early student and friend of Krenov’s, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” was, in fact, just an elaboration and extension of the 1967 article for Craft Horizons.
McArt studied with Krenov during his “Scandinavian Seminar” from RIT in 1966. He had secured a Fulbright scholarship to study with European designers, and he began working with Krenov in the basement workshop in the Stockholm suburbs. When McArt returned from Sweden later that year, he carried with him a short essay by Krenov, which would be published a year later by Craft Horizons, titled “Wood: The Friendly Mystery.” It was Krenov’s first published writing on woodworking in the United States. McArt encouraged Jim over the next several years to write more, and eventually dictated passages began arriving at RIT in 1973, the tapes which became “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.”
So, this earlier article is a fascinating insight into the larger form of the book. There are paragraphs in that essay that become entire essays in “Notebook” – tales of uncovering fine hardwoods in the rough, visiting clients, all of it was expanded upon to form much of the independent passages in “Notebook.”
Scott (tsstahl), in his comments from this reading, picked up on a phrase that I, too, found really amusing in the Craft Horizons article – “calculated originality.” Krenov is discussing a series of traps that can decide one’s craft quality, aesthetic or output:
To turn dull tools, clumsiness, or lack of patience into that rustic touch. Or to make a curiosity of the craft by a brand of calculated originality. Or to be only practical, weighing costs against time against salability—and accepting all the consequences. All.
This quick list is one that jumps out at me – it touches on three compromises nearly every woodworker has made or has caught themselves considering. Laziness and dullness turned into an affect is everywhere – and everyone has had that frustrated moment of defeat where you decide to like the result of something because you know the other option is a lot more work. We’ve fallen into the first trap. We’ve all thought “wouldn’t it be cool, or so like me, to put a _____ on this piece?” And, then, we fall into the second trap. Or, we think “maybe I’ll just make these boxes with miters, not dovetails – for those people and that money…” The third trap closes around our foot.
And in one paragraph he gets into that, and further, more eloquently and in a way that feels more familiar. As Scott noted, “the guy has a knack for really nailing down something.” I’ll agree to that – he had a bandolier of these axioms that were always around at his lectures, when he taught or when he played tennis. While I’ve been interviewing people for the biography, more than once I have had two different folks, separated in their interactions with Jim by 30 years, remembered the same phrase used in similar settings. The connections between this essay and “Notebook” further indicate that Krenov was not above reusing or elaborating on prior thoughts.
After this first essay is Krenov’s romantic passage on his handplanes, starting on p. 30. It’s a beautiful passage that I won’t pick apart too much. I find some joy in reading it, and I love the image of the hand plane as “the cabinetmaker’s violin.” For many outside of Krenov’s school or the world of studio furniture-making, Krenov’s most tangible legacy after the books is the planes, which many now call “Krenov planes.” And, hearing Krenov describe them in this passage makes the tool sound like magic. A good portion of the letters and writings that Krenov received after the publication of “Notebook” ask for more details about these planes. And in “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking,” Krenov devotes significant time to their construction (starting on p. 80 in that book!).
Following this essay on planes is an essay on knives on p. 38. Krenov had a life-long love of knives – he had gotten his first in an air drop of supplies to one of the remote Alaskan village he was raised in, and from an early age he carried a knife. The carved elements of his furniture, the pulls, latches and small details, are part of what is so compelling in his work, to my eye. While it’s tempting to attribute this penchant for carving to a slöjd influence, maybe through Malmsten, I believe it was present in him before he thought to make cabinets. That said, some of the forms of these details were influenced by Swedish culture. David Welter, a long time colleague at Krenov’s school, remembers that Krenov had found inspiration for some of these carved elements from carved parts on the Vasa ship, which was first restored and exhibited in 1961, just two years into Krenov’s independent practice as a cabinetmaker.
Looking at this already lengthy post, I won’t try a deep dive into the last two essays of the assigned section – but they, again, embody the wonderful meandering and compelling stream-of-consciousness writing that makes this book so much more than a straightforward treatise on craft. His essay on signing work, which begins with his considerations on “perfection,” seems, to be under the influence of Yanagi’s “Unknown Craftsman,” which was released in English in 1972 and was one of Krenov’s favorite books on craft alongside David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship.” Whatever you think of those books, I enjoy Krenov’s digestion of what it means to sign work – in the end, he concedes that he owes a signature to the customers who bought his work. In that moment, Krenov concedes that some of the value of his work is in its provenance. That narrowly escapes the contradiction of his assertion that a craftsperson’s presence should be felt in the form and aesthetics of a piece, not in a placard or the attachment of a signature. But, again, he plays the realist – and I certainly appreciate his practice of signing the work, as it’s made my investigations that much easier.
The last essay, which starts with a prompt concerning setting up shop, is more of a list of pessimistic considerations of what it is to be a craftsperson. This writing starkly resembles the body of writing Krenov did for Form magazine in Sweden – but his pessimism for those who might succeed him in his particular approach to craft is one that changed significantly over the first three books he wrote. Here, he suspects there are few who might be able to eschew trends, conveniences or that same “calculated originality” from the Craft Horizons article. A favorite bit of Krenovian advice of mine begins at the end of p. 45:
Try to find the sort of people for whom there is another originality – that of the quiet object in unquiet times.
This single sentence is again a place where Krenov’s dexterous use of language brings about a rich set of images. Maybe something stunning, exciting, compulsive or loud can be remarkable and persuasive (Chester Cornett comes to mind), but when I look at the objects of craft that I prize most in our home, most of them are unassuming and compelling in their “quietness,” so to speak. One of Peter Follansbee’s carved spoons I have on a shelf in the kitchen comes to mind, as does a small white oak basket I found at a local antique mall for a pittance. Out in the world, many of Krenov’s pieces strike me this way – so, too, does Noguchi’s sculpture, or much of Jere Osgood’s furniture, or Shoji Hamada’s pottery. Don’t get me wrong – I love sensation. But what Krenov is warning against is the pursuit of sensation as a means of aesthetic inspiration, not an organic embodiment of the maker’s personality.
The quiet object in unquiet times, as a prompt for a beginning craft aesthetic, is as good a place to start as I can think of. Naturally, everyone develops from there. At times Krenov’s own work went far from a quiet aesthetic, but the context of his prompt is important. He was definitely reacting to the postmodern furniture and second wave of studio makers making their way to the stage in the 1960s and 1970s.
I’ll wrap up my own words on the passage here, and highlight a few notes from the comments and questions you all had about this passage – I could go on, but for brevity’s sake, I’d better not.
Steve Schuler (literaryworkshop) asked which languages Krenov spoke. I answered in the comments, but I’ll echo them here also because it’s a question I see quite a bit, amplified by the confusion as to his nationality. Krenov was born in Russia to Russian-speaking parents, but from a young age was bilingual in Russian and English. His mother, Julia, was a language tutor most of her life, and was educated in the Empress Dowager’s school in St. Petersburg, so she grew up fluent in Russian and French. She also spent quite a lot of time in England in her youth, so she was proficient in English, too, and her memoir was written in English with no sign of struggle. Krenov also had some amount of Italian and French vocabulary, absorbed in his childhood around his mother and in his trips around post-war Continental Europe. And, he was, after a few years living there, fluent in Swedish, and his wife and children were bilingual English and Swedish speakers. So, he spoke three languages fluently, and a few more conversationally – he had a gift for language, to be sure.
Commenter Michael Valentinas was off by a few years in his remembrance of Krenov’s coming to woodworking late, but it is true that Krenov started his craft much later than most – he enrolled at the Verkstadsskola in 1957, at the age of 37. It’s a remarkable fact, made more incredible that by 1964 he was being shown in the most influential exhibitions at the time in Sweden. That betrays the fact that Krenov had an undeniable knack for woodworking. While I’ve never thought of the “10,000 hours” idea as anything more than a myth, he blows it out of the water – some of his first pieces were already nearly fully developed, and one that comes to mind is pictured above, built in 1962, just three years after his schooling. If anything, Krenov’s story is more like a “find what you’re good at and love to do” flavor of encouragement, though he was certainly a late-bloomer in that department.
I’m enjoying this series of posts, and I hope you all are still enjoying these long posts! For next week’s post, I’ll be moving up to page 69 of “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” though for next week, while I’ll be talking about the writing, I’d like to focus on the photographed pieces in that section. Three pieces are pictured here – his “Chess Table,” the Oregon pine “Violin Cabinet” and the “Music Stand,” the latter two of which can also be found in his fourth book for Van Nostrand Reinhold, “Worker in Wood,” published in 1981 (if you want some better photos). There is also some great writing here, too – if you want to join in and read along, please do, and use the comments section below to ask any questions, highlight a passage or make a comment on this next section of the book or the photographed works therein. I hope this quiet activity, a bit of light reading and careful thought, is something people are enjoying in these nutty times. Frankly, it’s one of the few things that’s helping me know when one week ends and the next begins!
Chris and I have been as busy as Santa’s elves over the past few months, building all manner of chairs. A month or two ago, faced with the dilemma of wanting to build more chairs but already having a through-the-roof “chair-per-capita” count in our homes, we thought we’d put together a little show and sale at one of the Lost Art Press Open Houses – and this weekend is the one!
To further entice your presence at the show, here are some of the chairs that I’ll have in the show. With the holiday season approaching, we thought we’d combine a gallery-style show with a furniture sale – many of the pieces below will be for sale, as noted, and all will be available for examination and sitting!
Tage Frid inspired stool: This three-legged stool, in the style of Frid’s classic design, was my first chair, made while I was a student at The Krenov School (then the College of the Redwoods) from some lovely curly tanoak. It is not for sale – some lucky Arkansas-born anarchist has got it at his house and is kindly bringing it to the shop for this show.
Staked Dining Set: This four-piece set of white-oak staked furniture (two chairs, a bench and a table) were my first foray into staked furniture, with milk-painted accents and solid joinery. The set makes a nice breakfast nook setup, which had been its use in my house until I started down the rabbit hole of building far too many chairs. This set will be for sale, as a complete unit, for a handsomely low price.
Settin’ Chire: This greenwood ladderback chair was made in the style of Chester Cornett, with carved pegs, octagonal posts and rungs and a three-slat design, all made from green red oak from Eastern Kentucky earlier this year. It’s seat is woven with Danish cord in a plain weave. It will be for sale.
Jennie Chair: This Jennie (or “JA”) chair was built using white oak posts, rungs and slats that were salvaged from Jennie Alexander’s garage last month during our trip a few weeks ago. It has a simple Danish cord seat. I’m just finishing it up today and tomorrow, so this will be the newest piece from me in the show. This piece is not for sale.
Twin Bookmatched Stools: This pair of three-legged, braced-back stools made from a single slab of olive ash were just finished, with a unique bookmatched pair of slab seats. These are low stools, akin in seating style to the classic “cockfighting” stools popular in 19th-century Britain. They’ll be for sale as a set, it would a shame to split them up.
Five-legged Staked Chair: This is a new design that I came up with for my upcoming class at the storefront and at Port Townsend School of Woodworking later in 2019. It has a braced-back crest with flying supports akin to the bookmatched stools, and a massively sturdy five legged stance, made from some mighty red oak. It, too, will be for sale.
Høj Footstool: This simple footstool, made from red oak and Danish cord, is a blending of Danish modern and Appalachian post-and-rung styles, thus the name, “Høj,” a rural word in Denmark for a hill. This stool will be for sale at the show.
I’ll also be showing various projects and tools I’ve been working on, have a few other small items for sale and demonstrating some of the techniques used in the construction of these chairs. We’ll also have a variety of fun activities, including some “Chiremaker Crown” craft activities. And, a “Chairmaker’s Sighting Square” might just be getting raffled off…