|Last week I wrote about epochs in the history of woodworking and several people suggested that I needed to add a revival category for all those folks making furniture now. |
I didn't for two reasons. Even with the growing numbers of people making stuff the actual percentages of people making furniture for fun and friends is tiny compared to the population at large. And on the professional level the numbers are even smaller.
When I was a boy in the 1960's my parents needed some more closet space in their tiny apartment. A carpenter, a Mr. Goldstein came and did a fair amount of work on site. The closets were modern for their time, made of varnished plywood and sliding doors. We took the two cabinets with us when we moved and they live on at my parents house in Queens.
If doing something similar today my parents would have gone to Ikea, or Home Depot, or some other big chain. The idea of getting real custom work on a civil servant's salary would be pretty rare today.
On the other hand the custom cabinetmakers who are my tool customers are making really cool stuff for very rich clients.
You see custom made furniture whether made by you for yourself or made for someone rich is a form of cultural expression that we use to say something.
For the rich person it's a way of conspicuous consumption. A way of showing that they are cultured and refined. For people making stuff for themselves it's a way of showing individualism and personal values.
In my case the furniture I made is a fairly regular conversation point. When I was single it was one way I subtly showed the women who I managed to lure to my abode that I was a stable person, dextrous and rooted in tradition and traditional family values. As a family man, the solid pieces show us as traditional, non-trendy, and with a sense of history and permanence. I'm not going to be tossing the settles I made twenty years ago just because someone on the TV says furniture this year should be all blue.
There are lots of reasons for making stuff yourself and I just touched on a few reasons. All of this comes under the concept of "personal expression"
And that's what makes it art.
As furniture makers we are anomalies in our culture. Our work, even though it is most of the time in traditional forms and in many cases unoriginal forms, in the finished context of being used in a room in our house it is a personal statement just like a work of art is. We didn't have to make that table, we could have bought a table - but we didn't. This is the same idea but a different, just as valid form of expression, as painting a picture.
For a wealthy customer deciding to have someone design and make the perfect vanity for the bedroom is just as much a statement as finding the perfect picture to hang over the mantle.
For those of you who say that it's not art because the design isn't original and it's just a copy I say go to a museum and count the sculptures of "Madonna and Child" or go look at some landmarked building and count the stock details made by anonymous craftsman. Now it's art, then it was just craft. The personal expression of wanting something you made is the message of your art and it's just as valid as someone who paints a picture and has it hanging in a museum (except they have a better agent).
Note: The picture above is of the top half of the cabinets custom made by Mr. Goldstein for my parents' Manhattan apartment c. 1966. It now sits in their basement and is used for storage. The bottom half is in the garage.
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