It’s kind of long, but if anyone is interested in reading it, I wrote my paper for my senior project on how woodworking, or furniture building specifically, transcends the fine arts. I’m finishing up a japanese influenced bench for my product and I’ll be posting some photos of it soon. Thanks.
Furniture Craft in the Art World
To most, a chair, whether hand-made or not, is simply a device that prevents the buttocks from hitting the ground, but to the woodworker, it is much more than that. To him or her the hand-crafted chair is a delicate artifact of human genius. The chair made from the careful hands of a passionate woodworker becomes more than just a chair. Its curves, its aroma, and its rich colors culminate into a functional extension of the home that speaks with its own voice and invites passers-by to take a seat and enjoy one of the finest indulgences in life, relaxation. The craft of furniture making is much more than creation of everyday items. It is a highly specialized skill that millions of artisans practice and classify as its own form of art. Furniture, since its conception out of the transition from nomadic cultures to settled ones, has transcended the fine arts such as painting, drawing, and photography as a craft that has a rich relationship with age, the physical senses, and functionality; three realms that display a hearty understanding of human values that go beyond the temporal boundaries of life.
First, what is fine art? What exactly classifies art as being “fine?” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fine art as 1: art concerned primarily with the creation of beautiful objects or 2 : an activity requiring a fine skill. Under the definition of Merriam-Webster, why is there a dividing line between fine art and craft? Craft can produce beautiful objects. Craft objects require fine skills to create. Why is there a fissure between these two pursuits? Some would say it is because craft objects lack no creativity or originality in their creation and that they are simply made for a mechanical purpose. Someone much less naïve and more analytical would say there is a difference because the mechanical purpose, or function, of craft gives it a new definition and role in the art world. D. Scott Patria illustrates this perfectly in his essay, “What is Craft?”: “Craft is about objects, the artists who make them and the people who use them. These objects surround us in our every day activities and allow us to interact and relate in a way traditional ‘fine art’ doesn’t.” This description, although simple, says everything because the vast distinction between fine art and craft is function yes, but it is also the closeness a craft object creates between the crafter and the user. This closeness is also a great similarity between the two because it is how the art of craft objects is experienced by those who take it in. Craft achieves this closeness because it is all about feel. One can feel a painting, but one can not dive into the painting and feel the curves of its shadows the way one feels the curves of the legs on a Queen Anne Lowboy. Craft and fine art can live in the same realm of artistic aesthetic, but to be seen as art in general, they must follow different guidelines. According to art history scholar Howard Risatti, if craft does not maintain its own path in the quest for artistic recognition, its special voice that whispers its specific understanding of human values will go silent and it will be lost under the shroud of the fine art and design worlds, and furniture craft is following its path with no deviation.
One of furniture’s most appealing aspects is its direct relationship with age. Once crafted, a chair, table, or dresser can become a piece that has a story of its own; it can last, with special care taken, centuries longer than its ancestral creator. This is true of all fine arts as well as crafts, but in the world of fine, hand-crafted wooden furniture, that piece continues to grow long after it has died. The finish on the piece and the wood itself age slowly like a fine wine into a new era where it is valued for aspects like its original hardware and joints. These different features are what historians use to classify different pieces into their own styles based around the particular century a piece was crafted in or what species of wood it was made of. For instance, when Leonardo da Vinci was in the process of painting Mona Lisa, Italian craftsmen were making their own pieces with accents that were common of the Renaissance era. The first and most famous example is the cassone, an intricately designed chest with features based on classical images (“Furniture”). Although Mona Lisa is still extant and in great condition, it has not gone through the rigorous aging process that its still-existing Renaissance peers in the craft world have gone through. It does not have the elegant wear that can not be replicated like that on a sixteenth century cassone. In summary, hand-made furniture tells the story of not only its creator, but all those who have come in contact with it.
Another aspect of hand-crafted furniture’s relationship with age is its increased value. With time, a piece’s age makes it something quite rare because of just that, time. Throughout time, pieces are destroyed, lost, and altered which lowers the supply and value because authentic “antiques” are obviously limited. This, combined with current demand, causes the value of a piece to jump to sometimes outrageous selling prices. A piece is officially labeled as an antique once it has reached the benchmark of 100 years. After that point, it enters the elite realm that the most sophisticated of conocieurs delve into in order to own an artifact of the past. The popularity of antique furniture is always rising because it is an expression of personal character as well as an investment and decoration (Brooke). The demand for antique pieces has created, in itself, an art form of detecting authenticity in a specific craft object. In order to identify a true antique, one must research and study specific characteristics of a certain style and know what to look for when antique hunting. Aspects like type of wood used, joints, specific curves and designs, and hardware are just a few of the features that must be analyzed to determine authenticity. Another major selling point is the patina. The patina, or appearance created after years of polishing and use, can make or break an antique’s value because it is a feature that is nearly impossible to recreate and, when altered, can often leave the gloss unusually fresh looking and lower a piece’s value significantly. The fine arts grow valuable with age, but that is connected with reputation rather than ripeness. The craft gains its value from a slowly-gained consistence of use.
Furniture also inhabits another existence with its fermenting. As it is preserved by an owner, a piece is passed down through a family creating an heirloom. The chest of drawers made by the great-grandfather is passed down from generation to generation becoming a part of the family just as important as grandmother’s pearl necklace. Throughout time, this piece gains marks and spots that are covered with age and beeswax and are forever sealed into the crevices left by the shrinking of inlays and end grain. This sort of treasure can only be created from the hands of a skilled craftsperson; machine-made furniture can never be regarded as an heirloom. Only hand-crafted pieces achieve this status because a dovetail or a mortise made by hand are always going to be original; this gives a piece the flare that seals its seat as a truly individual craft that can be passed down among family members. A painting can be passed down, but again it just does not achieve the same status because hand-made wooden furniture has an aging process that tells its own vivid story through its use, not just its looks.
One of the most distinct differences between craft and its sibling is the use of multiple senses, and this is displayed by no better medium than wood. When crafting a piece of furniture, the eyes are an integral part of the process, but without the hands, there would be no process. Used not only for building the object, the hands are the most important tool in woodworking for their ability to detect error. This is especially true when working with hand tools such as the card scraper, a thin sheet of metal used to scrape off thin shavings and dried-up glue. Expert woodworker Todd A. Clippinger from Billings, Montana recalls a time with just this wonderful tool and his hands when he was in his sanctuary, “It was just me, my hands, and the scraper making angel hair curls. It seemed that the universe aligned and I was working in that sweet zone that woodworkers dream of.” Furniture crafting is an extremely intimate procedure, so when building an heirloom, the craftsperson is constantly feeling the wood. The curves, the joints, and the decoration are not just for aesthetic appeal; feeling them gives a sense of comfort when using the piece of furniture that is simply not possible within the vast majority of the fine art world. It is a tactile skill by nature because the forms that wood takes are simply meant for being felt; “Hobbyists in general, and woodworkers in particular, are sensualists. They like to touch, feel and explore” (Ruffman). From the rough cut of a freshly sawn board all the way to the silky finish at the end, feeling is always taking place to make sure the finished product is nothing less than spectacular.
The second most distinctive is the overwhelming sense of smell. This is where no other craft or anything competes with wood. There are hundreds of different wood species, and each one has its own aroma that can pervade throughout an entire shop. Although some are not so pleasant, (Red Oak, for instance, smells like cat urine) the different smells of wood can create a mood that brings up beautiful images of fond memories. Pine is a great example. The intense fragrance a freshly cut pine log produces can warm any mood with the sense of family and brightness that it creates due to its association with the holiday season. Most fruit trees, such as cherry, understandably produce a worthwhile scent as well. The aroma of wood is not an important aspect of crafting furniture; however, it brings joy to a woodworker’s heart, and it is this characteristic that even further separates a rocker from Rembrandt.
Finally, if the two aspects of creating beautiful images are not separated by anything else, they are separated by one purpose, function. Function lies above all else in the world of craft and furniture building because it is the sole purpose behind the pursuit. Furniture lives inside of the home, so if it does not function well, it serves no purpose in the home. A piece can be designed and crafted with flowing curves and beautiful accents that make viewers in a museum or studio gasp with astonishment, but if that can not be used by the average human being in the comfort of his or her own home, it is useless. The key word in that sentence is comfort. For furniture to be described positively by somebody who knows what he or she is talking about, it has to be comfortable. Not only must it be comfortable to sit, lie, or lean on, it must be comfortable for the home. Well-crafted furniture forms an unbreakable link to the home that no poorly-made or machine-made furniture can form. The world of fine art can not relate to this purpose because it is not used in the same way, and for that reason, it does not relate to the family and the home.
Not only can hand-crafted pieces grow in and enrich a home’s atmosphere, they can bring a family closer together. A hand-made chair or sofa is used by everyone in the house. The entire family takes time to relax in the original piece, which may have memories related to it, whether it is a passed down piece from former generations or a piece that was made by someone close to the family or part of it. A custom living room table can become the focal point of the entire room, spring boarding all of the other colors and shapes in the room off of its own. A piece like this creates a room and creates an atmosphere. It brings everything together in a common mood and invites the entire family to grow within that mood. A famous believer in this philosophy is Gustav Stickley, the forefather of the American Arts and Crafts Movement and the Mission Oak style of furniture. Stickley highly valued simplicity, openness, and harmony within the home and its environment. He stated, “An open floor plan would encourage family interaction and eliminate unnecessary barriers” (Cathers). Family is one of the most important aspects of life, and it is also yet another aspect that fine art can not relate to and must give to its cousin, craft.
Furniture is an interesting subject. It can be analyzed and theorized over for hours and days on end between scholars and historians, much like the works of Michelangelo and Dali. However, it has an intrinsic quality of simplicity and utilitarianism that surpasses all of the studious scrutiny and examination. Woodworking may be in the realm of art, but at the end of the day, it is still woodworking. It is plain hard work. It cuts to the core of human values rather than human intellect and philosophy. Furniture craft is an amalgamation of many different aspects of the human desire to create, progress, and add beauty to the world. The hand-made chair not only relates to its occupant, it relates to its creator, its owner, the earth, and the human hands that made it. Few understand this as well as the late, great Sam Maloof, a master woodworker from Alta Loma, California who passed away on May 21, 2009 at the age of 93.
If any arts have lasting beauty, they must certainly exist in utilitarian objects created by people aware of the materials, forms, and colors, and surfaces that please the eye and the body—and consequently live on through the years, growing more mellow and beautiful as time passes. (“Maloof on Craft”)
Summed up by one of the best, within craft lies “lasting beauty.” This trait that is immersed in the work of art’s age, physicality, and purpose is the grand theme of transcendence over fine art by one of the most age-old and aesthetically breathtaking pursuits of man, woodworking.