Article by Martin Gibson – @embody3d @martingibson – 11.03.2011
Furniture with Soul – Master Woodworkers and Their Craft by David Savage and published by Kodansha is an exploration of 10 world-class furniture design craftsman and women from America to England documenting the motivation behind their craft, their design and production process and their rise to fame. ‘Furniture with Soul’ ensues two other great titles by Kodansha Books: ‘Sam Maloof: Woodworker’ and ‘The Soul of a Tree: A Master Woodworker’s Reflections’ by George Nakashima which I also highly recommend. It’s also worth to note that ‘Furniture with Soul’ preludes a full BBC special of the same title featuring David Savage which might be of interest to fans of this title.
When I first read the description of ‘Furniture with Soul’ I was arrogant and unfortunately misguided thinking this book would feature some old-time woodworkers who thought they knew what modernism was like. You know what I mean…some retiree in their country cottage delicately carving Victorian/Gothic/Neo-classical furniture creations. However I was remarkably surprised by the extreme modernism and elegance of this furniture, Anna Castelli Ferrieri herself would take an elegant bow to these pieces. Page after page is smothered by beautifully created and finished furniture, which is only accentuated by the stunning original and full sized images of these signature pieces. Savage himself describes himself and his colleagues featured as being:
Not content with treading old paths, we are driven by the need to create an image of our own time.
Savage goes on describing the nature of these artists:
The craftspeople featured in this book have lived lives dedicated to the creation of objects that will fill us with awe and wonder. These furniture makers are at once artists and designers and top-of-the-line craftspeople, creating handcrafted objects in the small workshop or studio, stretching artistic boundaries, uninterested in mass-produced products. Their pursuit is excellence and the individuality that will make their work a landmark of our age.
Philosophically ‘Furniture with Soul’ advocates everything Embody 3D isn’t about which is a user encapsulation and design for mass production. But I think this a beautiful thing! It is a timely reminder to all us practitioners to re-connect back to our foundations in the not so distant arts and crafts movement. Scanning these 232 pages of masterpieces you can’t help but consider how scientifically we have pushed this original arts and crafts idea to the limit. We have done this by systemising design processes into cute headings like ergonomics, functionality, durability, aesthetics and form etc. and developing perfect machines that run on electronics, microchips and CAD driven software. But these craftsman also embody these same design facets in a real organic methodology that us system and data driven designers find difficult to relate to. These craftsman learnt design and construction by experienced mentors with tools in hand, not professors in classrooms. It’s also amazing to juxtapose how these craftsman have developed their creative eye to how students are taught today. Commonly, students learn how to design by instruction, and then once they have left formal education they must then learn the intricacies of tools and machinery. Whereas the craftsman featured in ‘Furniture with Soul’ often learnt how to build at a very young age, often taught by their fathers and then supervised by craft professionals to then go on to develop their unique design language.
I think it’s so important especially for young industrial/furniture designers not only have the creative ability to comprehend new forms, but also to have the ability to forecast the skill, labour and craftsmanship required to develop these pieces. Every designer has a story where he/she has brought a flamboyant design drawing into a dirty manufacturing facility only to be struck back to earth with the words “year right, you’re dreaming!”. ‘Furniture with Soul’ emphasises the harmonious nature and compassion between design and construction that is so often forgotten by the current generation of creators.
The book has a real intimacy in it’s biographical process; Savage through tacit knowledge empathizes with these master craftsman that no other could quite understand or unravel. The biographies are insightful, relevant and well-researched. Savage doesn’t just go to a library or Wikipedia to find out about his subjects but he visits them in person and finds out what they do day to day, their beliefs and philosophies and their processes, goals and aspirations with many quotes in between making it a fusion interview/biography. The book has 10 extended biographies and work analysis followed briefly at the end by 10 other artist portfolios.
These craftsman (and women) include:
Thomas Hucker, Michael Hurwitz, Rupert Williamson, Peter Danko, Judy Kensley McKie, John Cederquist, Garry Knox Bennett, Jack Larimore, John Larimore, John Makepeace, David Savage, Joseph Walsh, Daniel Lacey, Michael Puryear, Waywood, Alun Heslop, Yuri Kobayashi, Marc Fish, Tom Loeser, Mark Levin, Matthias Pliessnig.
To scrutinize anything about ‘Furniture with Soul’ is difficult, it is very well refined. However it could be said that by checking out ‘Furniture with Soul’ you’re not getting the most skilled and diversified set of craftsman in the world selected by a neutral panel. Rather the artists featured in ‘Furniture with Soul’ are mostly Savage’s colleagues. Although each craftsman has their own unique identity and design image, because of their collaboration and proximity with Savage their designs smell of the same scent to a certain degree. Don’t expect works from the orient to the levant, these works are very western and euro-centric. The book is upfront about this fact and it never detracts from the sheer mastery inside.
It’s amazing to see the level of fortitude and emotional origin that stems from many of the pieces in ‘Furniture with Soul’. Although the end result of this tireless development campaign is sometimes just one chair or one table, the emotional thought and love brought into each one of these objects surpasses anything a modern IKEA piece has to offer. Like all good books, ‘Furniture with Soul’ is about the journey not the end result and I leave this book in pure awe and amazement about what is capable by the human hand accompanied with a few tools.