Speaking of Furniture Conversations with 14 American Masters: Book Review

An indispensible book that provides a unique perspective on some of the most influential studio furniture makers of the past four decades.

Speaking of Furniture: Conversations with 14 American Masters

Speaking of Furniture: Conversations with 14 American Masters

We need to go back to 1981 to put this book into context. In that year, Bebe Pritam Johnson and Warren Eames Johnson opened one of the first private galleries that focused on the then burgeoning 'studio woodworking' movement – small woodworking shops where, for the most part, individual woodworkers created handmade one-of-a-kind items, with an emphasis on hand tools and traditional woodworking techniques. During the gallery's first ten years of operation Pritman & Eames carried the work of many of the leading studio woodworkers of the day, including the fourteen covered in this book – James Krenov, Wendell Castle, Jere Osgood, Judy Kensley McKie, David Ebner, Richard Scott Newman, Hank Gilpin, Alphonse Mattia, John Dunnigan, Wendy Maruyama, James Schriber, Timothy S. Philbrick, Michael Hurwitz, and Thomas Hucker. 

In 1991, to celebrate their 10th anniversary, Pritman & Eames decided to publish a collection of interviews from the woodworkers who were most integral to the success of the gallery. The interviews were completed, but for various reasons, the interviews were not published – until 2016. 

The resulting book, "Speaking of Furniture" is a wonderful read, and an important document that provides a unique perspective on the development of the craft. The makers presented in the book were the vanguard of the woodworking craft in large part as we know it today. Certainly, if you're new to the craft you may recognize only one or two names in the book, if any – perhaps James Krenov or Wendell Castel. However, anyone who has been immersed in the craft for more than a few years will likely recognize the work, if not the names, of many of the other 'interviewees'. Many have gone on to be noted writers and teachers in the field of woodworking.

You won't find anything on woodworking techniques and precious little on woodworking design. Rather, the focus here is much more on the 'why of woodworking'. The makers talk about what brought them to the door of the craft, what it was like at the beginning of their careers, and they give us insight to the choices they made to remain true to their craft. At the end of each interview (except for Krenov who died in 2009) there is a short 'afterward interview' where the makers talk about how their work may have changed over the years and where they see the craft, or themselves, heading.

Most of these makers attended the same few training institutions, at approximately the same time period early on in their careers – notably the School for American Craftsmen, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Some of them attended multiple institutions, and others attended as students and then taught at these institutions.

You get the sense of how personal, how intimate the work is for each of them. It's not so much about 'making furniture' as it is about the creative process. Wood is simply the medium through which they express their individuality, their need to create. And what they create becomes imbued with their personality. This is, after all, an essential part of what it means to be human.

"Speaking of Furniture" is a book to be savoured, not to be rushed through in order to pick up a few tidbits of useful information about the woodworking process. For those of us who see craft work as a means of self-realization, it's nourishing to read about others who share this same commitment to the craft. 

If you love the craft of woodworking, then surely you'll enjoy reading this book. Highly recommended.

Judy Kensley McKie, Pyramid Chest, page 4

James Krenov, Flared Panel Cabinet, page 31

Jere Osgood, Tall Desk with Pocket Doors, page 84

Thomas Jucker, Rocker, page 293

PUBLISHER:The Artist Book Foundation
AUTHORS:Warren Eames Johnson and Bebe Pritam Johnson
FORMAT:Hardcover, 336 pages

Carl Duguay
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