Craftsmanship

Since the 1960s, I’ve been interested in crafts and craftsmanship.  For several years while attending Boston College I worked in the Harcourt Bindery.  It was one of the largest and oldest hand leather binderies in the country, located on the second floor of an old brick building behind the Prudential Center.  On the third floor was a well known stained glass studio.  The owner Fred Young was English.  He took hot tea with his lunch every day. The shop was straight out of the nineteenth century with huge cast iron machines, many run by belts hanging from the ceiling.  There were three full time employees, each at his own bench, books everywhere, scraps of leather, glue pots, and an array of bookbinding tools.  My first job, the day of the interview, was pasting together end papers, some commercial, a few hand dyed papers.  Over the years I learned many other steps in the book binding process.  I didn’t learn how to sew and my gold tooling was limited to personal books.  There were plates that could imprint a design in gold in a full leather binding but there would be a slight imperfection in the plate so it seemed that the design was totally hand crafted with various tools.

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My bindery years came back to me while reading recently, “Why We Make Things And Why It Matters: the education of a craftsman,” by Peter Korn.  Peter grew up outside of Philadelphia and went to Germantown Academy. He vacationed on Nantucket and eventually went to work for a local carpenter.  After several apprentice years, he decided to try his hand at furniture making.  He was on the road to becoming a craftsman, using hand tools.

There weren’t’t many craft furniture makers in the early 1960s.  Korn writes about the genesis of “studio craft” specifically furniture making.  It followed the Arts and Crafts Movement lead by John Ruskin and William Morris. Some of the founding fathers of craft furniture making were Art Carpenter, Wendell Castle, Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima and Sam Maloof.

Esherick music stand, studio, house; Alonzo music stand, sculptures,  Justice

Jerry Alonzo who took a sabbatical from law to become a furniture maker introduced me to Esherick whose house and studio are in Chester County not far from Valley Forge.  I’ve visited several times.

I discovered George Nakashima in the 1970s when we lived in New Hope.  Trained as an architect, interred in a Japanese camp during World War II, Nakashima was brought to Bucks County by an architect, Anton Raymond.  He eventually turned to woodworking, furniture making, building a studio, houses and other buildings on a property on Aquetong Road.  His signature designs draw on the natural imperfections in the wood.  A rough slab might be turned into a coffee table.  There are also strong Shaker influences.  We’ve toured the Nakashima workshops and studio several times.  I’ve seen one of his Peace tables in St. John the Devine, New York City. There is a Nakashima room in the Mitchener Art Museum (above).  I’ve always wanted to buy a Nakashima piece (I do have several books).  There was a studio in Fishtown that featured his work.  I did inherit from Ragna Hamilton and treasure a small irregular piece of oak with holes for pens or pencils.  George Nakashima died in 1990, his studio is now run by his daughter Mira.

Peter Korn table; my father’s table.

In the 1960s, Peter Korn was one of many mainstream dropouts that turned to furniture making and other crafts.  I recall sitting with my father at the kitchen table telling him about the explosion of craftsmen and shops in certain neighborhoods, In Boston, South Street in Philadelphia, the Village and SoHo in New York.  My father had always done woodwork, carpentry.  His first furniture making happened when he was concerned about not having extra money to help newlyweds, I challenged him to “just make me some furniture.”  Several months later he drove to our Boston apartment with a “cobbler bench” coffee table and a 4 foot round table that folded into a small seat.  We will probable use the table for a picnic and the cobbler bench is in the shed.  Both came from plans.  In fact at one of the first Philadelphia Art Museum Craft Shows I ever attended, as father and I looked at some beautiful hand crafted furniture, he said  “I cannot come up with designs likes these guys.”  He would always follow plans.

Another 1960s craft experience was our friendship with the Bonnemas.  Melody had gone to Pratt with Barbara Paglione.  She became a potter, apprenticed with Toshika Tokaezu, and opened a small studio in Bristol.  In about 1973 Garrett left teaching and became a potter. They moved to Bethel, Maine.  Diane and I lived with them in the summer of ‘74 or ‘75.  Diane did some pottery; I did some carpentry in the studio and built displays to take to craft fairs.  We went to several fairs that summer.  One was Rhinebeck, NY which is mentioned by Peter Korn.  Most Bonnema pottery is a distinctive functional stoneware.  We’ve picked out their style in a variety of shops, even flea markets.  There is quite a bit in our kitchen.  Some years ago Melody turned to making tiles.  This past year they became semi retired.

When I graduated from college, Fred Young asked if I wanted to buy the Bindery business.  I looked around the shop and thought I wasn’t ready to settle down to the life of a book binder.  When I returned from the Peace Corp, I applied for a job at the newly reopened Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown.  Founder tool collector and craft enthusiast Henry Mercer had willed the Tile works to the County.  They were going to make it an operating museum.  Missed opportunities.  I became a teacher         (the draft threatened).  Over the years I have collected many Mercer tiles.

Initially Korn had difficulty making a living from furniture making.  For a while he had a studio in NYC, later Philadelphia.  His father provided some subsidy and Peter kept making furniture.  He sold some.  In 1981 he attended classes at a woodworking school, Anderson Ranch in Colorado.  Among the faculty were San Maloof and wood turner David Ellsworth.  Years ago I visited Ellsworth’s school and studio in Bucks County.  I thought how great it would be to take a course with him.  I did inherit a wood lathe from my father but have never found the energy to use it.  My cousin, Frank, who does woodworking came once and gave me a first lesson, during my first year of retirement. It ended there.

Following in my father’s footsteps, I did make some furniture.  Shelves were a speciality.  Then there was the pine dry sink, from plans.  It came to Yardley but was warped out of shape in the floods and now is history.  I made a bed and wall unit for Jenny’s bedroom when she was very young.  Pine again but heavy, very heavy.  My father meanwhile went on a clock building binge.  It united his interests in wood working and clock repair. All the kids were given clocks.   When he moved into the Mulberry Street house, his shop shrunk.  He began making wooden toys, cars, trains, boats. These became gifts for kids and grandkids. He did some work on a lathe, subscribed to “Fine Woodworking,” and bought good hand tools.  He also began to do stained glass.

Furniture making, craftsmanship became central to Peter Korn’s life.  Through it he was grounded and found meaning.  Making an object with your hands, giving up some of yourself. He references British potter Bernard Leach (mentioned by Bonnemas in the 70s) who “saw pottery as a combination of art, philosophy, design and craft – even as a greater lifestyle.”  Eventually Peter Korn found his personal style.  What he made would be a Korn piece.   In the 1990s, he moved to Maine and opened a studio and school, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.  He eventually settled on a property in Rockport.  In the 1970s I took classes at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport.

Unfortunately I stopped wood working.  And have pretty much stopped photography.  I miss “making things.”  I believe “it matters.”  In the past few decades my interest in crafts has been attending shows and buying some pieces.  We go to the Philadelphia Art Museum Craft Show almost every year.  And frequently make a purchase.  Another regular show is Tinicum and Prawl’s Mill.  For years there was one in Tyler State Park and going to the Long Park craft show near Lancaster was an annual extended family event. Several years Jerry Alonzo exhibited at the Philadelphia Furniture Show.

“Why We Make Things And Why It Matters” is a classic.  It obviously struck many chords for me.  Memories and aspirations.  I understand a bit more about crafts and craftsmanship in my own life.  If I could only make things again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Craftsmanship

  1. Jerry Alonzo says:

    Vince, Your craft is writing and you do it so well. While I always made stuff, my first awareness of craftsmanship came via you. You got me the job at the bindery and then had to immediately save it for me when I cut the new Little Brown books of sailing plates in half. You told Fred Young, the owner, to give me another chance. That guillotine cutter running off those leather belts was scary.
    Your piece brings a rush of memories like sitting in your LR in Bristol and talking wood with your father. I think I remember eating at the table he made for you and Diane at you Comm Ave apt.
    Write on friend.

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