Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Wading through the sea of influences that have an impact on my thinking and work can be both daunting and inspiring. Whenever I can't seem to drag myself out to the shop (think freezing cold dark mornings or perfect summer afternoons) I crack a book or two and look and the work of others, and I am soon pulled pack into needing to make something.
Sometimes, inspiration can come from unexpected places. Below is a picture of the last piece made my Henri Matisse. At the time that it was made, he was confined to his bed, where he cut out shapes in colored paper and had an assistant pin them to the wall to make his compositions. The stained glass window is in the Rockefeller chapel of the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. I saw this window when I was 15 years old, and I have been thinking a lot about it lately.

So what is so special about this window?

The tradition of the rose window is one of opulence and symmetry. The greats of Europe are intricate and ornate as they hold center stage in the cathedral, meant to inspire awe and hold their own in the greatest displays of architecture of their time. Matisses window plays a different kind of role. At first, when looking at it, it is a simpler version of the rose window. But on closer inspection, one sees that within the rigid framework, that no two pieces are alike. Symmetry and similarity give way to freedom, lightness and life. It may sound simple, but I spend a lot of time trying to deal with its ramifications.

I have been designing new work lately with a different set of priorities. This year, I have been trying new technologies and designs in an attempt to add my bit to the tradition of chairmaking. I have had some success at it, but the final element has been missing, fun. Not to say that I don't enjoy the work, but I have known all along that once I'd resolved some of my initial goals, that the process would have to be reapproached with the aim of bringing more joy to the making, as well as to the chairs.

I think that every craftsman is in this postion at one time or another, sure the work is beautiful, but what a pain! So with simplicity in mind, I've been reviewing my goals, and the works of many masters. I have been looking carefully at chairs of all sorts, trying to distill the elements that I admire and the ways that the process and forms coalesce. In some instances, such as Sam Maloof, I find the process torturous (way to much abrasives!) but am awed by the fluid forms and overall gesture.

So off I go to the shop, with many voices echoing in my head, until I start to work, and they quiet down, so that I can get some work done.

I'll be posting photos of the new work soon.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Pete. I really resonate with your desire to find and retain more joy in your woodworking. I suspect that this issue is more complex for those of you who derive an income from your chairmaking. But even for me (I'd say chairmaking is only a "serious hobby" for me - I may never sell a chair) the joy of making chairs is complicated to explain to people. Even my woodworking friends don't quite get it; they want me to get a duplicator for my lathe and other such time-saving, production-oriented things. But I'm happy as a lark cranking out 4 or 5 chairs a year.

One of the things I appreciate about your blog is that you share things that enhance the joy/satisfaction of making chairs. As a direct result of your postings I've found new joy in using my adze, travisher, and drawknife. I can't quite report the same results for milk paint yet . . . but it's not quite as depressing as it used to be. . . .

I like to tell people, "Life's too short to drink weak coffee. . ." I try to apply that maxim to chairmaking as well.

rookster said...


I'm interested to hear confirmation that others find it hard to stay inspired and joyful in their work, even when building complex and beautiful things.

I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking I'm doing something wrong if I'm not joyful in my work, but sometimes all I can do is put one foot in front of the other. I wish a stained glass window inspired me to be a better project manager, but it mostly makes me wish to make stained glass windows.

Peter Galbert said...

Thanks for the comments. I guess that it's only human to struggle towards joy, even when we are doing exactly what we want to be doing. As a good friend of mine says, "otherwise we'd still be living in caves".

Herman Veenendaal said...

I share the feelings of the other posters. I've always felt good about making chairs for myself and often get asked to fix a chair or to fix or make some other item. Thats when it becomes drudgery. I can't explain why but if it's for me or my wife I love doing it, if its for someone else I loathe doing it. Good thing I don't make a living at this.

Here in Ontario though, I think part of the problem is that people don't flinch about paying 80 bucks an hour for a mechanic to something like changing spark plugs, whereas they balk at paying any more than 25 to 50 dollars to have a chair repaired. My investment in tools is at least equal to a mechanic's and its taken me over 30 years to learn some of the skills involved in doing invisible repairs to antiques.