I rarely review or comment here on work by my woodworking friends. I worked for many years as a PR monkey, so I’m very attuned to problems of bias. Occasionally, though, I make an exception. This is one of them times.
So here’s the full disclosure and disclaimer – and it’s important: there is no worldview under which the following should be considered unbiased. Schwarz and I are friends, have paid each other for work, and have enough dirt on each other to ensure neither of us is ever running for public office. He’s even been known to kill me publicly on occasion. The only biasing factor not operative here is a sexual relationship — that time in Georgia I woke up amnesiac, and his insistence on calling me ‘little spoon’ ever since, notwithstanding.
So if you choose to read on anyway, carry that pound of salt along with you.
Having said that, I’ll also note that this is unsolicited. I told him I planned to write something, but he certainly did not ask me to. He’d never ask such a thing, and I’d never do it if asked. Also, I think anyone who knows me well would confirm that I am absolutely unabashed about honest appraisal, positive or negative. So maybe it’s more like 3/4 of a pound of salt.
So here’s my short review of Schwarz’s forthcoming Anarchist’s Design Book: in my estimation it’s arguably both the best and most important thing he’s written.
It’s also sure to make the target on his forehead burn neon for a lot of people.
I’ll skip the ‘well-written, some potty humor, etc etc.’ The writing and content won’t surprise anyone who’s read him before.
The book is basically two parts, one on tapered-tenon (staked) construction for platform work, and the other on nailed furniture techniques for casework. Both are well-covered. Again – no real surprise there. For those aspects alone, I think the book is well worth owning.
Now that the Publisher’s Weekly crap is out of the way, the part of the book that I think elevates it beyond the stats is all the bits tucked between the main content. There are two major ideas at work here that I think are huge. I wish this had been written when I started furniture making, because it would have saved me a lot of time and frustration.
The first is the immediate, and fairly summary, dismissal of high style furniture (the sort that makes it to most museums and woodworking publications) as overly ornate, essentially elitist, and – well, out of place in most homes – at least those lacking a full staff of manservants and chambermaids. Lots of people may take offense at this, but I actually did a solo fist pump when I first read it.
When I rekindled my childhood love of woodworking, trying to make furniture for my own house, I bumped almost immediately into the fact that I couldn’t imagine living with 90% of the plans and designs I saw in the magazines and books – including, I should note, those Schwarz helmed much of that time – Woodworking Mag and Popular Woodworking.
It wasn’t the craftsmanship, or the quality of the design work. Federal, William and Mary, Hepplewhite, Arts & Crafts furniture – there are masterfully designed pieces at the heart of all of these forms. But in my home, where we really prefer minimalism and understatement (both very modernist sensibilities) they would have been as out of place as a space station on the set of Repo Man. I would have reduced them to firewood in months. Eventually, I gravitated much more to Japanese furniture and Northern European modern styles that made sense in our house, and to my late-20th-century sensibilities.
Anarchist’s Design book offers an antidote for anyone who agrees. At root, the book offers a relatively simple set of techniques and design approaches that add up to a really solid toolkit for making simple furniture, without sacrificing build-quality or longevity. It makes the argument that it is certainly possible to make a housefull of furniture, even as a hobby – then presents a feasible approach that is easily adopted to any number of aesthetic circumstances or preferences.
Which brings me to the second underlying theme in the book’s white space: design.
The focus on design is less explicit than technique, but I think it’s no less a driving force. There are a dozen or so designs for furniture pieces in the book, covering just about all the furniture most homes need – but they aren’t presented as ‘plans’ in a conventional sense. Rather, every step of the way Schwarz describe the tools to construct, but also to design, whatever you like with these tools. The information needed to reproduce what’s in the book exactly is all there, and easily accessible – but the underlying push is toward enabling the maker’s own design choices and modifications. The techniques for developing design are in here as much as the techniques for joining bits of wood.
And don’t think there isn’t room for individual aesthetics in here. A designer could easily make a career exploring this. The sparse nature of all the furniture leaves lightyears of room for design choices, and individuality, in the making. Such pieces could easily be made, with simple modification, to look equally at home in a 17th century European hovel or an ultra-modern steel and glass San Francisco startup.
Which brings me to my final point. Schwarz has been one of my favorite go-to writers for matters of technique for well over a decade. With this book, (and to be honest, this really snuck up on me) he’s also suddenly sitting as one of my favorite designers. These pieces are all based in historical research, and standing on the shoulders of centuries of other makers – but the results are, to my eye, most definitely his. I’ve been looking at iterations of the desk and chair above, both in photos and in person, for months now, and I think they’re some of my favorite designs of recent memory. And they’ve only gotten more appealing to me over time – which, to me, is the key hallmark of really good design.
So well done, Chrissie – but don’t think I forgot you’ve got my boxwood. I’m comin for it, sucker.