Linda: Which designers and/or makers throughout history in wood do you admire most and why is that?
Laura: I admire the everyday ordinary furniture from the past, particularly from before the Industrial Revolution, what’s known as vernacular furniture. The makers are usually unnamed, often not professionals. I like it because of its directness, honesty, and functionality. It tends to be kind of minimal and spare for reasons of cost. It is striking how the dictates or slogans of Modernism align with those of the vernacular or craft: ‘less is more’, ‘form follows function’, and so on. It’s ironic because Modernism typically saw itself as release from the bondage of tradition.
In terms of named designers/makers, I admire the more humanist of the Modernists: the Scandinavians. More Alvar Aalto, less le Corbusier; more Hans Wegner, less Mies van der Rohe. More evolutionary, less revolutionary.
In terms of woodworkers, obviously James Krenov. Also Wharton Esherick. He defined the genre of studio furniture-making, and yet managed to transcend it as well. He embodied the contradictions that lie at the heart of twentieth century craft: romantic and financially impractical, and yet also joyfully inventive and productive and individual. His work combines prisms, facets and curvaceous elements in a cohesive exuberance. It’s delicate and chunky, it’s quirky and it’s archetypal.
Linda: I saw your gorgeous Sligo chairs on the Internet, which introduced me to the mindful blending of your academic and maker sides. Then I saw your Stefan Chair/Ikea Hack and was introduced to more of your ideas on process and value, not to mention Ikea Hackers‘ website. It is apparent to me that you see chairs as iconic expressions. What would you say is so iconic about “the chair?”
Laura: Chairs have been used as a vehicle for ideas more than any other piece of furniture. Architects and designers have long seen chairs as the opportunity to distill their design ethos into a single object. Mies van der Rohe is reported to have said that designing a chair is harder than designing a building!
Chairs tend to be the most sculptural of furniture-types, that is, the most three-dimensionally complex. As furniture they hover at the edge of our consciousness, as most furniture does, until we turn the spotlight onto them and realize their complexity and beauty. They often involve a play of positive and negative space, curves and compound angles.
Chairs are also the furniture-type that has the most engagement with the human body. We respond to chairs through our bodies! But in addition, they position us culturally: it is not coincidental that many phrases referring to authority and hierarchy refer to chairs: chair of the board, thrones, etc.
It is now a cultural meme to think of chairs as ‘iconic’, and thus the door is opened to work with that proposition.
Linda: What are you working on now?
Laura: I’ve been working on some speculative chairs this summer…
I hope you learned and enjoyed as much as I listening to Laura Mays. Once you see a finely produced piece of furniture, it is easy to take it for granted. That’s probably true about the process of instruction followed by a fine outcome. Among other things, Laura reminded me of the beauty and joy in effort; the reward of purpose and application. I so appreciate the deep consideration of context located in any one piece of furniture or object, and her refusal to stint when it comes to history and visual meaning, detail by detail. Thanks, Laura Mays, CR Fine Furniture Program students are truly fortunate! – Linda at Hock Tools
Note: For more on what Laura Mays has to say about her work at CR please read The Fine Art of Keeping Going: the challenges of maintaining and evolving the educational model of James Krenov, a PDF of her talk to The Furniture Society during its conference held at Maine College of Art in June.