An Interview With
A Career of Experiment in Design
For the last four decades Art Espenet Carpenter has been a guiding light in the world of woodworking design and technique, both in California, where he has lived all that time, and elsewhere. His unique creations have shown many woodworkers that they can be free to design as they please, and experiment with new things.
Through Carpenter's career his work has been included in exhibits in museums and various shows across the country, and at least five institutions have works of his as part of their permanent collections. Articles about his work have appeared in numerous publications, such as Life, Saturday Review, Newsweek, The Britannica Encyclopedia of American Art, American Craft, and Fine Woodworking.
Carpenter's career has been one of experiment and innovation, often to the derision of more traditionally oriented craftspersons who consider his approach too experimental, and not well grounded in craft.
"I didn't come to the craft in the usual way, through craftsmanship," said Carpenter, who never had any formal training in woodworking.
"I came from the design end, rather than the craft end. My goals were object-oriented, and any way I could make the things I wanted was okay with me," said Carpenter.
His original inspiration for getting involved with the craft came from a series of craft design shows that took place in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940s. He was living there at the time, dealing in Oriental Art, and spending free time investigating other crafts. He wondered whether it was possible to actually make a living by making things, a somewhat unusual occupational goal at the time. Nevertheless, he decided to give it a try, packed up his things and headed for San Francisco. He set himself up with a lathe and began to make bowls. He and several other craftspeople set up their own gallery, called Local Color, in the bohemian, beatnik North Beach area of the city.
"I didn't think of myself as an artist, rather as a manufacturer. I started with the idea of being an entrepreneur, hiring people to make things. The reason I made bowls was that it was simple. All you needed was a lathe and one or two other machines. You could set up and finish the bowl all on the same machine," said Carpenter.
But that approach did not last very long. During the mid 1950s Carpenter showed his wares at the San Francisco Art Festival, and there he was exposed to a different approach to the craft.
"I went to the Art Festival because it was good free advertising for the bowls. But there I was introduced to the world of the designer-craftsman. This changed my attitude, and I began to think of myself differently. It became legitimate to be both designing and making objects, rather than sitting behind a desk and having other people do these tasks," said Carpenter.
Thus he began a gradual transition away from production manager of a factory of workers to a one-man operation, designing and making his own pieces. He still made the bowls, but began experimenting with other things, like tables with turned legs.
"I got tired of bowls, though I was selling all I could make to wholesalers in L.A. and Chicago. Bowl making was production manufacturing, and I wanted to experiment. The 1950s was a very experimental time, that was when I began to work with bent laminations," said Carpenter.
He has worked a great deal with bent laminations over the years, making everything from music stands and chairs to desks. One piece which has gained particular note is a shell desk the sides of which look like the opposing faces of a scallop sea shell.
"When I first started (as a designer-craftsman), I thought I was the last of a breed, hanging from my feet 20" from the floor. A Brave New World. Then, in the 1960s, the flash of creativity from the 1950s spread. Everyone wanted to go out into the woods and whittle, to get out of the corporate-IBM environment," said Carpenter.
Many people showed up at his door, asking for the opportunity to learn. Throughout the 1960s, Carpenter had many apprentices at his shop. Finally, one of them suggested that a guild be created. This was part of the motivation for starting the Baulines Crafts Guild in 1972, a Northern California based crafts organization which Carpenter helped found and which thrives to this day. The Guild provides structured apprenticeships for eager novices as well as conducting crafts shows for Guild masters and others.
At first the Guild conducted shows at people's houses, including Carpenter's just north of San Francisco. But the popularity of the shows caused these events to get out of hand, and during one show at Carpenter's house, the police showed up. Not to look at his furniture, but to complain about the traffic and parking jumble.
As a result, Carpenter and the Guild started The California Design Exhibition in 1984, which takes place in San Francisco at places more suited to the popular event. The juried show is held annually and has become the premiere crafts event for Northern California.
"The main importance of the shows was that they gave the opportunity to present contemporary design. There were few places where the public could see what was being done," said Carpenter.
Carpenter has had a total of over 150 apprentices in his shop over the years, both through the Guild and before its creation.
"My employees and apprentices have trained me a great deal. Many of my employees have been better craftsmen than I," said Carpenter.
As well, from 1975 to 79 he taught the craft at S.F. State University.
"I was paid half by the art department, and half by the industrial arts department. The industrial arts students came to the class to become proficient with tools. The art students came to make meaningful objects. I mixed the two together, stood back and watched what they would do. There was a lot of creativity in those classes," said Carpenter.
"I'm not a very good teacher, but a lot of my students seemed to have picked things up from me serendipitously. One teacher whom I respect is Tom Trammel, who teaches at U.C. Northridge (near L.A.). He has had a number of students who do excellent work. I asked him, 'How do you produce such fine people?' He said, 'Show them the machines, the possibilities, and that it can be done. Then stand back, and let them take their own lead,'" said Carpenter.
"Since I wasn't much of a craftsman, I didn't teach craft as much as I taught survival skills. My interest was in spreading the word that you can make a living, and in showing the business side. I taught how to make public contact and talk to customers, keep books, how to manage the costs of machines and running a shop, and short cuts in making things," said Carpenter.
Though Carpenter is known for his unique designs, there is no common thread that runs through them all. Quite the opposite-some of his pieces are radically different from others in all respects.
"The traditional approach to design is to improve your pieces over the years, refining an idea. In Oriental design, this approach is carried over generations. Traditional woodworkers consider this the legitimate way to proceed. Me, I flip all over from one thing to another, with no progression in my style. This is considered a very illegitimate approach," said Carpenter, who is content with the idea of being an 'illegitimate designer-craftsman.'
He has refined a few specific designs over the years, but not many. Case in point- his trademark wishbone chair, which has undergone numerous incarnations over several decades.
"If the idea intrigues me, I'll continue. But if I think I've gone as far as I can go, I'll stop," said Carpenter.
Flipping through a thick photo book of his work, he points out many that he has no interest in building again, either because he didn't really care for the piece or because he believes he took the idea to its fulfillment.
"I wish someone would order another shell desk, so I can refine that idea," said Carpenter.
Recently he made what he calls a "lateral jump" in design, with a whimsical painted table, called the George Price table.
"Price was a cartoonist with the New Yorker (magazine- ed.) who was rather helter skelter with his lines. My table is intended to be a 3-D copy of Price's 2-D drawings. The piece is a sort of a spoof. Partly because it's a cartoon table, but also for another reason. I can't get into shows anymore unless I paint something, so I needed to come up with something I could paint," said Carpenter.
So the George Price table, a painted work, becomes a comment on the current trend in furniture making to paint things. Carpenter regrets this trend, only to the extent that "you no longer see the wood in furniture," but at the same time acknowledges the creative use of painting. It's not the first time for him.
Carpenter is very sensitive to how the appearance of wood is used in furniture. For his wishbone chairs, he uses very straight grained lumber partly because it is structurally more sound, lacking short grain, but also because the clean, simple lines of the chair would be disrupted by wild grain patterns anywhere on it except the back.
"I've seen some furniture with the grain going all over where it screws up the work. The piece would have been better in steel," said Carpenter.
How does he rationalize going from subtle balancing of grain figure and design, to covering a piece with paint?
"I'm nothing if not inconsistent. I never know what I'm going to pop up with next. I have a two inch thick file of designs scribbled on pieces of paper, just ideas waiting for the right moment," said Carpenter.
Carpenter's approach flies in the face of much traditional wisdom about the craft. Many people believe that to be true to the craft, you must receive extensive initial training in traditional handtool use and furniture design.
"In the traditional approach, craftsmanship is the pinnacle of the occupation, sine qua non. I was trying to make a handsome object, acquiring whatever skills I needed along the way. Many traditionalists have a poor opinion of us (who practice this approach) because we didn't pay our dues," said Carpenter.
"I've made all kinds of things without much relationship to one another. From my point of view, this gives you the freedom to explore, whereas a technical, traditional approach might kill your imagination. I believe there should be no limitations on furniture, other than functional."
"There's an assumption on the traditional side that their approach is the only way to go. I think there are good points to both ways, and I'd rather not make moral judgements about either approach.,"
"I think it's fine to come from a traditional background. But I can see how they might resent my point of view. I'm jumping in with both feet where I don't belong, messing up their playground. And, they're right.
"My attitude has been one of politics. What I was interested in was seeing more independent craftsmen, independent of institutions. However they can do it is okay with me. I think there is a danger of the gradual absorbtion of society into the IBM-GMC culture. I taught apprentices to be able to make a living free of institutions. Once you are working for an institution, they can make you conform. If you are tied economically, you can be psychologically constricted.
"But I can also see the other side. Some large institutions have very creative people. And, those of us not employed by large companies can be tied to our artistic pronouncements, as well as the 30 to 40 customers a year from whom we make our living," said Carpenter.
Among Carpenter's many skills is writing, which he has pursued mostly privately over the years. He penned an article titled, "The Rise of Artiture," for Fine Woodworking magazine in Feb. 1983, in which he discusses a variety of new furniture works he saw in shows in the summer of 1982. In it he defines "artiture" as "artifacts that have the traditional form of furniture, but are not of any practical use." He goes on to discuss a variety of pieces he inspected, comparing them to this definition and looking for the raison d'etre of the non-functional pieces he saw. He found it in some, others, not.
As well, he has a large body of other writings, "essays here, essays there, some unfinished," on subjects such as himself, his work, reminiscensces, and Jungian psychology and dreams. Will we ever see this in print?
"I'm trying to find a way to organize this material," said Carpenter, but for the moment it remains a loose collection of essays. They reside in his office in an Apple computer, which he says is one of the most pleasingly designed boxes he has ever seen.
Also, he would like to have his designs catalogued in a single book. Most famous designers have had their work so published, and Carpenter would like to follow suit, and is in contact with several publishers.
While sitting and talking, Carpenter refers to the chair I'm sitting in to demonstrate his ideas of design. It's a bent wood rocker, with arms. However, the arms are just a bit too low to support my elbows. There's a reason for this.
"When designing, I'm looking at spaces as much as at lines. With this rocker, look at the space between the seat and arm, and the space between the seat and rocker below. The lower space must be larger for proper proportioning, so the arm must be lowered to make the chair look good. But then it doesn't function as well to support your arms. This is an unending problem with arm chairs, and the design is always a compromise that achieves a balance.