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book: Shop Class as Soulcraft


Last weekend, the NY Times Magazine included a short excerpt from a terrific new book by Matthew Crawford, a motorcycle mechanic with a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work addresses issues of craft and work that will be important and thought-provoking to anyone interested in the philosophies behind the Arts & Crafts movement, and I look forward to getting my copy as soon as my local bookshop has it in stock.

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars; they are fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair — more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

Frank Lloyd masterworks available in lego form

6a00d8341bf72a53ef0115708abde9970b-800wiOur friends at Prairie Mod, always hep to news in the tiny overlapping center of the Frank Lloyd Wright / Lego Venn diagram, have noted two additions to Lego's classic architecture line. Both are Frank Lloyd Wright designs, of course: the Guggenheim model is now on sale for $55 shipped, and Fallingwater will be available soon.

Brickstructures, the folks who are collaborating with Lego and the Frank Lloyd Wright folks on these models, has several other structures available to view on their website, including 7 South Dearborn, the Burj Dubai, the Chicago Spire, the Empire State Building, Jin Mao Tower, the John Hancokc, Marina City, the M.B. Skyneedle, Sears Tower, the St. Louis Arch, San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, Trump Tower and the World Trade Center.

No idea if these others will be available for sale; for most, it's doubtful, given the huge number of blocks

Greentea Design: spectacular custom kitchens

Toronto-based Greentea Design has a special place in my heart: not only do they design, build and sell some of the most beautiful kitchen cabinetry available anywhere - in beautiful Japanese-influenced styles that are a perfect match for any Mission or Craftsman home - but they also carry a range of both antique and contemporary reclaimed-wood furniture, some in historic Craftsman and Japanese designs and others in more contemporary shapes. And the prices, even including the (very professional and speedy) shipping from Canada are surprisingly low, making them competitive with any of the larger semi-custom cabinet makers out there, even while using better materials like a clear coat for kitchen cabinets and sturdier building techniques..

While many of their signature pieces - step tansu and other room-defining wood furniture items - are gorgeous, it's that line of kitchen cabinets that I keep coming back to. Sold as custom kitchen sets or as individual stock pieces, the grain of the wood, beautiful (and exclusive to Greentea) hand-forged hardware and trim detail is both Asian and Craftsman at the same time, with enough character to be beautiful and enough attention to design to be eminently useful. Their Loft Kitchen custom design, above, is a combination of the various Mizuya cabinets, including an island and a full range of wall cabinets and accessories; other past custom kitchens have included the simplified Asian Bistro, minimalist Zen Modern, and Chalet Chic, which was tailored for a more open, airy space. Of course, each piece is available by itself as well - all the islands, hutches, wall and base cabinets and pantries you could possibly need are available piecemeal should you wish to design your own kitchen, amd all can be installed in a fixed position or left free-standing (for a movable island, for example). The custom design services offered are impressive - Greentea's staff of furniture and room designers are more than happy to assist with your own custom project or do the work for you; their staff worked extensively with Kim Johnson, owner of a 100-year-old home in Ottawa, on her recent remodel, and the results were very impressive; Kim blogged the entire process on her website, Design to Inspire.

I'm very happy to have a piece of theirs up in my own modern Craftsman kitchen, and I hope to have a few photographs of it soon; a smaller version of the Dana cabinet (pictured above; mine is a similar to what sits above the glass cabinets on the right and left of this unit) completes the rear wall of that recently-remodeled room in my 1925 Mission Revival bungalow in Sacramento, California, and it's a perfect complement for the bamboo floors, stone countertops and glass tile backsplash that round out the project. Some day, I'd like to own one of their step tansus, which I have always maintained are the perfect bridge between an austere Asian design style and the earthy workmanship of the Craftsman aesthetic. And they're running a special "Stepping Into Summer" promotion right now, with 20% discounts on these unique pieces, including the Elm Burl step tansu, shown below.

Owner Dale Storer has worked hard to make sure that Greentea's products complement a wide range of architectural styles, though, and much of their more contemporary designs would look at home whether in a traditional Japanese home, a Craftsman bungalow, or a modern high-tech apartment. The Lattice TV Stand, pictured below, hides components behind a latticed sliding door that still allows remote controls to function, and is just as good a match for an urban loft as it is for a 90-year-old brown-shingle Craftsman bungalow. Every one of these pieces is made from reclaimed wood, and all come in a variety of finishes with different types of hardware available as well. Mike Ramsey writes that the reclaimed wood usually comes from "aging rural structures that are being taken down to make way for Asia's rapidly expanding urban centers. The Maru tables are the best example since they're turned into tables directly from being reclaimed. The original supports are cut into legs who have correspondingly sized holes cut in the base of the slabs of floor."

Their antiques stock, some of which is on hand at their Toronto showroom, is also worth checking out; I'm partial to the large selection of all sorts of Japanese tansu, but they also carry plenty of Chinese and Korean pieces as well.

I'm not so used to giving such praise to a business - as regular readers know, I'm pretty stingy with compliments and generous with criticism, which is certainly a fault. However, after dealing with this company myself and going gaga over their website, I just wanted to make sure you were all as familiar with them as I've become. After seeing so many (primarily) Japanese antiques blend so well with the large shingled Craftsman homes of California, but noticing the absence of same elsewhere in the country, I thought perhaps most people didn't realize that the two styles matched so well.

If you're in or near Toronto, definitely check out the Greentea showroom; otherwise, spend a few minutes browsing their website, or call them at 1.866.426.7286 to talk with someone about your kitchen design or furniture needs.

I've made a small Flickr album for photos of their work; I'll soon add a good shot of the Dana cabinet in my own kitchen; those of you who already have Greentea cabinets, please do send me your photos, and I'll add them as well!

Strictly Wood Furniture: a warning to consumers

Several times in the past we mentioned Strictly Wood Furniture, their excellent prices and the seemingly high quality Mission Revival reproduction items they sold. However - and I have to admit I'm definitely behind the times on this since the complaints date back four years - I found this thread on Gardenweb detailing dozens of people's very serious problems with the company. Some have waited years for furniture or refunds that never came, others took delivery of obviously broken or incomplete orders; all had one thing in common: that they were unable to get any kind of honest answer from the seemingly friendly folks who worked for Strictly Wood. SWF went so far as to give completely fabricated fedex confirmation numbers - meant to maintain the illusion that a refund check was on its way to the customer - on multiple occasions. What a scam! And, as of last year, their flagship showroom in New York City is shuttered.

The good luck is that they have closed down; the bad news is that they've only closed down under that name, and keep reappearing under others: watch out for their other fronts (they are apparently still selling, or rather promising to deliver, via constantly-changing Yahoo stores and various auction sites, too).

Ralph Jones helped them go into receivership and writes that most of the customers who never got their money back or the furniture they ordered were eventually given something; however, after contacting a half dozen people who had posted in the Gardenweb thread, only one had received any communication at the time Strictly Wood closed down. The Turkish company that made the furniture, however, was never guilty of any wrongdoing, and still makes excellent furniture and sells via other vendors - these problems were completely the fault of the American vendor, Strictly Wood. Furniture.

4th Annual Arts & Crafts Chicago show & sale

Just got this press release in my inbox. If any of you go, please send me photographs! And remember, the Frank Lloyd Wright home & studio is in River Forest, too, so you could easily make a nice weekend out of this:

The 4th Annual Arts and Crafts Chicago Show and Sale is coming back to Concordia University in River Forest on Saturday, May 30th and Sunday, May 31st 2009. Focusing on mission furniture and accessories of the American Arts and Crafts Movement (approximately 1890-1920), this show will truly be one you won’t want to miss. You’ll find 20th Century Decorative Arts including furniture, metalwork, pottery, textiles, art and lighting; everything from Stickley, Limbert, Roycroft, Rookwood and much more. Over 50 of the nations leading dealers will be on hand to answer questions and advise on how to decorate your home. This specialized event has proven to be one of the premiere antique and contemporary shows in the Midwest.

Dealers attending this year’s show are coming from all across the country. We have dealers from Massachusetts, New York, California, Texas as well as the best dealers from the Midwest. JMW and Crones Collectibles from Massachusetts will be featuring high-end pottery from the Northeast such as Grueby, Saturday Evening Girls and Marblehead, as well as furniture and accessories. Jack Papadinis Antiques, Connecticut, will be showcasing some of the premiere lighting in the country and David Surgan from New York will offer the best Heintz Collection for sale in the country. Paramour Fine Arts, which specializes in arts and crafts era woodblocks and art, will be on hand showcasing some fabulous artwork from the era. Local dealers such as John Toomey Gallery will be exhibiting as well, highlighting Midwest artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright, TECO and Jarvie.

Not only is this an antique show, but the weekend will showcase the highest quality contemporary craftsfirms as well. Ephraim Faience Pottery, Door Pottery, Arts and Crafts Hardware and Dard Hunter Studios will be in attendance, just to name a few.

With the success of the show over the last three years and with the rich tradition of bungalows, as well as the Prairie School heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago has proven to be a perfect fit for this specialized show.

Homeowners interested in educating themselves as to the appropriate furnishings for their turn of the century bungalows and craftsman style homes shouldn’t miss the 4th Annual Arts and Crafts Chicago Show and Sale, Saturday May 30th, 2009, from 10 am – 5 pm and Sunday May 31st from 11 am – 4 pm at Concordia University at Geiseman Gym in River Forest, Illinois. Admission price is only $7 each. Free parking on site in a 5-level garage. No parking on Monroe.

special homes in unspecial places

I got this from the folks at Preservation Directory and thought some Hewn & Hammered readers might be able to help. My own home is the opposite: a very plain, unfortunately much-"improved" Mission Revival bungalow in a neighborhood full of beautiful Victorians, Craftsman highwaters and Mission cottages.

Please contact New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir directly to participate or to receive additional information about the article. Her deadline is Thursday, May 14, 2009.

I am looking for homeowners who love their historic or stunning house, even though it is in a neighborhood that you wouldn't usually find this type of home in. Perhaps the neighborhood has changed from what it was like when the house was built, and now it doesn't really fit it. The house might be next to something unusual like an airport or power plant. Or they are in a neighborhood that was once residential and is now a mall or an urban center etc.

Two caveats: 1) the neighborhood should not be "up and coming", rather a place that is going to stay as it is, but the home buyers love the house anyway. 2) The house is NOT for sale.  These can be recently moved-in residents or long time owners, but no one who is selling the house currently.

I'm looking for people who love their home where others might not give the same house a second glance.  Thanks so much I look forward to your e-mails."