I had to hit the ground running upon my return home from travels abroad. Ene and I were scheduled to deliver the furnishings I made for the new Edible Schoolyard Dining Commons, and I had just one week to pull everything out of storage and prepare for final assembly and installation.
The building’s completion had been delayed by about two years and the furniture had gained character as it patiently sat in stacks in the dry corners of our barn. I realized I don’t really ‘see’ the furniture as I am making it; I am too absorbed in the structural program, of which the ‘look’ is a function. So I was delighted to have had the time pass and to finally get to see it again for the first time and set it all in motion towards finally being used.
I’ll be unpacking the backstory of this furniture project in detail in a publication I’m developing, but will briefly outline the arc of the project here in order to ease its integration into daily use. Being such a high profile and unprecedented endeavor, part of my job as maker and designer is to parse the public perception of this furniture from my underlying motivation and intentions for bringing it into being.
The common public perception is that filling a dining hall at a public middle school with beautiful, handmade furniture is both a foolhardy waste of effort and a misplaced act of elitist gravitas.
My counter argument is two-fold. First, what better place to exhibit beauty and radical generosity than where our kids daily interact in public, especially over a meal featuring food they had a hand in growing? My experience shows me that when treated with grace and respect, kids most often act in kind. To this end, the furniture is a challenge to establish a replicable standard of comportment at the scale of everyday interaction; manners can be embodied in things.
Secondly, that the presence of handmade things in public places is considered elitist is simply an indication of craft being out of sync with consumer culture. The design program for the furniture flows from a paradigm of poverty, of making the most with the least, a tenet with parallels in Slow Food.
All of the wood for the furniture comes from native trees within a 100 mile radius, cut and air-dried by my friend Evan Shively in Marshal, California. Evan culled all of the wood from short logs salvaged from a destiny as firewood, which gave me a good price as well as strict design parameters. For example, the table tops have extra wide ‘breadboard’ ends to add adequate length to the relatively short slabs cut from logs with no great commercial potential otherwise.
Beginning in late 2004, I made 32 tables of black walnut, bay laurel, monterey cypress, eucalyptus, madrone and elm; 140 stacking stools and 80 benches of bay laurel. The furniture will help model a statewide school lunch initiative, hosting 1000 meals a day at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California.