{ Category Archives: Emergence }


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A barn full of beautiful wood, carefully laid up to dry, is better than money in the bank.

I’ve never really studied economic theory, but imagine there’s an odd relationship/kinship between miserliness and greed. Suffice it to say I learned firsthand over the past week how one might give way to the other, in predictable order.

In the course of single-handedly stacking over 1000 board feet of premium wood I had recently milled, aided only by gravity, levers and rolling bars, I loaded my barn and felt a sense of pride bordering on prosperity. I’ve never been interested in money or accumulation, but the simple act of loading the barn with my own hands shifted my perspective. My new pile of wood drying in the barn might as well be bars of gold, and will likely increase in value at an exponentially greater rate.

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Learning from Sand Patterns


A section of the texture I’ve been carving into my crane sculpture.

I’ve learned a lot from studying sand patterns at the beach over the past few months. I’m always astounded at how such beautiful formations result from the erosive interactions of just a handful of elements- the density of different sands, slope of the beach grade, the continual play of surf and drying effect of sunshine.

I try to apply these lessons as I texture the fared contours of my wooden crane sculpture for our Tsuru project, cutting parallel channels that follow the arc of the grain over compound curves. The process takes concentration but is easy going with my very sharp 1.5″ Japanese gouge. When the wooden form is finally cast in bronze, the ridges of my chisel marks will be slightly highlighted with burnishing and their line patterns will recall the feathers of a large soaring bird while remaining true to the inherent tautness of the mother material.

Beauty becomes intrinsic to a thing only when its pursuit is incidental to the process.

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Beauty becomes intrinsic to a thing only when its pursuit is incidental to the process.

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Tsuru Progress

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I still refer to my original model of Tsuru as the full scale version nears completion. (photo by John Whalen)

I’ve been shaping the final contours of my wooden crane sculpture for our Tsuru project in Denver. It’s been an arduous but satisfying exercise carving a form in wood at this scale, mostly because the form progresses so slowly working primarily with hand tools. I’ve learned that I need to keep focused on a particular, formal strategy for the shape to emerge naturally, which has required serious mental and physical discipline. The whole process has been a kind of duration meditation. My strategy has been to begin with the joint, the intersection where the wings cross the torso and get the ‘core’ to make sense, then articulate the edges, then interpolate the surface contours connecting the core with the extremities. Over the next few days I will smooth the entire surface and begin to experiment with surface patterns and textures. Once the wooden form is complete it will be delivered to Artworks Foundry to be cast in bronze.

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The near complete bird has about a 9′ wingspan

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My arsenal of hand tools for carving the crane.

To learn more about the development of our Tsuru project, please click here.

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Holly Meets the Sea

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I typically paint or wax the ends of green logs/slabs to ensure a slow and even curing.

I’ve begun to harvest some of the holly trees on our property in anticipation of making small bowls, spoons, candlesticks and other tableware for our inaugural Secret Dinner scheduled for this fall. The trees were probably planted about 30 years ago as an ornamental and they’ve grown to an unmanageable height, blocking light and clogging our gutters with their spiny fallen leaves. We’ll continue to make winter wreaths from branches of the remaining variegated shrubs, but I’m eager to try my hand at turning, break in an excellent set of Sheffield chisels and learn a valuable new skill.

In Celtic folklore, the holly tree symbolizes protection, and it’s an ancient tradition to plant them close to dwellings to ward off evil spirits while providing food and shelter for seasonal bird migrations. A healing tea can be brewed from the leaves of certain holly trees, and it was believed that throwing a stick of holly towards bears, wolves and wildcats will ward them away. The tree has also been thought to protect people from threat of lightning and severe weather. I will consider these themes as I turn the wood over the summer for an autumnal feast featuring foraged foods from the sea.

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Exuberant Frugality

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We tested my Greens Chair at Greens Restaurant over a four course dinner

On the eve of our first full week home after six weeks of travel, Ene, Aili and I celebrated with a prix fixe, four course dinner at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. Mike Hale, Greens’ manager, generously comped the meal as a gesture of thanks for the chairs I recently designed that now populate the restaurant’s expansive interior.

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My lovely ladies enjoying a delicious dinner, as the sun set over the Golden Gate

By all accounts, the chairs are a tremendous success, adding a touch of structure and formality to the dining experience without detracting from its casual simplicity or bohemian legacy. More importantly, we got to test the chairs over an elegant, beautifully prepared and presented vegetarian feast, and they proved to be perfectly comfortable all the way through coffee and dessert. The Greens Chair is the first furniture commission at this scale where I have not actually made the furnishings myself, hadn’t touched and shaped each piece of wood with my own hands, yet I was pleased to feel the same pride of authorship as if I had.

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Most of the Greens Chairs are made of maple, with just 16 in walnut

As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on our way back up the coast in the lingering twilight, while Ene snoozed and Aili surfed her iPod, I began to reflect upon the relationship between craft and design, content with the fruits of my labor. I’m called more and more frequently to shift roles between maker and designer, and I find it helps to make a smooth transition by keeping a foot in either world.


the view from our table at Greens, looking West towards the Golden Gate

‘Craft’ is too broad a term for consensus on its meaning, which can range from implying a level of skill in handiwork, to standing in for pre-industrial technologies, to being a kind of hobby or therapy. For the sake of clarity, I think of ‘craft’ more as an artisanal production model, connoting things made using local resources- material, knowledge, and energy. In such a craft-based production model, ‘design’ is often an afterthought. The final thing more or less emerges from the constraints of tradition and the limitations of resources. Most products of this system live in the past- the Windsor Chair, basket-making, vernacular architecture in general- but they still influence the visual culture of design. From this perspective, ‘craft’ and ‘design’ are mutually exclusive.

While craft is a bottom-up strategy, design is a top-down one. Design most often begins with a visual representation of a thing to be made, but exactly how it is made is incidental to its final manifestation. When called to design something made at an industrial scale, I begin the process by thinking as a traditional artisan might, given the resources of labor and technology in today’s world. I don’t have any preconception of how anything will look, but trust in an ethos of Exuberant Frugality. I try to optimize material and structure, nest functions and eliminate waste, knowing that this will make room for quality to emerge at all stages of a design’s development, and that the ethos will resonate with anyone who works with their hands.

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The Legend of Lumberjack Surfing

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The following text accompanies an installation I made as part of the NOMO Exhibition we’ve designed and curated as the culmination of our residency at Kohler Arts. Over the past few weeks I’ve made fictional, yet plausible sculptural elements that support the idea that surfing has origins on the Great Lakes. I will provide more detail soon about the NOMO Exhibition, but here’s a preview of my “Legend of Lumberjack Surfing” installation:

The Legend of Lumberjack Surfing

“There is a little known legend that surfing has early 19th century origins on the Western shores of Lake Michigan, separate from its more ancient roots on the islands of the South Pacific.

When timber rafts were floated down Wisconsin’s rivers to be shipped to far off urban centers, large slabs of wood occasionally broke loose along the lake and washed ashore. Enterprising lumberjacks and boat-builders often rescued the timbers by drifting them offshore, standing atop them and paddling them to beachfront workshops, occasionally attaching sails to ease the journey. When the surf was heavy, the maritime lumberjacks beached the timbers by riding waves to shore, steering with a long wooden paddle. Over time, the activity of riding waves became an end in itself, and the ‘lumberjack surfers’ learned to shape the rough sawn planks for better performance in the waves.

By the early 20th century, the ‘lumberjack surfers’ adapted wooden boards to ride on land by attaching crude wheels to their undersides, thus inventing an early form of the skateboard. Many of these ‘trapper’s skateboards’ were made from stretchers originally used to tan wolf hides. By the middle of the 20th century, experimental skateboards were commonly made from discarded, wooden alpine and water skis, which were rapidly being replaced by fiberglass.”

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pike longboard

Another part of the NOMO Exhibition at Kohler Arts features longboard skate graphics I designed collaboratively, like the Northern Pike Longboard (above) drawn by Mary Whitehall and Zak Worth. The burnt/etched deck is part of a series depicting fish native to Lake Michigan

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