{ Category Archives: edible schoolyard }

Goat Barn for the Edible Schoolyard

goat barn sketch

I designed my 118 SF  barn to accommodate three Oberhaslis goats in comfort.

I’ve been having a lot of fun designing a tiny barn to house three Oberhaslis goats for the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. The project is just a schematic concept thus far, but will not require much more design if I get the proportions about right. I love to design little buildings, the more utilitarian the better, especially when in support of urban agriculture. It’s been about 14 years since I designed and built the Tool Barn for the Edible Schoolyard, so I’m happy to have a chance to add a companion structure to the program. If the goat barn project is funded, I’ll most likely build it myself from trees felled and milled on our property over the summer. For now, the concept flows easily from my sharpened pencil on graph paper at 1/4″= 1′-0″ scale, my favorite way to begin any project.

The nototriously quiet Oberhaslis goat will need to be milked twice a day.

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Radical Pragmatism

stool with danesMy humble ESY stool can hold its own in a room full of Danish Chairs

As I begin to make small production runs of my ESY stool (pictured above) to fill an increase in demand, I’ve been enjoying sending them out into the world and seeing where they land. Last week I delivered a sample to the office suite of a commercial real estate developer, and left it in a conference room under construction, nestled amongst a cluster of elegant Danish chairs. The stool worked perfectly with the setting, which got me thinking about what makes for a kind of universal style, or a style of no style. In my experience, the style of no style is a consequence of Radical Pragmatism.

I originally developed the stool as a minimalist seating solution for the Middle School Dining Commons associated with Alice Waters’ acclaimed Edible Schoolyard project. The stools stack up to 7 high, consist of just three repeated parts, and use a bare minimum of native, California hardwoods, traditionally joined into a lightweight but durable seat. The ESY stool doubles nicely as an occasional table. Most important, I prototyped and manufactured the original batch of 120 stools myself, and designed it around my minimal production capabilities, knowing I would need to keep costs down to compete with comparable products already in production. The stool is now made in small batches by a local shop, each batch sequenced with wood from the same sustainably milled logs. Sales have increased as the stool becomes available, and I look forward to scaling production in respect of the stool’s original ethos, eventually making it available on the Goods pages of this site.

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polishing the Dining Commons tables at MLK Jr Middle School in Berkeley

You might be surprised to find well-polished, handmade wooden furniture in a public middle school dining commons, let alone any lunch to serve upon it. You might be equally surprised that the tables, benches and stools of Martin Luther King Jr Middle School survived their first year of use and abuse by over a thousand kids a day relatively unscathed, in support of the inaugural School Lunch Initiative.

Some may assert the seeming absurdity of providing our kids with the highest quality things we are capable of making, like gardens, food and furnishings, as a waste of effort. Others like myself see the gesture as the beginning of a long overdue conversation about the importance of respect, maintenance and refinement in public education.

I consider the term ‘polished’ an apt description for just about anything well rendered and thoughtfully executed. Whether applied to a feat of athleticism, academics or art, it implies that something is worth the effort to polish in the first place, and that there remains room for improvement in the future- the thing in question simply gets better when polished. This was thankfully my experience earlier today when Ene and I revisited the Furnishings I Made for the Dining Commons to assess a manageable regimen of routine maintenance for the years to come. We rubbed petroleum jelly into the grain of the tabletops, an inexpensive, non-toxic and durable polish, and recommended a monthly routine of the same. The process confirmed my adage of Maintenance Equals Improvement, and I loved seeing the first dings and dents in the wood be buried under the sheen of a hand-rubbed polish, adding the welcome first layer of ‘user-generated’ character to the tables.


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Tripod Stool Prototype


I’ve been asked to make more seating and tables for the Dining Commons at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Berkeley. Since I designed and made the original 32 tables and seating for up to 300 students a few years ago, the program has increased in capacity with the success of the School Lunch Initiative. In anticipation of this request, I redesigned my new stacking stool to streamline production/cost without sacrificing functionality or aesthetics. The prototype pictured above uses 40% less material and labor than my original design (see below), and stacks 8 high instead of 7 high, making for more efficient storage and shipping. The three legs also solve the problem of uneven floors. I made this Tripod Stool prototype out of bamboo and left it to weather outdoors over two years to test its durability, and it has proven itself worthy of further development. If the school accepts the new design I will offer a version for sale on the GOODS pages of this site.


Meanwhile, the original stools have stood up admirably to daily use by middle school students. Only about 4 % have received any damage, and  I have been repairing them as required. This models at least two tenets from my manifesto:

– Maintenance = Improvement (The stools are stronger after repair), and

– Market = Material Provenance (the knowledge required for repair being a natural byproduct)


I made this ‘jig’ to add pins to the new legs of damaged stools.

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Radical Generosity

esy-delivery1.jpgI 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.

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Tool Barn at the Edible Schoolyard


Berkeley, California (photo: Richard Barnes)

I recently had the good fortune to spend a day working with photographer Richard Barnes. Richard is helping me document my work for the Edible Schoolyard over the past decade as I develop a book proposal about this and related Deep Craft projects and philosophy.In Spring of 1998 I was commissioned to design and build a tool shed for the nascent Edible Schoolyard with a grant from the Center for Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley-based non-profit founded by physicist Fritjof Capra. The project gave me a unique opportunity to test some ideas I was beginning to develop about vernacular architecture, in response to the urban fabric of the San Francisco Bay region, where Ene and I had recently settled. The tool barn was a model project, with many nuances and object lessons, and its story will form the foundation of my book. I will be outlining the story of ‘Tool Barn at the Edible Schoolyard’ in detail in the PROJECTS pages of this site as I compile documentation.


East elevation (photo: Richard Barnes)

Working with Richard gave me a chance to revisit the project and see it with fresh eyes. Richard is an astute observer, with a profound understanding of Arts and Crafts architecture and a gift for ‘forensic’ documentation. Our collaboration consisted of translating what for me is a process-driven approach to architecture into visual artifact.Following several email exchanges where we found aesthetic common ground and many shared connections, we met on site in January to plan a shooting strategy based upon how the tool barn had been adapted to daily use. I was relieved to find Richard to be witty, affable and frank, and we got along immediately. Anything resembling a strategy grew out of our wide-ranging conversation over afternoon tea, prompted by Richard’s penetrating questions.

We met again a few weeks ago on the eve of the planned shoot, and continued the conversation over a three hour dinner at Chez Panisse. We decided to let the following day unfold in response to the weather and shifting light patterns. We would simply carry our conversational collaboration to the site and make a day of it. I would be Richard’s assistant, and he would tell me what to do. The next morning I brought coffee and sandwiches, and we spent a delightful day in the garden, talking to passersby and making photographs in a logic that asserted itself automatically, informed by our late night musings.Though I had visited the tool barn sporadically over the years, I had not spent a full day in the garden since I built the structure some ten years ago. I was able to recapture the visceral sense I originally had on site, and remembered how this translated into the conception of the building. I remembered the feeling of just standing there before anything was built, smelling the air, hearing the birds and feeling the warmth of the sun over a cool breeze coming off the bay to the West. It was an oddly moving experience, a ‘time out of time’. I remembered how I thought of each elevation as a kind of portrait of the cardinal points of the compass, tuned to the site and its proposed use patterns, and how I graded the material accordingly. I remembered how my work force consisted mostly of middle school students with ‘learning disabilities’, for whom school offered no reward system for their kinesthetic talents.


gloves dry in the sun (photo: Richard Barnes)

I was deeply touched by the way the building had been adapted by the gardeners, evidence of the cyclic and interdependent relationship between design, making and use I had theorized. The building had earned a purposefulness that I had only imagined and left open to the forces at play. Seeing it all working so well prompted me to recall another adage of mine which guided the structural/material program for the building, which forms the third axiom in the Deep Craft manifesto:

The functional lifespan of a constructed thing should mirror the lifecycle of its principle material.

The building is framed with timbers from the top 50 feet of a single, storm fallen Coast Redwood, locally milled from a thousand year old tree. It is made to be easily disassembled and re-used if necessary, as it is pinned together with oak ‘trunnels’, which were hand-tapered and pegged in place by the students. The building is an homage to that specific tree, and might last a thousand years if its evolving design continues to influence the forces of entropy that have thus far shaped it into something beautiful.


framing detail (photo: Richard Barnes)

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Elder Chair


I’ve been focused on a furniture commission for my new friend Nick Pihakis, a dining set to compliment his family’s Green and Green-inspired home in Birmingham, Alabama. Nick is the co-founder and owner of Jim ‘N Nick’s, a chain of popular barbecue restaurants throughout the Southeastern and Mountain states. Nick uses only fresh, organic ingredients in his food, and is an active proponent of Slow Food and school gardening initiatives.

The chairs I’m making for his family are adapted from a prototype I developed for the Edible Schoolyard a few years ago. I thought of it as an ‘elder’s chair’, to be placed at the head of select tables in the Edible Schoolyard Dining Commons to welcome honored guests and elders. All other seating I’ve designed and built consists of stools and benches, and while the tables I made are wheelchair accessible, it seemed appropriate to provide a sturdy chair with stout arms for folks who need help getting in or out of a seat. Plus, the arms and backrest provide additional comfort and a feeling of authority and privilege. While the Edible Schoolyard loved the Elder Chair concept, their budget did not allow me to add the chair to the collection I was designing and making. I’m excited to have a chance to finally bring it into reality

The design developed from my desire to make a statement with the sheer visual presence of chairs in a large, bustling dining hall, without adding clutter. I was already making backless stools and benches for the students, because I liked the visual environment of the room to feature the sculptural presence of the kids. I also wanted the seating to encourage good posture and alertness, which is somewhat inevitable with backless seating, and helps to focus people on the food on the table and the people gathered around. Middle School kids have so much kinetic energy and communicate with their clothes and gestures; I wanted to make a stage for this kind of expression, and thought it best for the furniture to almost disappear.

Introducing a chair to the ‘family’ table implied a hierarchy, so I wanted the chair to be as low as possible and to communicate something positive in silhouette. So I designed the chair around ‘nesting’ requirements, beginning with a ‘+‘ sign as the visual metaphor, and drew upon related iconography of Arts and Crafts symmetry and proportion, in keeping with its Berkeley, California location.

The chairs stack, which is rare for an armchair, and very unusual for a hand-crafted, traditionally joined construction. Stacking eases storage and conserves resources in shipment by a discernible magnitude. The idea of stacking also invites participation, and brings the user closer to the ethos of the maker, which suggests the second axiom for a Deep Craft Manifesto:


My experience with the things I love informs me that the acts of maintaining them actually improves them, and that the agency of maintenance is a creative and rewarding activity. My designs are meant to be used, show wear with dignity, and become all the more valuable to their users as they age.


I’ll be making 8 chairs for Nick, but have acquired enough walnut to make an additional 20-30. I typically purchase my wood by the log, and it’s important to me for my production runs to have their origins in the same tree as much as possible. Individual trees have such unique characteristics when they are not grown commercially, and I design with these in mind. I’ve carefully air-dried the ‘boule’ cut logs for this project from locally milled Black Walnut, which had been grafted onto native Claro Walnut rootstock to produce nuts for a Central Valley orchard.

I make a practice of living with my prototypes for several years before offering a design for production. We use them vigorously in our daily lives. The Elders Chair prototype has been my daughter Aili’s chair, who sits at the head of the table, since I brought it home from the shop floor over four years ago. It has darkened to a rich, slightly reddish mocha, and wears its marks proud from many family dinners, homework assignments, guests of honor and occasional use as a stepping stool. The joints have remained reassuringly tight, despite exposure to direct sun, infrequent use outdoors, and sheer neglect. The occasional dusting and annual rubdown with beeswax makes for a good family friend, and a comforting addition to the table. I think Nick will be pleased.


Most of my furniture designs begin with a quick full scale mock-up, which I prefer to making drawings. Often times these proto-prototypes hold up and become something else altogether, which I’ve learned to appreciate over the years. I’m beginning to document models and jigs, and will be making an archive on these pages.