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Pacem In Terris

dome2 Peace Dome, Interior View, schematic rendering by LandDesign

Earlier this summer Wowhaus collaborated with LandDesign to develop a proposal for a public sculpture competition commemorating the US Peace Corps in Washington, DC. We did not win the commission, but we loved working with LandDesign, and the project gave us a chance to prototype a model of collaboration, and to invent a replicable structure, the Peace Dome. Building on a stacked masonry block technology I developed for our Scuppernong Commons project, I designed a geodesic dome as the centerpiece for the site. The project had special significance for Ene and me; we were Peace Corps Volunteers together in Togo, West Africa in 1990-91. Here are a few images from our design process featuring the dome, whose base would have been stacked, cut stone, with a hand cast dome of earth/cement blocks. We called our proposal Pacem In Terris, and our original, brief project narrative follows below.

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Peace Dome in situ, schematic rendering by LandDesign

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Pacem In Terris, aerial view, schematic rendering by LandDesign

PACEM IN TERRIS (Peace on Earth)

Pacem In Terris reinterprets the universal form of the dome as a human scale symbol of peace, cooperation and interdependency. Each hand-cast masonry block in the dome incorporates the unique soil of a country served by the US Peace Corps.

The dome is raised on an open, circular colonnade over a circular stone terrace. The terrace pattern mirrors the masonry blocks overhead, indicating the country of origin of the corresponding block. A borderless map of the world is cast in bronze and inlaid into the center of the terrace. Three stacked stone benches alternate with three open spaces between the columns around the perimeter of the colonnade. Terraced, native grasses provide a serene backdrop.

The structure invites reflection on the common ground we share, inviting conversation and connection between strangers; it is also an iconic destination for prospective and returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

The Simple Chair Revisited

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My latest Simple Chair prototype is ready for presentation.

Following some welcome critique with the client I’ve modified the design of my Simple Chair and made a new prototype. The new chair is a little wider, with a slightly taller backrest, more mortised joints, beefier legs and wider but skinnier components, all realized in white ash from the Pacific Northwest.

My original concept was pretty close to the mark, but was wanting in comfort and stability and held a bit too stridently to my desire to make a dining chair from one repeated part. The original spirit remains in tact, with improvements on all fronts. I’m going to recommend the chair be whitewashed with milk paint in production, a simple, non-toxic and easily maintained alternative to other paints and finishes.

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Goat Barn for the Edible Schoolyard

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

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Stickered Table for Shed (process)

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Two identical bases of green pecan, ready to receive the top, a giant slab of sycamore.

Whenever I design and make a new piece of furniture, I’m always keenly aware of how it will age, and how the piece might transform over time to encourage and support future, as yet unforeseeable patterns of use. I’ve been collecting choice local woods over the years, all neatly stickered in the barn, so my design process usually begins with rummaging through my piles for inspiration, making measurements and drawing directly onto the wood with white chalk. My primary criteria at this early stage is whether the piece of furniture I have in mind is the appropriate final destination for the wood- will it do the tree justice? I’ve always thought of my furniture as a way of extending the life of a tree, as a way of simultaneously storing and appreciating wood by putting it to good use; living daily life as an extension of making.

As I continue to collect and store local woods, and especially as I begin to mill trees myself, I’m becoming more attuned to the value of locally sourced, well-sawn, air-dried wood as a commodity. An increasingly scarce resource, fine wood is a good investment and increases dramatically in value, especially if it has the added cache of ecological responsibility, streaming from the urban forest, or as ‘horticultural salvage’. Because handmade furniture ultimately needs to compete in the marketplace with an increasingly sophisticated range of mass-market comparables, it can be challenging to offer a price point in proportion to the value of the material itself, which is a dilemma, even if the quality of the finished product is markedly higher. This is especially the case when ‘studio furniture’ needs first and foremost to meet rigorous functional, as well as aesthetic requirements.

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I milled grooves into the stickers for better air flow and to allow for movement.

While my way of thinking about wood-as-commodity has lived quietly in the background of most of my furniture design to date, I’ve been wanting do make a new body of work where the concept is front and center, both in the process of making and in the process of using the furniture. To this end, I’m grateful to my friend Cindy Daniel, who commissioned a ‘Demonstration Table’ for Shed, her Healdsburg-based café/retail/community hub offering local foods, goods and quality wares. Shed is Cindy’s contemporary spin on the traditional country mercantile store, and I’ve enjoyed working with her over the past two years designing interior scenarios for the new building currently under construction, a large, open air metal structure designed by Mark Jensen.

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My original thumbnail sketch for the Stickered Table

As much as my Demonstration Table for Shed will serve as a gathering place in the café, it doubles as a process piece for the duration of the enterprise, establishing a kind of invented tradition. The table’s base consists of two nearly identical stacks of green pecan wood I recently milled from a dying tree, neatly stickered to allow the wood to naturally air-dry. The table’s top, a massive slab of sycamore, rests on top of the two piles, acting as a gravity clamp to keep the material from cupping. I milled V-grooves into the stickers to allow for better air flow and to decrease friction as the boards inevitably shrink. After one year, when the stock is adequately dry, the top will be lifted and the material removed and converted into functional wares for Shed, either to be used in the café or sold as product to customers. This first batch will likely make small table tops for the Shed café, slated to open in October 2012.. The two bases will then be re-constructed, stacked from freshly milled wood each year, that will in turn be made into a small production run of whatever item surfaces in the course of its drying.

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I typically shellac and wax the ends of boards to prevent undo checking.

I like the idea of adding an element of ‘crowd-sourcing’ to the design development of an annual product, taking advantage of a constant flow of people gathered around the table while the material slowly cures beneath. I also look forward to maintaining an ongoing relationship with Shed as a kind of artisan-in-residence, collaborating with Cindy to design products that exemplify the Shed ethos.

Please click here to see the table with the top installed.


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Brain Stand

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The sea perch have been running so I spent the incoming tide surf-casting at Doran Beach. I had major strikes at every cast but was unable to land any because I did not have any #6 hooks on hand. I noticed how fishing seems more poetic when no fish are caught, more of a metaphor for a state of mind. It becomes about the posture of standing and waiting, staring out to sea in a shifting contrapposto as the sands shift under foot with every retreating wave. My brain works well in this state, when my body feels like a Brain Stand.

My path to woodworking roughly follows this trajectory: fishing: baseball: architecture: rock and roll: woodworking. Fishing and baseball require standing and waiting in gestures that help me feel connection to the past. My father taught me about fishing and playing baseball as soon as I could walk, and I’ve always enjoyed the rituals attending both more than actually catching fish or ‘winning’. Architecture seemed to involve a lot of sitting so was lost on me. Rock and Roll required a kind of anxious standing and caused me neck pain. At its best, woodworking resembles fishing and baseball in both gesture and mental state, with the added benefit of producing predictable outcomes. I look forward to fishing more while the perch are running and I ponder upcoming projects in the shop.

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California Classical

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A few years ago I designed a pedestal to be used as either a table base or, when scaled down, to support a bench. I wanted to evoke the grace and solidity of classical Greek architecture, but based my contours and proportions on the native oak and acorn instead of the acanthus of the classical world. We made molds, cast a batch in concrete, and made cast concrete tops with inlaid, hand painted tile tops for a public park.

The process produced a few ‘rejects’ with which I have been experimenting over the summer. Combined with rough cut slabs from fallen trees on our property, they make wonderful tables; the smooth, soft contours of the white base contrasts strikingly with the rough sawn, sun-bleached wood.

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I invented a system to use rough cut slabs to make a comfortable outdoor bench, which compliments the table, the slabs appearing to hover just above the ground. I plan to present this concept to Benziger Family Winery as the ‘Benziger Family Table’ they have recently commissioned me to design for outdoor use at the winery.

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Luxury of the Essential

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The L. L. Bean catalog was one of my favorite things to read as a kid growing up in sixties and seventies suburbia. The autumn issue was always the best. Before L. L. Bean became synonymous with blandly practical conservatism, the catalog was filled with specialized tools for specialized activities like fly-fishing, snow shoeing and canoeing. The images were sparse and the austere copy read with an implicit ‘down east’ dryness. Reading the catalog got me interested in cross-country skiing, strip planked canoes and sharpening knives. I would ask for field coats, chamois-lined khakis and camp moccasins for Christmas. I taught myself how to wax my own skis, split wood and catch trout on the many streams surrounding Philadephia’s Main Line.

L.L Bean was proletarian, supplying hunters, trappers, fishermen and woodsmen with quality gear to support their livelihood. Bean’s products offered the luxury of the essential and represented to me a trusty touchstone amidst the angst and uncertainty of the Vietnam War. I learned that if clothing has a distinct purpose, it can transcend fashion. Emphasis shifts to the aesthetics of functionality. In many ways, my pursuit of self-sufficiency – craft – making things- begins with a fashion sensibility. The tool shapes us as much as we shape the tool.

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