{ Monthly Archives: July 2008 }

Vana Linn


Founded as a walled city on a natural harbor in the 13th Century, Tallinn was originally built by the Hansiatic League as part of a network of Northern European fortified towns, unified against the threat of Viking attack. Estonia has ever since been under Danish, Swedish, German and Russian control, with only about twenty consecutive years of independance until 1991. Today, Tallinn reflects its medievel roots but is also home to significant examples of architecture from every century since its inception. After WWII, Estonia’s poverty under Russian control prevented the kind of development that transformed other more prosperous cities, so Vana Linn (Old Town) remains largely unaltered, and has become a major tourist destination for global travellers.

Despite its recent independence and lurch into capitalism as the rising star of the European Union, Estonia remains a folk culture at its core. The major challenge for the next generation will be in managing growth without losing its traditions, which have mostly remained intact due to a long history of foreign control and oppression. Tallinn perfectly captures the emerging Estonian spirit.

Ene’s mother and grandparents left Estonia after WWII, after having spent five years in a work camp during German occupancy. Jaan Kitzberg, Ene’s grandfather, was a prominent newspaper editor whose father, August Kitzberg, was a well known playwright around the turn of the last century. His plays are synonymous with an early modernist movement in Estonia, and cast a contemporary interpretation of the country’s ancient folklore. Kitzberg’s work is still performed and he is recognized as among 100 major contributors to Estonian culture in the 20th century.

We were generously hosted by Ene’s relatives in Tallinn, all of whom share links to August Kitzberg. We travelled south across the country to the coastal city of Paarnu, then continued east to visit the birthplace and museum of August Kitzberg. Leaving Tallinn, the countryside opens up almost immediately, with vast expanses of flat farmland rimmed by dense forests of pine and birch. The few villages and farmhouses appear unchanged since pre-modern times, in sharp contrast to the adolescent sparkle of Tallinn’s new center. Despite its serenely sparse beauty, Estonia’s rural interior has an overwhelming sense of loss and oppression, and is dotted with the occassional carcass of brutalist Russian infrastructure decaying like abandoned spaceships from 1950’s science fiction.


I’m still processing our amazing time in Estonia as I sit in Unni’s apartment in Oslo on my way to Maine, and will be adding images and commentary in the coming weeks. We met with the curator at Tallinn’s new contemporary art museum, and will be developing a project to coincide with Tallinn’s upcoming stature as ‘cultural capital’ of Europe in 2011.

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Oslo and the Vikings


We left Tvedestrand for Oslo for two nights on our way to Estonia, leaving just enough time to take in the city and visit museums. With the dollar weak, Oslo is disarmingly expensive and we were lucky to have Unni’s apartment to ourselves, living on bolle, salami, apples and potato salad as we navigated the city on foot, by ferry and bus. We spent a rainy day at Bygdoy, Oslo’s museum district and home to an astounding collection of artifacts and reconstructions reflecting Norway’s rich maritime and agricultural history. Within a few square kilometers are the Viking Museum, Maritime Museum, Kon Tiki Museum and the extensive Norse Folk Museum.




Wood has been integral to the development of Norse culture, whose technological crown jewel is the Viking ship. Seeing these in the context of folk culture and architecture, I was able to get the perspective of the Viking ship as the culmination of thousands of years of slow improvements in wood technology used in home construction, which evolved from roughly-shaped, stacked logs to frameworks of joined timbers with split boards as siding. I was also able to see the Viking ship as a hybrid invention combining the subtractive shaping of a ‘dugout’ boat with the additive assemblage of an open raft, both vessels being in wide use throughout the region’s prehistory. The resulting keel-boat literally opened up new worlds to the Norsk, and the type of craft continues to evolve to this day. It was truly inspiring for me to witness the concrete manifestation of a culture’s collective effort in woodcraft as pure innovation and as a progenitor of global exploration (and of the exploitation synonymous with the Viking legacy). I was reminded of another adage I’ve developed in my own work:

All vessels originate with an imagined voyage. The best work flows from the desire for a kind of interaction and not from the work for its own sake.


I can think of no better example of this adage than in the work of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer, ethnographer and author. I first saw his films as a kid when my father would drop me off at the UPenn Museum of Anthropology while he made his rounds as Director of Student Health in the late sixties/ early seventies. I was impressed how science could employ traditional craft to make a significant statement and the sheer gumption it took to pull it off. I continue to read Kon-Tiki for inspiration and hold his collective work as a paradigm of Deep Craft.

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Tvedestrand Sjekte


I arrived in Norway last week to meet Ene and Aili and a group of friends gathering from around the world to celebrate our friend Wencke’s 50th birthday. Wencke was hosting the group on her family’s compound in Tvederstand, a tranquil hamlet of wooden buildings on a fjord about 220 kilimeters South of Oslo.


Tvederstrand developed in the nineteenth century as a shipbuilding center and has retained its maritime character despite having transitioned into a vacation town for Norwegians on summer holiday. Wencke spends summers living in her family’s old furniture factory overlooking the fjord, which she and her husband (both architects) have converted into an open, rustic house, with ample room for guests. Wencke spent her childhood in Tvederstrand and her family stil owns the hill on the side of the fjord opposite town, including a cluster of houses and a still functioning furniture factory called Solfjeld Mobler, which her brother Osbjorn oversees to this day.


Wencke showed me her father’s ledgers from the factory in the 1940’s and ’50’s and shared her childhood memories of the building when furniture was made there, with cotton batting everywhere and the stuffy smell of burlap and raw wood. in the loft. Osbjorn still uses local woods in the kitchen cabinets and windows now made by Solfjeld Mobler, consisting mainly of pine but to a lesser degree maple, cherry and ash.

Pine is everywhere in Tvederstrand, and features prominently in the town’s maritime heritage. Whether the simplest out-building or most elaborate Inn, the old buildings in the town center are built almost entirely out of pine on cut stone foundations, with tile roofs of Dutch clay. I could imagine great stacks of rough pine floating into the fjord on wooden ships, with clear boards culled for building boats and knotty ones for buildings.


Board and batten over timber frame construction is the preferred design language, befitting a Northern clime with a short building season and harsh winter. The pine is traditionally washed with zinc white to protect it from the elements. With the aid of a blanket of snow, the white wash also reflects back light, which is in short supply during the brief days of winter.


Like many Norwegians, Osbjorn Solfjeld is an avid sailor and told me of the traditional Sjekte (pronounced See-yehk-teh) still in production on the fjord. A sturdy, stout double-ender, the Sjekte are descendants of the Viking longboats, adapted over time to local conditions. They are ‘clinker built’ of clear pine over steam bent frames and perfectly capture the Norsk spirit. Similar hulls are to be found on fjords throughout Norway, with minor variations reflected in the different names given them, sometimes on the same fjord.

Maker Mindset


Craft persists where thrift is a commodity, either through necessity or intention. Thrift can be the result of poverty, isolation, habit, ethics or the desire for self-sufficiency. The most generous examples of craft are the result of pure thrift because so much must be made with so little.


Good enough is good enough. Well chosen materials, proportions and compositions that express their functionality need no further embellishment. Exuberance is best expressed contextually, evident in where care and attention are focused programmatically. For example, Shaker laundry tables were made to be more durable, more permanent than dining tables.


Craft is tools making tools. Fluidity with materials and techniques allows for flexibility and invention. Craft traditions and their products evolve in small increments over time, usually resulting from the introduction of a new tool or material or set of skills borrowed from another practice. Invention is often the result of the desire or necessity for adapting to a changing circumstance or environment. It’s possible to accelerate this process by respecting limitations as opportunities for innovation.


The function of craft in society has always been implied obliquely through the functionality of its products, many of which continue to function as intended despite the absence of the conditions that brought them into being. The most room for innovation in craft is in re-defining functionality.

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“The water which sees the air through broken veins of the high mountain summits is suddenly abandoned by the power which brought it there, and escaping from these forces resumes its natural course in liberty. Likewise the water that rises from the low roots of the vine to its lofty head falls through the cut branches upon the roots and mounts anew to the place whence it fell.” – Leonardo Da Vinci


“Water is the driver of nature. Water, which is the vital humour of the terrestrial machine, moves by its own natural heat.” – Leonardo Da Vinci


Bull Kelp Experiment 2


Ene and I returned to Salmon Creek Beach on the last negative low tide and harvested another load of stray kelp for a new experiment. I found a larger piece of tapered, round driftwood to use as a form for a basket and calculated how many strands of kelp would be required to make a rudimentary weave.


Back at the studio, I set up the driftwood form, looped the larger diameter strands of kelp around nails to make the basket’s ‘ribs’ and proceeded to weave the thinner strands in a spiral, beginning at the base where the ribs intersected.


It occurred to me that the nails could be replaced with wooden pegs, and that the larger loops of kelp wrapped around them could be adapted to attach the basket’s handle when the form dries.


After about a week of dry weather in dappled shade with very little sea fog rolling in, the kelp basket had dried enough to hold its shape when removed from the form. This experiment used 8 pieces of 6-9 foot long kelp and took about 45 minutes to weave. A tighter basket would take at least twice the amount of kelp and a bit more care and time to shape. With a double-ended driftwood form mounted to a post and two people working in tandem, the process could be quite sociable, with two baskets made over an evening conversation.

Better yet, a sequence of driftwood forms could be assembled on the beach after a winter storm when the large bundles deposit on the shore. A group of friends could gather to make a kelp basket production party around a driftwood bonfire, which might also speed the drying and curing of the material.

Benziger Family Table


I had the ocean on my mind as I drove from the Pacific Coast to visit my friend Colby Eierman at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, one of a handful of certified biodynamic wineries in the region. Colby is in charge of the gardens and livestock at the winery and called to ask of my interest in making an outdoor table by one of the ponds on the 85 acre property.

It was already quite warm at 7 AM by the time I arrived and took a stroll through the Insectary to orient myself while I waited for Colby. The Insectary at Benziger (pictured above and below) is a kind of labyrinth on a prominent mound within the winery’s tiered growing valley, and offers views of the patterned rows of grapes, wild hills and open skies beyond. It is planted with an exotic range of herbs and flowering plants and is designed to attract beneficial insects as a strategy to eliminate harmful ones, a cornerstone of integrated pest management (IPM).


It is difficult to know exactly why, but the land at Benziger expressed iteself clearly to me; everything was in order without being ‘orderly’ in an imposed way. The plants and birds seemed happy and the place infected me with a feeling of calm well-being as soon as I had time to walk around and take it in. Unfortunately, my time was tight so I was not able to take the full tour, despite Colby’s invitation upon his arrival. Instead, we proceeded directly to the site by the pond, and Colby explained how water is recycled on the farm (through a sequence of ponds and wetlands) and how the table would be used.


The ‘Copia Cart’ I designed and made in 2004 to showcase Colby’s harvest. (Photo by Colby Eierman)

Ene and I had worked closely with Colby when he was head gardener at Copia and we were designing elements for their Children’s Garden and other exhibits, including a mobile produce cart for the museum (pictured above). We love working with Colby and appreciate his easy wit, intelligence and enthusiasm for growing food. So Colby and I were able to skip some steps at Benziger and focus on the program for the table. I was pleased to learn that the table would be for the people who live and work at Benziger, and that it would function as a place to gather, as a kind of muse in the landscape, and as a place to ponder the pond and relax to the sound of gently flowing water.


Colby by the pond , near the site for the proposed table

My immediate thought was to connect the table to the ocean metaphorically, perhaps by using driftwood or by evoking the seaside tangle of flotsam in its structure. Regardless, I would design the table to be a surprise to encounter from any angle of approach. We agreed that I would work up some ideas and present them to the Benziger family, and I feel honored at the opportunity to apply my Deep Craft principles in such an extraordinary, biodynamic setting. I have been collecting driftwood incidentally on my excursions to the coast, and will now begin to look at my collection with fresh eyes.

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