Tool Barn at the Edible Schoolyard

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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.

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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.

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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.

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framing detail (photo: Richard Barnes)

Elder Chair

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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:

MAINTENANCE = IMPROVEMENT

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.

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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.

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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.



Bulrush of the Estuary

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I’d like to make a chair whose materials all come from within walking distance of where it is made. We live in West Sonoma County, California, on the Salmon Creek watershed. Ideally, I’d like to find a market within this bio-region as well, including the surrounding watersheds of Tomales Bay and the Russian River for starters.

This leads naturally to the first principle for a deep craft manifesto:

Market = Material Provenance

My assumption is that if something is designed to work within the ecosystem that helped bring it into being, that the thing will demonstrate a natural elegance.

I’m approaching this experiment seasonally, trying to match the activities of foraging, harvesting and making with their appropriate time and place on the calendar.

Today is March 21, marking the rare convergence of Good Friday, the vernal equinox, and a full moon rising under clear conditions about an hour after the sun sets. Ideal conditions for an exploratory sunset paddle.

The nearby Estuary is flooded after the winter rains, which means easy access to bulrush (scirpus maritimus) in the shallow, brackish marshes. I’ve been studying the basketry of the Coast Miwok from this region’s past, and have been wanting to experiment with the various marsh grasses, eel grass, thule and kelp for possible use as woven material in my chair. I’ve been in consultation with The Bodega Marine Laboratory, who have assured me that minimal harvesting of these plants is not harmful to the environment, that they are neither endangered nor invasive.
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Ene, Bernie and I launched at about 6 PM and paddled West, about halfway to the coast, 3 miles or so, looking for a landing spot with a healthy stand of bulrush and access to a picnic spot to watch the sunset. We bucked a headwind as we steered along the meandering contours of the flooded estuary. The banks were fairly steep, with grazing cattle and deer silhouetted on the barren slopes. We finally found a protected shallow on the northern bank, the Sonoma side, and spun the kayaks around to sail in with the wind.

I harvested a small bundle of grass to bring back to the workshop, while Ene and Bernie hiked up the slope to find a good vantage for our meal. I cut the grass as deep as I could reach in several handfuls. It was easy going work and I estimated that I could fill the cockpit in a full day with about four such landings. The grass smelled like a new straw hat and had the remarkable lightness, strength and flexibility I had imagined.

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I changed into a dry wool sweater and joined my companions for a feast of boiled eggs from our chickens, olives, dry salami, miner’s lettuce and cheddar cheese, all held together with some crusty bread and a splash of pinot grigio from just up the coast.

We talked and laughed while the sun set, and dined into the twilight until we were chilled enough to want to paddle again. The wind had completely died and we launched the kayaks onto a glassy black mirror, surrounded by peeping frogs and a crispening night cool. Stars were beginning to appear as we got in the rhythm of paddling, reflected in our steady ripples. At the first turn due East we were greeted by a rising moon, flushed pink from the sun’s rays and the soft haze. We paddled in silence, getting lost just enough to make it an adventure in the dark, testing our animal eyes.

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Introduction

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Deep Craft is a site for articulating a deeper understanding of craft practices and products through experimental research and demonstration. Deep Craft begins as a window into my woodworking studio, much like a contemporary version of the ‘Jointer’s Journals’ of the 18th and 19th centuries. I invite you to join me as I explore the coastal bio-region of Northern California, using simple tools and sharpened senses to reinvigorate the role of the handmade in contemporary life.

In the coming months, this site will evolve in both content and interactivity. My hope is for Deep Craft to spark a collaborative effort to establish a bio-regional credo outlining our relationship to place and to each other.

I extend my gratitude to the Center for Cultural Innovation (cciarts.org), whose inaugural Investing in Artists Grant has made this endeavor possible. I’m equally indebted to John Bielenberg, Erik Cox and David Stychno of C2 (c2llc.com) for the design of the ‘deep’ logo, and to Mark Resch and Sarah Dopp of Cerado.com for the design of this site and its future iterations.
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