The Workbench

A slightly sawdust filled space for the musings and ramblings of a couple of arboreal eccentrics and their faithful hounds.

Investing in sentiment, investing in craftsmanship

Let me tell you a story.

His name is Captain William Postal; her name is Celia Dyer. They are newlyweds, and since his job takes him away from home often, he wants his wedding present to her to be something that is truly personal, truly theirs. His choice? A bed. And quite a bed it turned out to be! Four large, square pillars support a weighty canopy, topping out at more than 7 feet high and frame a headboard of ornate carved scrolls, egg and dart trimmed panels, and a whimsical ovoidal cutout; all this is expertly rendered in of-the-moment, highly figured Mahogany veneer. She is a grand-dame of a bed.

These were my great great grandparents, and the year was 1850.

Now, my partner Michael and I sleep in a bed that has belonged to three different Celias: myself, my grandmother and my great great grandmother. There is irony in two furniture makers sleeping in a wooden bed they didn’t build. As a piece of furniture, the bed couldn’t really be further from the type of piece we design and build, but we couldn’t imagine not having her in our home. Why?

After much debate in this household, Michael and I settled on the reason. It’s that magic combination of sentiment and craftsmanship. It feels right, and it’s stood up to the passage of time.

At the confluence of Earth Day (22nd) and Arbor Day (24th), it seems only appropriate that each of us considers this idea of longevity as we contemplate cohabiting with wood. This material, that as a tree quite literally nourishes us, and as wood lives on to provide for so many sustaining needs, from the spoon you stir your soup with to the fire that keeps you warm, from the house that offers you shelter to the chair you are sitting upon.

Whatever the style, whatever the vintage, the tree that your furniture is made of is older than you are. This idea remains our focus on as we arrange or juxtapose old and new pieces in our own home as well as when we design pieces for a client. We are always working with a tree first, and this is a great responsibility.

So, when it comes to wood, invest in objects you love, objects built to last. Find pieces that do justice to a tree. Wood has a living warmth that draws you in. Search in your home for the traits wood heralds: tactility, authenticity, structure, durability, individuality.

In our quite quixotic 1938 Art Deco, Eastern European built home in the Hudson Valley, Celia Dyer Postal’s Mahogany bed—though abbreviated of her crown by another Celia so as to fit through a doorway—is kept company with two floating Maple nightstands of our own design, a refurbished 1960s painted dresser, and an adopted 8-year-old Greyhound, who thinks of the bed as her own. It’s a composition in tried and true wood that fits us to perfection.

Fig Season

Within the walled garden of my parent’s home in Charleston, a vicious battle wages annually between my mother and the local squirrel population. It’s a fight on principle. In our household, we savor the few precious weeks when the ancient fig tree (genus Ficus) begins to produce succulent fruit. The wide lobed fronds open to shade small green globes of sweet flesh that peek out from the tree’s knobby branches.

Year after year my mother stands as the sole defense between this single fig tree and the sneaky arboreal predators who love figs almost as much as I do. Come May, mother begins to monitor the fruit’s growth with the fine attention of the botanist. By the last week June, she has begun hourly updates via text message on the circling of rodents out the back of the house. She attempts to herd them away with swift swipes from her trusty broom and a kind of war cry that would frighten the stoutest of men.

To her utter dismay, this year the squirrel leader has taken a particular pleasure in teasing my mother by resolving to squat unmoving with a face full of fig in the middle of the garden as my mother comes in from the car. Coupled with the trampling effect this fig glutton has on her great grandmother’s bright yellow daffodils blooming just beneath said tree, she has found new resolve to harvest a record number of fruit.

This antagonistic behavior, which by the way is quite out of character for my gentle mother, is, in my estimation, an inherited trait. You see my maternal grandmother also had an unsympathetic streak when it came to animals and her garden. She was a product of the generation of women who lived through the Great Depression and raised her children during the Second World War. Her garden was sacrosanct. Well really, I should say that it was her sugar sweet Silver Queen corn that was her weak spot.

My grandmother Celia was notorious for keeping her father’s rifle under the floral sofa on the sun porch in her Charlotte suburb home. During cocktail hour—in pencil straight silk trousers and blouse, a cigarette in one hand—she’d spy a rogue fluffy brown tail weaving it’s way among her precious corn stalks and within the blink of an eye would whip out this gun and fire a warning shot across the animal’s bow. And I suppose on a number of occasions she ended up with squirrel in her famous Brunswick stew.

We don’t partake in squirrel soup, but if Michael can manage to haul the ladder out of the basement in time—even his 6’3” frame can’t reach the plump fruit at the tip top of the tree—, we do often end up with a pile of fresh figs that are like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. This year, the lot of them went into a batch of Michael’s homemade canned preserve. And as a bit of a food glutton myself, I can attest that when spread liberally on a hot-from-the-oven biscuit this figgy jam has all the taste of summer, and I can almost hear my mother’s war cry ringing in my ears.

One irony in closing. As delectable as figs are, my mother can’t stand eating them. But she loves that tree and the joy that comes when Michael, my father and I tuck into a bowl of ice cream laced with slivers of soft seedy flesh, fresh from her garden.

Observations on a Stand of White Wood

The Saturday afternoon was surprisingly breezy with plenty of spring’s billowing white clouds. Driving down for an evening away in Savannah, just past the turn off for the picturesque Sheldon Church ruins, we came to a most striking view: petrified trees standing sentential in the low marsh grasses so ubiquitous in the South Carolina low country.  These trees struck me as something separate, monoliths raised in juxtaposition to the saline waters in these parts. Some have fallen or broken but the rest—stripped, elegant, unadorned—reinforce the enduring and hearty nature of trees. Unrelentingly white and bare, they shouldn’t still stand with our weather and the environmental conditions here, but they do.
Considering these naturally existing land art sculptures takes me back to the moment I fist saw some of Louise Bourgeois’s early Personage pieces. Bourgeois’s large retrospective traveling from London’s Tate Modern to New York’s Guggenheim was the first exhibition catalogue I ever worked on and one that helped me to define the way I consider art. Her work is challenging and produces a visceral reaction—be it one of love or repulsion—and I have felt both deeply. It was one thing to work on the book in preparation for the opening and another all together to see these now familiar pieces in situ. A two foot high raised white platform, elevated from the viewer, peppered with sticks of washed wood, each one unique and considered, still delivering all the impact they had at their first showing in New York when the artist was still a new mother and a new New Yorker.
Her totem like works are often shown, as they were in London, collected in a cluster, becoming a literal stand of reimagined wood. Early on Bourgeois was photographed with her grove of Personage on the roof of her Manhattan apartment. This image of her present among her forest feels liminal—it is her space to cross—the rest of us must be satisfied with a more distant, discrete observation point.

As we look out over the mash and into that stand of dead wood, we are able to remain a bit romantic about nature’s own sculpture. Because if we set one foot into the salty, sulfurous decomposing plant matter that is a Carolina marsh, there would be little romance left. Content with the experience of this parallel observation point, I see this dead stand of bare trunks perforated by that first viewing of ashy totemic people sculptures, and I respect the continuity.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

Is there a book that you find yourself picking up again and again? Where each time you read it, the experience is simultaneously one of deep familiarity and thrilling discovery. It’s the book I’ve read aloud on road trips and pressed into my family member’s hands earnestly. The cover has been devoured by our overly vocal Siamese, and the pages are stained with drool from Addie the dog. Paragraphs are underlined with such vigor that in places it’s torn the paper. Those of you who know me as a bit of a book worm may well be surprised by the book that I have fallen for more often than any other. Or maybe I’m more predictable than I thought.

Englishman Roger Deakin didn’t pen more than a few books, each one an in depth depiction of our natural world. His second book is a bit difficult to label, and I get the sense that this sentiment would have pleased Deakin. Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees is the point where nature writing meets travel log meets memoir meets art criticism. It is the book that led me to fall in love with the job I have now. His knowledge, excitement and engagement with our world, and with trees in particular, is nothing short of invigorating. He lets his subject take him where it will, and in that freedom, he attains something new and separate. Deakin has mastered the art of interdisciplinary study.

Over the course of this unique book, the reader is transported to the mountainous slopes of Kazakhstan hunting for the apple tree’s cradle of life, into artist David Nash’s spiritual studio space, to a quiet farm in Suffolk where the annually coppiced hedges are a kind of tribute to laboring on the land.  He talks biology and ecology, sculpture and architecture, camping and sailing, picnics and fast cars. And it all works because his is a discourse in the language of trees.

A writer needs a strong passion to change things, not just to reflect or report them as they are. Mine is to promote a feeling for the importance of trees through a greater understanding of them, so that people don’t think of ‘trees’ as they mostly do now, but of each individual tree, and each kind of tree.

His is a book I hope you will appreciate as much as I have. I can promise you this: Deakin’s words will find there way back into this web log over and over, just as I find renewed inspiration for our work in his unique perspective.



Benches and Doors in Japan

Just a couple of photos our friend Mark Sloan (with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art) sent us from his recent trip to Japan.

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