What does it mean to be a master craftsman? The answer varies a little depending on where you live. Hundreds of years ago, master craftsman was a title earned by members of guilds. It indicated that you had achieved status in your handiwork community (wood, silver, glass, etc.) through extensive training and apprenticeship. Today, in some countries, New Zealand or Germany, for example, the title of master craftsman is still earned in much the same way.
Individuals pursue a formal multi-year training and apprenticeship program in a specific trade. At the end of that apprenticeship, trainees take a test to become certified joiners, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc. In some counties, an additional, optional test is available for any student who wishes to be certified as at the master level, e.g., master joiner, master carpenter, and so forth.
Currently, in the United States, the highest available certification for woodworkers is journeyman. This term typically refers to someone who is in training to become a framer or carpenter, though it can apply to furniture makers as well.
So, how does someone become a master craftsman in woodworking in the US? Typically, by reputation and the esteem of your peers. Master craftsman is an honorary title given to those who have avidly pursued woodworking either as a hobby or a career. For example, Laura’s neighbor growing up is someone we would consider a master craftsman. Mr. Hayward ‘tinkered’ with woodworking in his garage. After more than a decade of tinkering (several decades at this point), he produced—and still produces—impeccably made, beautiful furniture.
In a similar vein, Sean never formally studied furniture making. He studied landscape architecture in school, decided he didn’t want to work behind a desk, and opted to channel his design training into woodworking. His formal wood trade-craft began when he went to work for Dahlquist Studios, a custom cabinet maker in the DC area, in January 2001. Working alongside other skilled woodworkers in a co-op space, including John Benson who wrote the book on veneering, Sean learned skills and techniques from certified master joiner, Campbell Wood (Kiwi Custom Carpentry), as well as from Samoan carvers, a guitar maker, metalworkers, and other builders and artisans who moved through the co-op. The shop offered him space, tools, and opportunity to learn and practice on his own time.
Applying the diligence he learned through landscape architecture studio courses, Sean developed skills in joinery, veneer, carving, and finishing relatively quickly. He started small with a veneered chessboard, then experimented with shapes and carving through small boxes, eventually working his way up to furniture. After a little more than a decade practicing his craft, Sean’s co-op peers began recognizing the quality of his furniture, referring to him as a master craftsman.
Computers are everywhere now—in our offices, cars, and literally in hip-pockets. They are intended to make our lives and jobs easier, but they have limits. In this post and the next, we will explore how computers affect the design and construction of any object. Let’s first look at designing by computer vs designing by hand with pen and paper.
There is a time and place for using a computer in the design process. CAD, which originally stood for Computer Aided Drafting, has taken the place of the old-fashioned drafting table in many businesses. If you are creating a building, for instance, CAD can be invaluable. CAD can calculate structural loads and other engineering variables. As things change during the design (and sometimes the construction) process, walls move which means mechanical systems and so forth are rerouted. It’s often faster to redraft and recalculate these changes in CAD and then hit print than it is to redo it all by hand.
Those benefits aside, the limit to CAD appears in the initial design process. Although CAD was rebranded to stand for Computer Aided Design, it is a bit of a misnomer. The strength of CAD is still in drafting—engineering, infrastructure, the inner workings of a building or a vehicle.
We have all seen objects designed from scratch on a computer—dorm room furniture, the sedan, cookie-cutter housing, or most any other object that is mass produced. Certainly, there is a place in the world for all mass production, but if you are looking for something unique, you generally will not find it in a big box store.
The true creative design process still has to happen by hand. Great architects start a project, no matter the scale of the building, with hand sketches. The same is true of car designers, fashion designers, or anyone who is creating a unique object. Designing an object by hand brings life to an inanimate object. Designers experiment with shapes, play around with crazy ideas, and bring their sketches to a cohesive form. Once they have that idea formed, they can switch to CAD to figure out the nuts and bolts of the project.
For us here at Lambkin Studios, designing (and even drafting) by hand is the only option to achieve the uniqueness of a piece. Sometimes it only takes one drawing. Sometimes it takes 10. For us to design a piece to fit your space, aesthetic, and needs, the only mode of inspiration is drawing by hand on an old-fashioned drafting table.
The pocket watch that your grandfather or great-grandfather bought with his first real wages--the one that still keeps time to this day--the one that you plan to pass along to your child. The broach that great-great grandma bestowed on great-grandma on her wedding day--and that every woman in the family has worn since on her wedding day. Heirlooms. These objects are among our most cherished belongings.
Crafting ideas into heirlooms--our slogan--is more than a catchy turn of phrase. (Thank you, Kerry Holeman, the insightful branding!) Our slogan speaks both to our partnership with each of our clients and to our ideals. We believe in craftsmanship. We believe in making goods that will long outlive us (and you!). We believe in the value of creating precious objects that you and your family will treasure.
Yes, even furniture can be precious. It’s the table your family has surrounded for generations of Thanksgiving dinners or the sideboard that has held hundreds of birthday cakes. It’s the porch table where grandpa enjoyed his evening pipe and where dad still savors his morning coffee on a lazy Saturday. It’s the chest where mom kept all the baby blankets, where your sister keeps the family bible.
An heirloom is ordinary and extraordinary all in one. Sometimes the object is ordinary with an extraordinary story. An antique desk can be quite ordinary unless, say, a former president penned a letter atop it. Sometimes an extraordinary object is crafted by an ordinary maker. A desk hand carved from the giant walnut tree that fell in the backyard 70 years ago may not be Stickley, but Uncle Joe’s eye for design ensured it is a work of art that you and your siblings can’t decide who should keep because everyone wants it for their very own even if they don’t exactly have room for it...but, I digress.
For an object to become an heirloom, it must stand the test of time. That durability is all in the craftsmanship. We believe new furniture, expertly fashioned, is just the first step in an heirloom’s (hi)story. As you have read in other blog posts and seen in our Instagram feed, we still make our furniture and cabinetry by hand. The big pieces are milled and cut with machinery, but the finishing details are all done by hand—planed, chiseled, carved. Each dovetail is hewn and inspected for perfection in the fit. Each element of veneer is measured, hand cut, and fitted to the micrometer for the perfect pattern.
This attention to detail makes all the difference in the world when it comes to durability through the generations. In the ‘instant’ culture, we are grateful and blessed to create objects that endure, furniture that we hope will become your family heirlooms.
Custom-made means different things in different businesses. Some apply the term ‘custom’ to products that allow the customer to simply choose a color. We take a much different approach to designing and building bespoke creations.
We involve our clients in every decision from the early stages of design through finished product. We believe that a made-to-order piece of furniture should be as customizable as your wedding cake or your favorite suit. It should fit—thoughtfully designed to match your personality, perfectly sized to meet your needs, expertly crafted to last for generations.
Here is just one example of how and why bespoke makes all the difference in the world. Clients of ours ordered a dining table and chairs. They wanted a table to seat four comfortably day to day, but that would expand to seat at least eight. During the design consultation, one party in the pair asked if we could accommodate some mobility needs. We wove that request into the design in two ways.
First, we designed a table that uses Osborne Wood Products’ equalizing expansion slides. Using these slides means that our clients do not have to move the table base in order to change the table size. They pull one end of the table, and the other end opens with it. For older and/or limited mobility clients, this is a big win.
Second, we designed the chairs with tall backs and gave one chair a slightly higher than normal seat, again, to accommodate mobility needs. To maintain the visual aesthetic around the table, we kept the back of the ‘higher seated’ chair aligned with the height of all the other chair backs. By designing a tall back for all the chairs, we allowed the unique chair to absorb the height differential without compromising either the stability of that customized chair or the integrity of the overall design. Anyone looking at the dining set will think that all eight chairs are identical. Only our client knows that one seat is slightly higher than the rest. (Well, now you know, too, if you know where to look!)
We love helping people find furniture that fits. To find your perfect fit, contact us. To see pictures of the evolving table and chairs, visit our Instagram feed.
I studied landscape architecture at Kansas State University’s College of Architecture and Design. Among others, we studied the work of architect I.M. Pei. His recent passing gave me a moment to pause and reflect on his work and influence.
I.M. Pei was a world-renowned architect who gifted us enduring architectural wonders. He designed iconic structures from the Louvre’s ‘glass pyramid’ to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a contemporary of one of my favorite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. While both of them worked in glass and concrete, I.M. Pei designs are very distinctive, and the scale of his creations differed significantly from that of Frank Lloyd Wright. To be perfectly honest, as a student, I had no appreciation for I.M. Pei’s style. To my eye, his work seemed chunky, almost industrial, which was an aesthetic to which I could not relate. I did not understand the appeal.
Several years after college, in 2000, I visited the National Gallery’s east wing for the first time. This building primarily displays modern art but houses the showcase space for traveling exhibits as well. The east wing, like many museum spaces, also happens to have been designed by I.M. Pei.
I was prepared to be unimpressed by the building but was looking forward to seeing the 1900 Paris exhibition on art nouveau. The east wing appears from the exterior to be a large series of blocky structures with few windows, except along the east wall and above the main entry. It is entirely composed of concrete and glass, which I expected to be dull, lifeless, dark, and uncomfortable. I could not have been more wrong.
Only after stepping inside the National Gallery’s east wing, did I finally understand the genius of IMP Pei. The dimly lit entry draws you gently forward into a sweeping, airy, light-filled space. The soaring skylights encourage you to raise your eyes heaven-ward, taking in the vastness of the space surrounding you along with the enormous modern art sculptures reaching up from the ground and dangling from the ceiling. The space highlights the art perfectly. It simultaneously reminds you how small you are while making you feel as if you, too, can reach great heights.
It is a brilliantly created space and does exactly what great art does—inspires. That 1900 Paris exhibit, showcased in I.M. Pe’s architectural wonder, is what inspired me to pursue making furniture. For me, that day was full of inspiration and insight. I am now forever grateful to I.M. Pei for the enduring impression he made on my life and the lives of architects and artists the world over. I hope that my designs someday inspire the same sense of awe and wonder as the spaces that he created.
This well-known style officially arose in France shortly before the Great War. In its early days, Deco was embraced in fashion as much as any other form of art. Paul Poiret is said to have ‘liberated’ women from the corseted look that dominated the 1800s. His lines changed feminine fashion from a series of curves (bosoms and bustles) to straighter lines (beginnings of the ‘flapper’ look - example to the right).
In its early years, Deco was associated with society’s elite, extravagant homes, and lavish lifestyles (think Great Gatsby). Of all the modernist styles, Art Deco was a symbol of prosperity and excess. It is especially associated with the period known in the US as the ‘Roaring 20s’.
Luxury cars like the 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom and the Duesenberg as well as airplanes and even train engines were influenced by Art Deco. Unlike its predecessors and contemporaries, Art Deco is linked closely with mass production. As the shift away from handcrafted goods became increasingly common, and certainly after the US stock market crash in 1929, the style catered to the growing middle class through mass-produced goods. ‘Paste’ gemstones replaced the real thing to make jewelry affordable to a wider market; prints of artwork became increasingly commonplace; fashion once available only to the wealthy could be bought off-the-rack. While the quality may have differed from class to class, the ‘look’ was available to all.
Throughout this period, designers were not afraid to experiment with new looks through materials like stainless steel (picture New York’s Chrysler Building) and Bakelite (one of the first plastics). World commerce was also on the rise after the turn of the last century which meant that designers had more access to new, exotic materials like ebony, ivory, tropical woods, rare silks, jade, and more. They embraced these with creative abandon, developing a wide range of new art in everything from jewelry and clothing to home goods and architecture.
Streamline and symmetry are two key terms to the Deco aesthetic. As a whole, it is identifiable by its straight lines with stark curves which contrast the free-flowing, natural curves of Art Nouveau. These straight lines and sharp curves are evident in pieces like our full moon bed and windowpane credenza.
Art Deco went out of fashion with WWII, but it enjoyed a revitalization in the 60s when it influenced the movement now known as Mid-century Modern. Deco also enjoys mini-revivals whenever cinema draws our attention back to that age. Movies like Titanic and the latest Great Gatsby as well as serial programs like Downton Abbey and others have kept our love of this era and its aesthetic alive and well. We look forward to doing the same in our designs, making this aesthetic a timeless classic.
The American Craftsman style was born of the Arts and Crafts movement which began in England. It shared the foundational ideal of producing hand-crafted pieces created by skilled artisans. In accord with our English counterparts, the movement here was also an attempt to resist the industrialization of all crafts. The American movement was a bit more varied, demonstrating regional influences (Mission in California and the desert Southwest, Prairie in the upper Midwest, etc.). In addition, the American style drew design ideas from home-grown traditions like those of the Shakers.
The Shakers lived in fully self-sufficient communities. This meant, among other things, that they created their own furniture. These pieces were extremely well-built, designed to last (forever) so as not to waste resources. In keeping with the idea of avoiding waste, and in an attempt to avoid the sin of pride, adornment was kept to a minimum. This minimalism even extended to the very limited number of colors allowed in painted furniture (essentially primary colors). By and large, if a piece was painted instead of stained, it would be painted a uniform color.
Aspects of the Shaker style that were drawn into the American Craftsman aesthetic include its clean lines, sturdiness, durability, and quality craftsmanship. We lean heavily on these design elements in our creations at Lambkin Studios. We also look to the influences of Gustav Stickley and the Japonism movement. Stickley’s style is known for clean straight lines as well as for showcasing joinery, a means of demonstrating the craftsmanship of the piece. Stickley also gets the credit for the moniker Craftsman style. His magazine (catalog) was titled The Craftsman.
Frank Lloyd Wright, a Stickley contemporary, and the most well-known designer of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, has been listed as the most influential architect of all time. His influence can also be seen in our creations. Have you noticed how our tree-line dressers are reminiscent of his flat-roofed houses?
Despite the fact that the Craftsman movement began more than a century ago, the style remains incredibly popular even today. It’s a design language that seems to remind us of an era when quality and craftsmanship were hallmarks, badges of honor. We are grateful to be part of the rebirth of that movement and mindset.
Our second design series posting focuses on one of our favorite (albeit very brief) design eras, 1890-1910, when Art Nouveau was all the rage. One of our favorite artists from the era is Charles Rennie MacIntosh. In the United Kingdom, he was leading the Arts and Crafts movement where he incorporated some of the Art Nouveau ideals to create the “Glasgow Style”.
His furniture and architectural designs maintained the simple lines of the Arts and Crafts movement. He experimented by elongating forms to accentuate an aspect of a window or of a piece of furniture (as seen in this chair). His influence also appears in the American Craftsman.
Art Nouveau took its design cues from nature. Using purely organic lines, artists tried to emulate nature as much as possible to some extraordinary ends, like this settee. Famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi created buildings with as few straight lines as possible (try to imagine a building with no straight walls).
A few decades earlier, Japan had finally opened its borders to the west after years of fierce isolation. By the turn of the century, anything and everything Japanese was wildly popular. Known as Japonism or Japonesque, the Japanese design aesthetic became extremely influential in art and furniture.
Japanese ideals of transient, natural grace and beauty were embraced by artists in this era. Nowhere were the Japanese ideals (wabi, sabi, and yūgen) more evident than in the Art Nouveau movement.
As we mentioned in the previous post, Aubrey Beardsley brought this aesthetic to his illustrations. Gustav Klimt, too, was influential in the movement. He created mosaic friezes for the Stoclet Palace in Belgium, a pinnacle of Art Nouveau-inspired architecture.
Artists like Rene Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany created iconic glass and jewelry with natural themes. (Think of every colored glass dragonfly lamp you have ever seen—it was inspired by Tiffany!)
The Art Nouveau movement overlapped entirely with the American Craftsman style. If you are familiar with what we call Craftsman here in the US, you will notice some stylistic similarities between it and Charles Rennie MacIntosh's Glasgow Style. While Art Nouveau was arguably more prominent in the UK, the Craftsman style was (and still is!) very popular here in the US. More on the American Craftsman style in the next post!
Our design philosophy is derived from several styles which overlap through history starting in the late 1800s. The oldest is known as the Arts and Crafts movement. If you are familiar with furniture or architecture, this name may be familiar to you. It was a relatively long-lived movement that officially began in Great Britain as a kind of retaliation against industrialism.
Products like clothing and furniture were beginning to be produced ‘off-the-rack’ or ‘off-the-shelf’. This was appalling to people like William Morris (aka the father of modern design). Morris believed that industrialization disconnected design from creation—designers from the end product. He wanted to reconnect the two and did so, in part, by valuing skilled human labor over unskilled ‘factory-style’ labor.
He founded a business which would eventually become Morris & Co. They designed textiles, wall paper, stained glass, and furniture (yes, the original Morris chair). Morris and his friends, which included Neo-Gothic architect Phillip Webb and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were extremely influential in the world of design. They revived an appreciation for hand-crafted goods produced by skilled tradespeople.
We embrace Morris’s passionate perspective about the value of hand-crafted goods. While we do use power tools for tasks such as sawing and sanding, we hand craft at least 50% of each creation. Arts and Crafts is often known for details that express the joinery and show the detail of the craftsmanship. In keeping with that tradition, you can see our craftsmanship, for example, in our dovetails.
While known for showcasing artistry, Morris’s aesthetic also drew from medieval and Gothic styles rather than classical Greek and Roman design which were popular in the States from Jefferson’s presidency through Lincoln’s. The Arts and Crafts movement came to the US, in part, because global trade grew significantly in the latter half of the 19th century. Just after the Civil War, Japan re-opened its doors to the outside world. This encouraged the exchange of design ideas in addition to trade in tangible goods.
In the 1890s, Aubrey Beardsley’s extremely popular illustrations were heavily influenced by the Japanese block prints that were coming to the market. Beardsley’s work became the precursor to the Art Nouveau movement. One of our favorite designers, Charles Rennie MacIntosh, also bridged the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. His clean lines have deep roots in Arts and Crafts while his later work is very representative of Art Nouveau. More on that style in a future post!
Over the years, veneer has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. You can find examples of old furniture with cracked and/or peeling veneer, which has led many to believe that it is not a good choice for furniture, especially heirloom quality pieces. We would like to put your fears to rest. But first, an explanation as to why grandma’s veneer peeled and yours will not.
For thousands of years, until the early 1980s, the dominant glue used in furniture-making was a product called hide glue. Makers would apply glue to the wood surface, press the veneer to the glue, and voilà a beautifully veneered piece was created. What happens over a few decades is that the hide glue dries out and becomes brittle. When brittle, bumping an old veneered table top or face of a door causes the dried out glue to (in essence) shatter, which weakens the glue’s adhesive properties, making the veneer prone to peeling and chipping. Water, including humidity, can also mix with the dried glue, making the glue pliable once more. That may seem like a good thing, but this pliability also weakens the glue’s adhesive properties, again, allowing the veneer to bubble, crack, and peel.
Advances in glue technology (yes, there’s tech in glue!) have radically changed the use of veneer. When designed properly, a veneered piece is just as well-crafted and durable as a solid wood piece, if not more so. Why? Glad you asked.
First, any time you want to create a pattern, for example, see the grain running in different directions within a wine cabinet door, you must use veneer. If you created a door by gluing together pieces of solid wood with the grain running in different directions, the joints (places where two different grains of wood meet) would break over time as the solid wood expands and contracts. Remember the bit above about hide glue? Modern wood glue never completely hardens. This means that it allows the wood to expand and contract. That’s a good thing when bonding pieces of wood in which the grain is running the same direction. However, when the grain runs in opposite directions, the wood expands and contracts in different directions, eventually overstressing the adhesive properties of the glue, causing the glue to fail.
Third, modern veneer glue is so much stronger than hide glue. Remember those advances in technology we mentioned above? They have made all the difference in the world when it comes to the longevity of new veneer. The modern glue forms a different type of bond between the plywood and the veneer. This chemical bond is much more stable and enduring than the hide glue adhesion.
Last but certainly not least, we encourage the use of veneer because is inherently a better use of the material (wood). In other words, veneer is a more sustainable option than solid wood. Instead of using a ¾ inch thick piece of mahogany to create a cabinet door or a coffee table top, you can apply a 1/32 inch piece of mahogany veneer atop a hardwood plywood substrate that is either GREENGUARD or FSC compliant. High quality plywood (what we use) is composed of fast-growing hardwoods, like poplar, that are managed for sustainability. Our company conservation ethic holds sustainability as a core principle. While we love working with sustainably harvested woods of all kinds, we also see veneered plywood as a sustainable option for custom furniture.
We hope that this post has given you some good food for thought when it comes to furniture design. Again, we love working with solid hardwood and often do. Our goal here is simply to educate our clients (and others) about the available options in our industry today. Thank you for taking the time to enjoy our blog. We wish you and yours all the best in 2019. May your year be full of unexpected blessings and bountiful surprises!