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Tom Loeser was the cover subject of a recent issue of American Craft magazine.
In the January issue of American Craft magazine, Univ. of Wisc.-Madison professor Tom Loeser takes a shot at Fine Woodworking: “I think the woodworking world is too small, too limited, and too defined by Fine Woodworking magazine,” he said. He might be surprised to find out that I agree with him–to a point.
The studio furniture-maker explains, “With woodworking, once you are taught fine joinery it’s very hard to go back to cruder techniques.” Right again. I see a lot of woodworkers who start with the joints they consider to be “fine” and the techniques they are comfortable with, and design projects around them. For contemporary furniture at least, this is often the wrong way to go. As Michael Fortune pointed out in a recent design article (in that same tunnel-visioned magazine, FWW!): Design first, engineer second. “[During the design phase] your creative process can be restrained by your existing knowledge of how to work with wood, so don’t worry about the details of the ‘how-to’ during this time,” he writes.
One thing to understand about Fine Woodworking (the magazine and website) is that it is a business, by necessity, and as such it must respond to its readers’ needs. The vast majority of woodworkers are most comfortable working in a traditional mode, building practical, solid-wood furniture for their homes. As I have described in some recent Knots postings, we can’t be all things to all people. There are many wonderful aspects of the craft that we can’t do justice to: boat-building, lutherie, etc. Art furniture is one of those areas. We spend our limited pages on articles that will help the most woodworkers. That’s why you see us focus on practical furniture, boxes, and turnings. Those are what most people are making.
But here’s where Loeser is wrong. Fine Woodworking magazine has narrowly defined the craft for many woodworkers, but it hasn’t for many others. In other words, it doesn’t have to. I have met many young furnituremakers at design competitions, mostly students at art and design schools, who simply use FWW as a resource. From artists who have designed completely sculptural and/or modern pieces in mixed media, I hear quotes like, “I come from an art background, so I use your magazine when I’m looking for a good way to join wood pieces.” These students have no prejudices. They are more likely to cook up a weird plywood spline or use screws or biscuits than they are to take the time to make a true mortise-and-tenon. And that is just as it should be.
Other woodworkers, some featured in this magazine, have used traditional joinery as a jumping off point, taking it places the old craftsmen never dreamed. Check out this bench by my friend, John Nesset.
Enough out of me. I’ll be interested to see where all of you weigh in on this question.
A series of Loeser's felt benches went into the lobby of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Loeser's LadderbackcabreddaL is one of his best known works. As he says, "I still love working from my background in the craft tradition, but I sort of enjoy bumping against the edges."
In his Flotilla series, Loeser used traditional woodworking and boatbuilding techniques to create a series of outlandish proposals for boats.
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I don't consider Loeser a expert om woodworking to begin with. That said, Some people like painting's that scream uckkkkkk. He has his way. I don't like what he does too much. Each to their own I guess.
If Prof. Loeser doesn't like FineWoodworking, he doesn't have to read it. If he doesn't like the kind of projects that the readers of FineWoodworking produce, he is free to do something different. FineWoodworking in no way constrains Prof. Loeser or limits his audience. As a business, FineWoodworking is doing its job if it is maximizing its profit while doing nothing illegal. The fact that FineWoodworking has been economically successful tells us that it is doing its job correctly. I suspect that Prof. Loeser's real complaint is that a lot more people like the kind of stuff that appears in FineWoodworking than like his work. I suspect that's what he means by the field being too "narrow." That's just the usual combination of artists' unwillingness to face the verdict of the marketplace and the intellectual snobbery of many modern artists who display no creative ability but who loftily assure us ignoramuses that our failure to appreciate the greatness of their work merely illustrates our lack of taste and intellect. I don't buy it.
I really like FWW but I remember a while back that there was a huge discussion of the merits of allowing "Norm" on the cover of your magazine. There was the argument that FWW was way above Norm and the other camp felt it OK for Norm to weigh in. "These students have no prejudices. They are more likely to cook up a weird plywood spline or use screws or biscuits than they are to take the time to make a true mortise-and-tenon. And that is just as it should be." Right on FWW but at the same time you cannot you cannot exclude Norm.....
Another comment or two. I remember reading about some great sculpter(can't remember who) who, when asked how he got the idea for a piece, remarked that he let the material become what it wanted to be, what was already inside. I am no artist and have done my share of forcing my design on a piece of work.
FW will be the last mag I quit subscribing to. The more exposure to other craftsmen and ideas the better and the more skilled we become because of it the better.
I love making useful things that stretch the envelope. would choose something artfully made over art for art sake. It's great that a few have the ability to make a living making beautiful thiings of no pracrtical use other than inspiration but how many of us can earn a living that way. Would rather make something beautiful, beautifully made, and useful.Not that it can't be unusual.
I'm 61 years old and have been woodworking since my teens. When I was young I built furniture that my wife and I used for our home. As I got older I built pieces for my kids. I still do both but have tried (with my limited ability) to step outside the norm and build more artistic pieces. I use Fine Woodworking and other books and magazines, some woodworking and some not, to help me get going. Artistic or not....you want the piece to stay together so you use good joinery techniques. I didn't realize that reading these periodicals was not good art. What a snob Mr Loeser must be.
Go to the shows. Talk to the craftsmen. And of course, look at the work itself. Is the primary wood (the wood visible on the outside of the piece) of good quality? Is it authentic (mahogany, walnut, or cherry, rather than some other wood stained or dyed to look like one of these)?
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I have to confess that my FW constitutes most of my exposure to "art furniture" and stretches my (admittedly limited) imagination. The reason I still subscribe to FW when I have let all my other subscriptions lapse is the attention paid to three very different areas: 1) creative woodworking 2) high level techniques (eg Master Class) and 3) informed discussion of technical matters ranging from how to make joints, to which joints are stronger, to how tools compare.
I am not really sure exactly how FW limits anything. You rarely say--"there is only one way to do this and it is . . ."
That said, I appreciate Tom (who does guest lectures in one of my wife's courses) and his wonderful work. Part of an artist's role is to be provocative. I don't think anyone should get their knickers in a knot about his comments.
I look at this question from a strictly practical point of veiw. I do woodworking for a living, and can not afford to take chances with "questionable" techniques or untested designs. This is not to say that I dont enjoy pushing the limits of my skills and in some cases the limitations of the materials. Having said that I am not going to make something that is inherently flawed for the sake of design. Throughout history furnituremakers and designers have built pieces that did not last the test of time. Those that did were firmly grounded in time tested methods of work. One look at the Wintherter Museum Collection would be hard pressed to deny these pieces as ART.Just as beautiful today as the day Chippendale or Shereton or Hepplewhite put pen to paper.M customers come to me because they know my skills allow me to build LASTING furniture of a quality that is no longer the norm.Its hard enough for me to make a living without taking on reiventing the wheel at the same time.If I want a BIG MAC I dont go to Subway. FWW is My Big Mac, complete with a sesame seed bun...
I just want the stuff I make to be useful, functional, and please me and my spouce. As long as it meets those criteria, what else do I need? I don't consider myself an "artist", just a woodworker how likes to make thngs that I can use and that will last.
It takes a mere glance at Mr. Loeser's work to understand what makes FWW so valuable. Those who make furniture for the real world tend to think of the practical, the useful; we see a bed as something to be slept in, a chair as something to sit on, and so on. What useful purpose did Mr. Loeser have in mind in creating that boat thingy? None, certainly. He wanted to do art, and the bad news is that his art seems actually to mock the idea of the useful. We who read FWW and make things like boxes and chests of drawers don't think much of art as Mr. Loeser seems to define it. We think of the everyday, and we strive to make things useful in everyday life - and to make them with as much craft as we can muster. And therein lies the value of FWW: It focuses on the making of useful things, not artsy thingys that come at you with the stench of mockery. Keep on keeping on, FWW!
I started in woodworking building boxes and shelving projects; the type we see featured in FWW. FWW and other mags have always been a reference and fun read seeing what others have done. Let's face it, we all love making saw dust! and the by product, what ever it is, can only utilize the joinerey and skills we are comfortable incorporating. I guess Toms double ended chair might be viewed by some as art. Personally it's a waste of wood. But then I love burl turned bowls, spalted pens, birdseye jewelry boxes and quarter sawn oak book shelves. I have come to understand form and function as I enjoy them and see no reason to bag too much on Toms vision. I just wouldn't buy it. Thanks to FWW for years of jigs, tips, and articles on projects I would never build. I just love reading about it.
FWW is NOT limiting; it is a resource and not alone. Limits are in the brains of the designers and the skills of execution. Design thinking would have a balance between the needs of the owner/user of the end item and the designers imaginative understanding and ability to execute. Art furniture that only makes 'a statement' by an artist, designer, craftsman misses functionality if not used. Pure art has a place and needs a forum for exhibit in print and electronically, to explore techniques and materials. Resulting art illuminates thought, teaches, expresses emotion, not just utility. I'd welcome additional material in that regard but not require FWW to provide it unless it meets their need to satisfy readers.
I find it somewhat amusing that Fine Woodworking is refferred to as limiting. I remember the lengthy furor you created when you incorporated a lengthy piece featuring Norm Abrams. It showed just how narrow much of your readership can be. Readers, select the magazines that best serve your needs and don't bother with the others. Above all, stop whining! Keep learning and have fun.
I always get a smile when I read the passionate responses to comments like Tom Loesser’s. I taught woodworking for 25 years in a very successful college program that focused on the skills, rather than the “design”. I have been a FWW subscriber since the first issue and have always used it as a resource. The content has varied over the years from the pretentious to the practical, as editorial policy changed. My students took from it what was useful and ignored that which was not.I also used Woodwork and Woodsmith and other popular periodicals for the same purpose. At the same time I required them to read articles in WWP, CWB, FDM and other trade publications so that they could see what the furniture and architectural woodworking industry was all about. Some of my graduates have been successful as independent furniture makers, but that is a tiny market. Two of my graduates were, in fact, art students from the UW who enrolled in my program for a year just to learn how to do proper joinery and use machines. Most of them have found work as skilled craftsman (and women) building architectural woodwork, yacht interiors, custom cabinetry, private aircraft interiors and other very “fine” woodwork. Many of them have perfected joinery skills they first read about in magazines I have never been a fan of “art furniture” because I think it is silly, but I understand the desire of the artist to bend reality for the shock effect. (Of course, Frank Lloyd Wright also designed very visually pleasing chairs that are functionally awful.) I once asked Skip Johnson (from the very same UW Art Dept as Tom Loesser) why he made such stuff. He just laughed and said “because people buy it!” I don’t have any problem with Mr. Loesser, but I think he needs to take a deep breath and get over it.
I think that his attitude is normal for a snob who thinks that his way is the only way. It is stupid to think that FWW or anyone else determines how someone builds a piece of furniture. FWW offers an excellent grouping of ways to accomplish a goal but does not dictate (nor does he) how the furniture is made. If I choose to follow suggestions made by anyone it is my decision on how to accomplish the final piece.
I use many places and people to gather ideas.
As an avid reader of your magazine and a working artist/high school art teacher (in my time off from teaching I have a finish carpentry business and I make mixed media wood/steel wall sculpture to show) I would like to weigh in on Tom Loesers frustrations with FWW. I too have used FWW as a trusted resource in my woodworking for both practical furniture making and for wood joinery techniques to include in my art making. I have never let FWW limit the techniques/joinery used on my work - I have instead used the magazine as and extra resource to help influence or enhance my work. Similar to a woodworker who has a variety of jigs they use in the shop - I use FWW as an extra jig/resource - nothing more nothing less. In recent years I did find a magazine that delved into both worlds (artmaking/utilitarian woodworking) quite nicely -the magazine was called Woodwork - they recently ran their last issue this last January and it brought my subsription to a hault. I guess that answers the question to what might happen if a magazine(a business) attempts to tap into both worlds. I am hopeful that another magazine similar to Woodwork may resurface - but in the mean time I will continue to enjoy FWW as a trusted jig in my studio/shop.
I am not sure about others, but one of the reasons i started woodworking is the beauty of the different types of wood. In my opinion there is no ugly wood just different. As far as art furinture and fww, i guess that is why there are different magazines for each of us. it is not that i do not like sculpture, it just not my prefference. i have seen some very wild things and wondered how they were put together and how to use them. i guess that is why some of it is painted, to cover screws and nails and other types of joints. most of things of style go in circles as things go in and out of fashion. one last opinion i am not sure if there is anything to this, but why do people still recreate 18th century furniture? maybe that is why they call them classics. no one opinion is wrong just different.
Loeser forgets that good artists are masters of their media - all of the great Rennaissance painters had mastery in the physical nature of their media. Same is true of any of the great furniture makers, carvers, etc. That level of mastery requires a thorough foundation in the basics of the discipline and media of their art. Woodworking magazines like FW concentrate on this foundation knowledge. In any field, there are far more novice- and journeyman-level practitioners than masters - a good thing for a commercial entrprise specializing in teaching particular elements of our woodworking discipline. And FW is different from the Rennaissance guilds' philosophy of "here's the right and only way to do this". Instead it shows "here's ONE way to do this".
Finally - Loeser implies that an 'artist' somehow transcends the confines of a discipline. There is as much 'artistry' in confining one's work within a particular woodworking genre (e.g., Federal furniture) as there is in breaking 'free' of it.
So, Mr. Loeser should maybe not bother to buy FW.
We'll never be able to change the age old cliche of "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". One man's trash will always be another's art.
But there is a definate frustration from the "artistic" side of woodworking, in the fact that there is no FWW for their type of work. What I mean is, I can pick up FWW today, and build a classic Bow Front Table. But if I want to build a studio piece with all sorts of curves, laminations, and design aspects that seem to defy not only gravity, but many laws of physics and reason, I have no easy reference to turn to. Many of these artistic pieces really push the limits and break the rules of the medium, and while I long for articles that teach me how to make these pieces, the reality is, I must rely on my culmination of skill, knowledge, and artistic vision to see them come to being. These is no single article that will make me the next Picasso.
With that said, Fine Woodworking hasn't turned their back on the Artistic community - It's just the opposite. All you need to do is pick up any of their Design Book series to see proof of that. Also, Articles such as Micheal Fortune's, and similar ones I've seen published in past issues, help to give me the knowledge to make these artistic pieces.
In closing, I'm a self taught woodworker, and while I'm most known for traditional Arts & Crafts inspired projects, there is another side of me that builds very contemporary, functional studio furniture. I literally live in both of these worlds, where "FWW" and the "Artist" often Butt heads. Sometimes my studio furniture bends, or even breaks the rules. But I had to learn those rules first, and being self taught, I learned a lot of those "rules" from Fine Woodworking Magazine, and I for one know that ALL of my furniture is markedly better because of Fine Woodworking Magazine.
I lost interest in the magazine when I perceived a shift away from balance in the content - it used to be there were an equal number of articles, over a given period of time, on both traditional woodworking and creativity/ingenuity. It seems that the magazine made an editorial decision to focus now much more on the fundamentals rather than the range of possibilities.
There is no blame - I'm sure it was a decision driven by the market (or a drive to increasse the market), but I do miss the variety that was once available in nearly every publication.
I had the good fortune a few years back of buying a complete set from Issue #1 through the mid -90's. (And for $5.00 - but that's another story). After a very pleasurable year of randomly going through each issue, I sold them for someone else to enjoy. But the difference from the earlier years to now was clear.
In fact, that is why I am now an online subscriber - I'm more interested in the archives than I am in the magazine as it currently stands.
Not better, not worse - just different.
When I am exposed to the world of artist/painter/teacher Hans Hoffman or the thoughts of Jennifer Steinkamp and her computer animation/video projection installations it becomes quite apparent to me that my world has been closed or blanketed for too long. I also feel it helps me appreciate the stuff already common in my world as well as the new.
I don't believe that Mr. Loeser is dissing FWW. But I agree that the general public has become so narrow in vision that it's hard not to believe that all of us are not affected. It's easy to see that we live in a world where as a mass we trample a path to one idea, then once marketing takes hold we trample a path to the next idea. What about our ideas?
Mr. Loeser is involved in producing some very exciting work. And I'm glad that he's decided to open the curtains and let in the morning light. Some of us have slept in just a little to late for our own goods.
I design my own furniture. When I begin it is with a concept. I take the concept and try to make working drawings from that. It is then that I confront the details of how it's going to get built. If a particular joinery can be added without changing the integrity of my design, great! I go with it.
What is particularly frustrating, however, is to decide on a style of joinery and to get to a stage in the project where that decision is seen as seriously flawed. One of two things happens then: (1) firewood; or (2) compromise. But it's the solving of these problems that makes woodworking interesting for me. Everything else is just technique.
FWW is a resource - period. It doesn't affect my brain or my attitudes. If it is constraining Tom Loeser's creativity, that's his problem, not FWW's.
I like using traditional methods while pushing the envelope on the sort of design I apply them to. I once created a small table that is so useless as a table that it's almost sculpture. (I did that deliberately, I hasten to add.) By careful juxtaposition of expected elements, it sets up expectations of table-ness, but soon forces a realization that it can't be used. It was a fun project made possible by years of experience built up, in part, through exposure to FWW magazine all the way back to issue #1. I couldn't have learned as much during all those years without FWW, but it didn't hinder my creativity one little bit.
As a charter subscriber of FWW I certainly concur with all of the above comments and opinions. I work with wood because I thoroughly enjoy the complete process of thinking or dreaming of a project - trying to visualize an approach and anticipate the problems - beginning the work - actually becoming totally involved with the project and seeing it through to completion. While I do hope the end product will be successful and appreciated, my primary satisfaction comes from simply doing it. I build Windsor chairs - wooden boats/canoes and other furniture and am always looking forward to beginning the next project just as I look forward to the next issue of FWW.
I read FWW because I want the "Fine" to be part of what I bring to woodworking, and with the input from the "Fine" woodworkers you feature I hope my work will someday reach a level of what I would call great furniture. It would be much harder and less satisfying without your magazine as a resource.
I also remember the seemingly never ending banter about the Bennett nail for a pull. Mostly what I thought was that I do the best work my skill level allows and that nailing crude affects on one of my pieces so I could call it art would be a waste. I do want to make a statement with my work but the statement is that unity of form, function, and skilled execution can be beautiful. I also appreciate the asthetic of George Nakashima that every piece of wood doesn't need to be uniform and pristine to be beautiful. I have seen plenty to admire in the pages of FWW both in craftsmanship and in design and if I can learn techniques that help me reach that level of execution in my work I will be glad for the help. I also love Woodwork magazine for the same reason. But, when I see Tom Loeser in his chair with the upsidedown chair above his head I think its neither beautiful, nor useful, nor particularily artistic, just stupid. I don't lack the skills to see its "art" because FWW is a limiting and stuffy publication, I just see it as a poor attempt to create art by someone who doesn't know the real thing. So hopefully FWW and Woodwork will continue to do what they do and I will glean what I can from them both that might make me a better woodworker. One magazine is not the end all and be all of woodworking but its up to us to move beyond what we see in its' pages. As I read once in FWW "It is a poor student that doesn't improve on the work of his master".
Good Evening It is sad that a learned member of our woodworking society could be so narrow minded! I am tempted to say that Mr Loeser has accidentally stumbled upon a woodwork technique or two, he found in FWW. As a wood hobbyist I see the FWW resource as being just that, a resource. All projects, artistic or not, require some form of joinery, some type of surface preparation and of course, a finish of some sort. The fact that FWW dares to tell us how to join, prepare surfaces and finish is the reason we go there every day. I have an annoying saying; Don't worry about the wall paper until the foundation has been laid. Reading Asa's article it seems to me that a man choosing wallpaper is obsessed in trashing the foundation guys. SAD. Kind Regards Warren Krummeck
This is the equivalent of Dennis Rodman in a dress. Nobody knew about him before he started cross dressing. Those of us with a brain didn't care before or after. When some pretentious, opinionated, artsy fartsy comes along with some moronic idea he feels the need to opine about, the media feels the need to report it. It doesn't do a modicum of good for those who can think for themselves nor does it make us better woodworkers. Shouldn't that be what the magazine is for, not debating artistic merits?
Wow, I couldn't disagree more with Tom on this one. No woodworker is forced to read FWW just like no art furniture person is forced to read American Craft; which is the premier magazine for people like Tom to feature his work. I am not an art furniture fan by any means so I don't read American Craft anymore and therefore am not influenced by it. The same should go for an art furniture maker, if you don't like what FWW presents, don't read it. Save the complaining for something worthwhile. Perhaps I should complain that American Craft rarely features functional work but instead focuses on non functional art oriented work that is disguised as furniture; craft that wants to be art. Perhaps they should change the magazine title to American Art rather than American Craft. FWW probably doesn't feature art furniture because the market for it is so small it is not worth catering to. Like Asa said, FWW is a business, not a non profit tasked with providing a clear unbiased view of every corner of the woodworking world. Maybe Tom should put his money where his mouth is and make his own art furniture magazine to cater to that market and see how long it stays in business.
One other comment. I remember reading criticism of Sam Maloof's joinery for using screws to reinforce the joints. Some folks on BOTH sides are too narrow. Tom
This is a 'perception v. reality' issue for me. I agree that FWW should be a resource, not the woodworking bible (and as a pastor, we could go for days on that comment!) I do find it interesting that the more artistic folks in the furniture making/woodworking world are very infrequent visitors in the pages of FWW. I'm thinking of folks like Garry Knox Bennett, Tom Loeser and a kitchen designer whose name escapes me at the moment. These guys have been featured in Woodwork magazine, which always seems to have an 'artsy' portion of the issue. You've probably heard of it--do you recall the fuss over Garry Knox Bennett driving the nail into the front of his cabinet? Tom Loeser's work has always fascinated me--I'm envious of his imagination and artistic creativity. I'm a student of Lonnie Bird--I attend his school every year. Lonnie's focus is on 18th century reproductions--he personally loves the shapes, forms and makeup of that style of furniture. Yet he has the ability to appreciate the creativity of other furniture makes. He simply chooses to stay with his preference. We could argue that Tom Loeser fits into that same category. Final comment: When was the last time FWW featured the work of a Bennett or Loeser? Not mentioned, but featured. I recently bought 50 issues of FWW from the mid '80's to early 90's and was surprised to see many articles on artistic woodworkers and to read about this very debate. I don't recall any articles in recent years featuring artistic furniture. FWIW. Tom Stephenson
How a chunk of red oak forced me to rethink the details of a cabinet
The Shakers had this diminutive design pegged
Fast, fun approach to making a comfortable, casual seat
In this video Michael finishes the first of the three boxes. Gluing-up, planing, sanding and finishing bring a new piece of art to the world.
In this video Michael starts work on the second box, a carved and painted Saddle lid box.
Michael begins carving the saddle lid box with his ripple pattern along the top. Then turns to his 5/30 gouge to texture the sides of the box. This isn't work…
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