Looking Back: Woodworking thoughts
Some musings of a designer-craftsman-teacher
Synopsis: To help Fine Woodworking celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are reaching into our deep archives to reprint some classic articles. Here is Tage Frid’s first-ever article for the magazine, published in Issue #1. Frid, a longtime professor of woodworking at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and original contributing editor to the magazine, was a powerful influence on a number of preeminent woodworkers and teachers, many of whom wrote for FWW.
I have chosen to be a designer-craftsman. Most of my life I have concentrated on designing and working with wood only, and having spent more than 40 years with that one material, I am still learning through experimentation and looking for new techniques and forms.
The only trouble with designing and working in wood is that it has the advantage or disadvantage, however you look at it, of being beautiful in itself. It is not like metal; a piece of metal by itself is very cold and has to be hammered, shaped, and polished before people will even look at it. A piece of clay, which is really dirt, must be shaped, fired, and glazed. But take a piece of wood; plane, sand, and oil it, and you will find it is a beautiful thing. So actually, the more you do to it from then on, the worse it is going to get. Therefore, working with a material of such natural beauty, I feel that we have to design very quietly and use a simple form.
I was born in Denmark, so therefore my background for furniture design is a little different from that of most American furniture designers. That may be the reason that I view design from a slightly different angle, and feel strongly about the background that a furniture designer should have. I started as an apprentice in a cabinet maker’s shop in Copenhagen when I was very young. Because I was not what you would call an outstanding student in school, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to serve an apprenticeship.
When you become an apprentice in Denmark, you sign a contract for five years, which is binding on both parties. Those were five of the longest years that I have ever spent! The working hours were from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week. At night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., I was required to attend technical school, where drawing and a knowledge of the materials were taught. Salary for the five years was $1 a week and the guarantee that I would be a journeyman at the end of five years. I did not learn very much about design, but I did learn a good deal about wood as a material—its strength, its limitations, and how it is put together.
Today people look down on vocational education because it has not inherited the prestige of the past generation in America. In Europe, the craftsman enjoys the recognition he deserves. There should be an effort made to put more respect into vocational training.
For the full article, download the PDF below.