BY YOAV LIBERMAN
This story is about the evolution of a project, from its infancy as a pile of scrap lumber (1) and some very vague ideas about how it is supposed to look and be built, to its maturity as a cohesive creation that stands firmly on all four legs.
Most of my projects are based on found resources, old and new. As a chef creates his meal based on the ingredients of the season, I meld the pieces I’ve acquired to create a completely new and interesting piece that pays homage to the individual history of its ingredients.
It all began when a shipment of dark brown claro walnut, lumber for a massive dining table, arrived from California at John Everdell’s studio. In my opinion, John is one of America’s greatest woodworkers (see “What’s in a Name,” page 50). The crating that encapsulated this beautiful lumber was quite the opposite of the stuff that it carried: the boards were dusty, wrinkled, cracked and flaky. In fact, some of them were falling apart. After John broke open the container and extracted the walnut, he placed the crating boards into the dumpster.
I’m a strong advocate of using recycled materials and discarded wood in art and design; as such, most of my pieces are made from rejected wood or abandoned items, found on the street or in recycling facilities. So when I noticed the irregular cedar boards in the dumpster of my mentor’s woodshop, I was immediately intrigued by the complex texture and character of the wood; I was fascinated by its cracks and checks, different hues and earthy appearance.
My colleagues, friends, and customers know that I am an avid dumpster diver (2). So when I noticed the discarded boards, I immediately sensed that their mission had not yet ended, and rather than being burnt, crushed or buried, perhaps a better fate awaited them. Close examination of the boards revealed an interesting surface texture mimicking dry desert mud, earth colors and traces of dehydrated fungi, or perhaps a plant. I did not yet know what kind of piece I was going to build from them, but I recognized their potential. I was even more pleased when I saw that one of the broken boards still bore the shipping and return addresses rendered in black ink—I immediately decided that regardless of what I was going to build from this wood, these addresses would remain visible.
When I find an interesting object or an attractive piece of rejected lumber (attractive, to me, anyway), I first store it for some time, not only to let it acclimate to the shop’s climate, but also to let it ripen; similar, in a way, to how we treat wine or parmesan cheese. This ripening allows me to see the object differently, so I can discover its new destiny. Of course, ripening takes time and storage space. Sometimes these treasures stay on the shelves in my cramped studio for years.
A few months after I found the cedar boards, I spotted a pile of discarded drawers (3). Constructed of pine and finger-jointed, these shallow drawers bore brass plaques declaring what they used to carry: specimens from the famous Harvard collection of insects, rocks and fossils.
I try not to repeat myself. I like the thrill of discovery, the fun of sketching, and the problems presented by the intrinsic nature of working with random yet limited resources. I have to negotiate the look, volume and function of each piece with the materials I have to work with. These constraints challenge me to play a mental game of mix and match, to achieve the most pleasing outcome.
I had always wanted to build my own version of a highboy. For complexity and historical resonance, highboys are perhaps the ultimate achievement for a cabinetmaker (Eric Grant’s Chippendale Bonnet-Top Highboy appears on page 20). For some time, I’d considered building a highboy from discarded metal drawers that I had found in the dumpster of the physics department (4). However, when I saw the abandoned wooden trays and remembered that I had the intriguing cedar boards in the shop, I knew that my first highboy would be built from them. Immediately, I started thinking about how to incorporate them in my grand scheme.
The highboy, or tall chest of drawers, reigns supreme among American furniture designs, mainly because of its immense size, elegance and impressive presence. Although the highboy originated in Queen Anne’s England, it reached aesthetic heights in the New World. This visual legacy informed the conceptual framework of my highboy.
I had drawers for my highboy and lumber for the case. But most of its overall design—the scale and proportions, the base section, the pediment, the hardware and color—was still undetermined.
Most of my raw materials are objects that I’m inexplicably drawn to, either because they exude a sort of integrity or because I am saddened to see them abandoned—I’m especially inspired by the hidden potential in objects that have become redundant. I sketch, contemplate, and sketch some more, in order to design new elements that reincarnate the discarded items I find into something new, functional, and aesthetically interesting.
Factoring the amount of cedar lumber with the number and size of the drawers would govern the size of the upper cabinet—but there weren’t enough drawers to include some in the base. That meant my highboy’s base would be a simple stand comprised of legs and aprons.
Recently, I’ve been building furniture that can be knocked down, folded or disassembled, due to my fondness for the compact, portable furniture that was designed to be easily transported by scientists, explorers and military personnel. I also enjoy devising new fastening techniques and new types of dedicated hardware for this furniture. As a cabinet on a stand, my highboy was a perfect candidate for a knock-down style base.
The 19th century saw the golden age of campaign furniture, which is beautifully catalogued in Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas, 1740-1914, a splendid compilation of information, illustrations, and images of furniture pieces designed to travel the world. Also known as “camp” or “nomadic” furniture, this style is the forefather of most Ikea furniture and its clones. Although primarily built for Europeans, campaign furniture was commonly found throughout Africa and India. Originally, campaign furniture was used in tents or temporary lodging; only later did it find tenure in the mansions and palaces of Empire officials.
It seemed natural for my highboy to have a tent overhead. One of my sketches included a red canopy (5). While pondering the tent theme, I remembered that, years ago, I had found a bunch of Boy Scout scarves on the street (6). Consequently, I contemplated incorporating the red scarves in the piece. One drawing pictured a quilt of scarves draped on top and around the highboy. I scotched this idea, because the red quilt was just too dominant. I also decided the scarves wouldn’t compliment the overall color scheme I’d decided on—“soldier blue” milk paint. I concluded that a plain-looking, linen canopy would be the best.
I started by resawing the inner faces and edges of the weathered boards, to create even surfaces for jointing—and to protect my jointer. After jointing, I glued the boards together to make the parts for the case. I cut lock-rabbet-style corner joints and installed the drawer glides before gluing the components together (7). Each drawer received a new false front, made from the remnants of the cedar boards (8).
The diverse coloration and sensational texture of the boards I’d rescued was so interesting, they deserved to be exposed, rather than removed or hidden (9). When lumber is transformed into boards and parts for furniture, it’s typically peeled, cut, smoothed and finished. I wanted to show that sometimes this process is actually unnecessary, because the beauty is already there—on the natural surface.
In 2003, I built a bed frame with knock-down legs. They attached by means of a two-way bolt-reinforced miter joint that I designed. The rails were pushed tightly into a wedged corner that registered them square to the leg, which mounted inside the rails; two lag screws locked the joint. This joint proved to be very strong. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, so I decided to explore it further in my highboy. My goal was to create a novel joint that was visually compelling, by reducing the number of fasteners.
Most builders prefer to hide joints and fasteners, even in this neo-Arts and Crafts era. Like earlier craftsmen, however, I prefer to expose and celebrate them.
After numerous sketches of joints (10), I settled on design using a decorative eye-bolt that threaded into an insert sunken into the legs. Trapezoidal grooves machined in the rails match profiles cut in the legs (11). Tightening the eye-bolt wedges the rails against the legs (12).
As I was working out the joint details, I was also sketching leg profiles. I eventually settled on a two-sided tapered leg with a tall spade foot—but I decided to present it unconventionally, just like the wood on the case.
Like the finest highboys, mine has turned finials. But my finials aren’t just decorative. They support the linen tent that serves as the pediment. Look closely and you’ll see that the finials are turned to resemble the wooden bobbins that once were used in industrial looms (13).
After discovering that I wasn’t very good at sewing, I asked my talented friend and fellow artisan Leslie Hartwell to fabricate the tent (14). Simple bail pulls adorn the drawers; salvaged tool chest handles were the perfect “campaign endorsement” for the case.
As studio furniture makers we wear several hats. Sometimes we merely execute functional designs that will fulfill their duties honestly and diligently. Sometimes we’re allowed the creative freedom to marry form and purpose. And sometimes, we set sail into the uncharted waters of art and creativity, striving to create sculpture that functions as furniture, or at least appears to be functional, so it can be categorized as “sculptural furniture.”
When I saw the writing on the distressed cedar boards (15)—the address of a man I respect so much, and in whose shop I’ve had the privilege to work—I knew they presented a meaningful artistic and creative opportunity. I felt very strongly that I needed to reinvent those boards in a way that would honor this inspirational artist and the time I’ve spent working under his guidance.
What’s in a name?
Attn: John Everdell is named after my mentor and friend, John S. Everdell, one of America’s greatest cabinetmakers. John’s splendid designs are deeply anchored in the Arts and Crafts vocabulary, informed from details found in Chinese furniture and refined with themes present in Greene and Greene aesthetics. John is a great innovator of joinery details. His repertoire of expressed joints includes many from Gustav Stickley’s palette. But John has devised and grafted many more, including furniture legs combined from wood and cast brass, tied together with unique connections. He is also a great “wood painter.” By this I mean he is able to assemble a harmonious piece from a collage of parts—different species, dark and pale, flatsawn, quarterswan, spalted, curled—you name it. It was in his shop that I discovered the beauty of heart pine, the attractive characteristics of pear, and the wonders of claro walnut. And it was the remains of his packaging crate that triggered this piece.