Paul Epp

Design elegance has rural roots

It has always surprised me that country-style furniture is often a bit crude. It seems to not only be accepted but also expected that this anti-urban version of things be kind of rough and ready. Unburdened by expectations to be well designed and well made? Maybe it’s seen as kind of a holiday from precision and correctness? Fair enough, but it surprises me anyway. Why not enjoy the best of accomplishments, regardless?

There are parallels with country music. Many urbanites hold this category in low esteem and wrongly mock it for substandard musicality. In fact, the musicianship can be the very best. There is no intrinsic barrier to quality for things that reflect our rural heritage. So why isn’t this more apparent in cottage-country or western-lifestyle furniture?

There is a history of farmers attending to their crops in the summer and then turning their hands to woodwork in the long and cold winters. They were usually only moderately skilled and what they produced showed its naïve origins. The big-city cabinetmakers did not have that excuse and produced furniture to far different standards. Maybe this legacy lives on, despite its contemporary falseness, in our notions of rusticity.

George Nakashima

There is a current fashion for wain-edge (live-edge, natural edge) table tops. These range from those that have experienced an all-over close encounter with a hand-held belt sander to the exquisite and flawless work of the late George Nakashima. There is a lot of this style in Southeast Asia, with the majority coming from Myanmar and Laos, where there are still big trees. The belt-sander version prevails, along with a thick coat of varnish. It’s a pity, as a lot of this wood deserves a better fate. Nakashima would weep to see it. But it must sell, because it keeps getting made.

Curiously, in Thailand and Cambodia I have seen some lovely examples of old farm carts, the kind that would have been pulled by the buffalos or oxen. These are, surprisingly, a lexicon of delicate woodworking that could give the mid-century Scandinavian cabinetmakers a master-class in fine woodworking. They are both simple and complex, with every component being carefully shaped and expressed to its fullest aesthetic potential. Joinery is highly skilled and diverse. Sections transition through a range of form, fulfilling an intention for grace and elegance.

These are rural objects as well. So why do they reflect such a different set of values?

I think that one reason would be that this to-market vehicle would have been the most important object on the farm. It would have expressed the owner’s prosperity and it would have been made by a highly specialized worker, befitting its status. I see a parallel in the up-fitted metalwork on rural pick-ups in Alberta. These contemporary chariots express a lot about their owners and the custom accoutrements are not home-made.

Maybe furniture doesn’t rank the same way. Or maybe it has simply received less attention.

I’m a furniture guy and I’m definitely in Nakashima’s camp. Wood is a wonderful material and if we have been blessed with a huge slab of it, we have a responsibility to make the most of it. This will probably end up reflected in the eventual price, as we will still want to be remunerated for our expenses. But even so, it seems like a moral issue. We ought to respect the wood, respect our work and respect our customer. Our creative efforts should result in a piece of furniture that will be treasured for the fullness of the expression of its intention to be the best it can be.

This may be recognized by the market. Nakashima’s tables now sell in the low six figures, at auction, in the rare instances when they are available. Owners want to keep them. I think there is a challenge here for us, to demonstrate how well furniture can be made and to make a case for the version that reflects more thoughtful and enduring standards.

Let’s enjoy our country style life and the satisfaction of a job well done, at the same time.

Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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