In my neighborhood there is now thousands of board feet of maple, hickory and birch lying at the edge of the new power line clearing. The market is so depressed as to make it almost foolish to haul out any but the most spectacular or easiest to get logs. Sadly, our economy does not adapt well to the raw materials easily at hand. I will use everything from my own land, and what I can afford from my neighbors. I know I’ll use the lumber some day. There is a desire around the area to get the logs out and see them used, but will that translate into spending the time and money to do so. If the logs are milled into lumber, what will it be used for? Flooring? Cabinets? Furniture? Pallets? Plywood? Vehicles? Machinery? Spools? Egg cartons? Musical instruments? Only a few of these are likely, but once all these things were made by woodworkers of wood. It grows on trees!
I received yet another resume from a woodworker looking for some work that pays. This is not an easy time, especially for high end woodworkers without the benefit of large customer lists. I find myself wondering what the future could hold for woodworking in general and studio furniture more specifically. Looking back, we find the studio furniture movement gained a whole lot of momentum after the energy crisis of the 70’s. (I think these are related, but indirectly.) Custom furniture making seemed to really take off in the 80’s. After the recession of the early 90’s, investment in specialty wood products seemed to tend toward building equity in one’s home (or second home!), so custom cabinetry and specialty flooring have been the thing until now.
What’s next? Will the spray from the real estate bubble bursting soften peoples desire to invest in their home, at least to the extravagant extent of the last decade? Will people, instead, invest in fine furnishings that enhance any home, and are portable, like so many careers? Will the buy local and “localvore” movements increase the demand for regional furniture design, as South Western furniture exemplifies? Will the desire for thriving local economies create a demand for objects made from locally grown, harvested, milled, dried, and worked wood?
Will the “green movement” bring about a resurgence in renewable, reusable, wooden packaging? I recently bought some 4″ butt hinges with which to hang four doors I built for a client. I found two sets at a used architectural salvage place, and had to buy the rest new. The old ones were sold three to a box, made of boxboard with a pasted on label; the new hinges were sold one per plastic hang card. You know the kind, that you can’t open except with the sharpest of knives, and then the screws fall out all over the floor!
I don’t want to make my living building apple crates or cheese boxes (although barrels could be interesting.) I do, however, look for small products that can add to a revenue stream, like recipe boxes or childrens’ block sets. These are not artistic endeavors, but they bring in some money and use up scraps. Many woodworkers got into it because they were attracted by a craft, a way to use one’s hands to make useful objects. Is it time to return to a craft ethic. I remember a picture I saw once of some Shaker workman with a pile of oval boxes. There must have been over a thousand piled up around him. The caption said it was his winters work. These were not considered artistic, nor fancy. They were just boxes, and cheap to make. Today they are held up as beautiful artifacts from a craft centered economy. Can we ever regain the will to employ our neighbors to build such simple and needed things? This need not keep us from building magnificent pieces of furniture or cabinetry, but can employ us through the hard times and keep us away from manufacturing unnecessary plastic trash.
Is it possible, also, that people will come to appreciate custom or studio furniture as quietly satisfying? Not as status symbols but rather objects to be used and appreciated for the quality of the work, the harmony of the design and the calm created by the design and workmanship.