“The Japanese don’t really save things,” Pete Novick says as he sets a shoji screen out before us. We’ve met the furniture maker at his South Newfane shop. He’s about to give us a tour. “We had a neighbor who was retiring,” he continued, “moving away, leaving his home next door to us, and he asked there was anything I’d like to save from the house. So I grabbed these…” Pete showed us a pair of screens, a door, and so began our introduction to Japanese home design. No kidding.“These shoji are about one hundred years old,” Pete gestured to the joinery, “cross-lapped, held together with just a bit of glue.” “Pick one up,” he suggested. “Light as a feather, right? Made entirely by hand.” He set the door down, exchanging it for a book off the flat shelf behind him. It’s by a German architect, Heinrich Engel. “Engel captured Japanese proportions.” Pete explained, “Tatami, room configurations, sliding doors, alcoves, from traditions that date back to the 17th century. And he included dimensions for each.”This understanding absolutely informs Novick’s work. “I try to take these old, perfect forms and ideas and bring them across the structural divide into the world of furniture design. I try to transfer the sense of proportionality to a piece that suits a western lifestyle.”The first item Pete shows us is a half-scale model of a cabinet, crafted from 9-inch cherry with beautiful grain that wraps around the exterior, with doors that fit into top and bottom sliders perfectly. Precise dovetails give it a sort of “east meets west” experience.
The standing tansu below is the largest piece he makes; an interpreted Japanese design with doors that lift easily out. Again, in western dimensions. The FSC cherry is from one tree and the panels, from one board. “It makes for balance,” says Pete, “so that your eye can move in a restful way over the surface of the piece.” And if it looks sturdy, it is. “I had a client once with a great collection of 33 rpm jazz records from the 40s and 50s, okay? You know, the real thick ones? When I delivered the cabinet, next thing I knew he was packing it with these records, like 300 pounds of them.” I guess it was a load test.The craftsman works in metric, for its exactness, with a fondness for the the golden ratio. “There’s this standard dimension in architecture that works its way into woodworking and design. You’ll see it in the Parthenon, and the Egyptian pyramids. I try to achieve some of that same balance in my work.”
In the shop, there was a commission in process; a Japanese tea table for a Hudson River Valley home. We saw a photograph of a previously completed job, then the actual table base, and the cherry designated for the top. “You’ll notice the overhang around the edge, four inches deep.” He moved around the boards on his bench, encouraging us to follow along. “You’ll sit around here, on a flat cushion, and the table edge will overhang your lap. When you get up, you put your hands on the table top, right?” At this point, we were both nodding vigorously. “So the top has to be very heavy, or it will flip. You need a wide base, a very heavy top, so this cherry is a little better than an inch thick.” The top is built one half at a time.” When it’s within half an inch of the final dimension, Pete works it with a hand plane until it’s done. “When you hear the plane singing it’s perfect. After about ten or twelve passes, you take the plane a part, lap it, and put it back together. And so it goes.” We keep hearing that’s the joy in this work.
In addition to the Engel book, there’s a tattered Thos. Moser in the mix. Novick made a pilgrimage to visit his place years ago. “I was so lucky, I got to meet him. He invited me up to his office.” “You know Thos. Moser, right? He single-handedly resurrected studio furniture in this country. This is his book, which — like it says — includes the measured shop drawings for every piece of American furniture. I found this at a local bookshop, and it was a great discovery.”Pete was born in the Philippines. His father worked for the State Department. With a lighthearted laugh, he says they didn’t dust, they moved. Fast forward, present day. The furniture maker’s wife is a tenured professor at a Japanese University. “We raised our three kids in Japan, sent them back here for college, and now they’ve all returned, and live and work in Tokyo. “I’m totally at home in Japan,” the craftsman says, but he seems at home here, too.
The last piece we see is a real looker. Leather-upholstered, FSC cherry, cantilevered with bridle joints done perfectly, by hand. The eleven spindles are compression fit. “I build the chair, put them in, and pound them with a steel hammer until the pencil line disappears. At the top, the rail is cut with a little reveal so it slides down and gets a perfect wood to wood contact.”“When Nakashima makes these chairs, he makes them with eight spindles. They’re a bit thick. I make mine with eleven. I love the lightness. I think they’re perfect.” As this is the last piece we see, and we sense the furniture maker’s satisfaction, it all makes sense. He seems confident about this design, and he likes it. After having made one hundred or so, he’s a particular specialist here.
Tour THE GUILD for work by other members, or for galleries of custom furniture sorted by function.