Workshops fascinate me. I have always had some sort of workshop access, my grandfather had a hardware store in California, and although he had retired when I knew him, I still have tools and even a large box of screws and bolts from the store. Almost every place I have lived, no matter how small or mobile had some sort of shop or bench or box or packet with tools and materials to make stuff. Now I have a bigger and better and faster workshop, and still, whenever I walk into someone else’s workshop, especially one that has been occupied for some time, I get a grin on my face and start poking around, asking questions about tools, materials, projects, and the inevitable detritus that accumulates.
One of the first really great shops I had the pleasure to work in was at the Walker Art Center, when I worked on the crew. The crew built out the galleries for new shows, framed the pieces of art, built display furniture, installed shows and built some of the most beautiful crates for shipping and storing artwork I have ever seen. People on the crew were artists and craftsmen, all highly skilled and educated and working there because it gave them a chance to interact closely with the art and artists. We had a pretty nice shop, fairly spacious and with good tools, that enabled us to build most anything we needed for a show. The pay was terrible, they camaraderie great and the work we did was beautiful.
I stopped by the shop of a friend from those days, Willie Willette, recently and got the same goofy grin. His shop, Willie Willette Works, is huge, plenty of room for him and his four employees to move around, to store projects and materials. It was the materials that first widened my grin. Arrayed along one wall were slabs of natural edged wood, some of the mating pieces book-matched, waiting for the right client and inspiration. There were also a few scraps of what had been a load of 16 foot pieces of walnut, nearly two inches thick. Most of these had been turned into a huge table, the top of which showed the true nature of these beautiful pieces of wood. It is part of entire office suite, designed in a minimalist style, with a Loosian lack of ornament, which allows the beauty of this material to shine through. In the same room, hanging on pegs, Shaker style, were prototypes and a final version of the Melissa chair, Willettes dining chair. It is always great to see the process of design, and when that process is arrayed before you full scale, the steps taken become even clearer.
Willie and crew don’t just build to spec, they are involved in the design process. As I was poking around the shop, people were busy sanding, scribing, sawing and designing. They work collaboratively with architects and designers and seek those kinds of jobs. Everyone here has had some formal education in design, most at MCAD (one of the workers I had had in an architecture class I taught there). So they are all skilled designers as well as artisans. The work shows it as does the pleasure they obviously get from the design process. Here, like at the Walker, it is not the promise of profit that motivates one, but the inherent satisfaction that comes from working with bright and capable others to produce something functional, beautiful and well crafted.
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