Jeremy Adamson. The Furniture of Sam Maloof. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum and W. W. Norton, 2001. xviii + 270 pages, 212 color and bw illus., bibliography, index. $60.00.
Ursula Ilse-Neumann et al. Made In Oakland: The Furniture of Garry Knox Bennett. New York: American Craft Museum, 2001. x + 228 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., chronology, artist’s statements, exhibition history, bibliography. $75.00.
If scholarly coverage is any accurate measure, then two Californians—Sam Maloof and Garry Knox Bennett—now can be said to rank among the most important furniture makers in American history. They are the subjects of full-length studies published last year by the nation’s leading craft museums, the American Craft Museum in New York City and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. The books are to be welcomed enthusiastically, for several reasons. First, their sheer size and accomplishment mark them as milestones in the publishing records of the sponsoring institutions. This is particularly true in the case of the American Craft Museum, which has lately distanced itself from a previously cogent identity. At one time, the museum was the only major institution in the country devoted to the enormous subject of contemporary craft. As others have sprouted across the country—first the Renwick in the 1970s and more recently the Mint Museum of Craft & Design in Charlotte, North Carolina—the American Craft Museum has moved away from its mandate. Many of the shows the museum has originated in the past five years have presented such topics as Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained glass and early modern European porcelain—topics, in other words, that are done far better elsewhere. So a project devoted to Garry Knox Bennett, an honest-to-goodness studio furniture maker, is a welcome return to the museum’s original mission.
That two contemporary furniture makers should have books of length, quality, and seriousness devoted to them is a matter of celebration, and not only for studio craftspeople and their partisans. If furniture history is a meaningful intellectual discipline, it cannot have an end date. Museums across the country typically sever furniture made after a certain date (1820 in some places, 1920 in others) from the steady flow of historical development and influence. These two monographs offer readers the opportunity to see contemporary work that rivals antique furniture in terms of complexity, interest, and quality.
A third attraction of the two books is suggested by their simultaneous publication, which invites comparison. Maloof (see fig. 1) and Bennett (see fig. 2) are antithetical in both personality and style. Maloof is so unassuming and low-key as to be almost precious, and has lived out his long career in a pastoral lemon grove. Bennett is crude and hilarious—both in person and as a designer—and is steeped in the rough urbanism of Oakland. That decorative arts scholars can value such mutually exclusive qualities says a lot for the field. Rigorous and objective analysis has heretofore been the exception rather than the rule in twentieth-century furniture studies. Perhaps it is the legacy of modern design itself that causes historians to take sides “for” or “against,” whether the subject is art deco, mass-produced davenports, or handmade studio work. As the historiography of eighteenth-century material demonstrates, however, it is only when advocacy subsides that clarity can be achieved. The old days of “good, better, best” are mostly behind us in the study of the colonial era, at least within the academy. But it is only recently that the heterogeneity of modern furniture has come to be seen positively.
Jeremy Adamson’s authoritative study of Maloof is as good a point of entry into that principle as any book ever written on the subject of modern furniture. The account, like the subject, is somewhat old-fashioned. It is both chronological and biographical, describing the arc of Maloof’s career from graphic illustrator to beginning designer-craftsman to master furniture maker. Throughout these stages Maloof comes across as an unvarying quantity, a given. Though the tides of fashion shift around him, his work plods unerringly forward from decade to decade. The furniture emanating from the little shop in Alta Loma remains largely unchanged (see fig. 1) except for a few formal developments that are agonizingly slow in the making. Thanks to extensive and glorious photography by longtime Maloof associate Jonathan Pollock, the reader can trace the incremental improvements in the design of a single furniture form over five decades. There are, for example, no less than nine examples of Maloof’s two-seater settees illustrated, none of which differs radically from a formula that was formulated in the 1950s: low arms, sculptural back rests, scooped Windsor-type seats. Spindles and upholstery may come and go, and the legs may have more or less flare, but it is astounding how much the walnut settee of 1967 (fig. 122, p. 133) looks like the striped maple settee of 1987 (fig. 192, p. 228).
This would seem to make poor material for an exhaustive study. Indeed, if one only looks at the pictures, The Furniture of Sam Maloof can seem like too much of a good thing. But Adamson manages to use Maloof’s slow and steady production of forthright, user-friendly furniture as a sounding board for the craft movement as a whole. The original title for the volume was Sam Maloof and the American Craft Movement, and it is a pity that the Smithsonian abandoned that wording. It would have implied the catholic breadth that Adamson achieved. Throughout he seems to have assigned himself responsibility not only for the craftsman himself, but for everything that impinged on Maloof’s consciousness as well. We get pages of information on seminal moments such as the formation of the American Craftsmen’s Council, the 1969 traveling craft exhibition “Objects: USA,” and the passage of the critical journal Craft Horizons in favor of the more market-oriented American Craft. In many cases, Adamson provides the most thorough account of such events that has yet seen print. Partly this can be attributed to the book’s foundation of excellent research materials, many of which were collected by Maloof’s wife Alfreda over the years. We learn exactly how many pieces of furniture Maloof produced year by year, and how much money he made doing it. We read about the assistants who passed through Alta Loma and their roles in the shop. And we get exhaustive treatments of the response to Maloof in the press and later in museums. Such hard data is very rarely included in monographs on craftspeople; its presence here is an important reminder that the skillful arrangement of facts can be the most effective form of analysis.
But the most important factor in Adamson’s success is his method, which is to measure the craft world by the yardstick of how that world measured Maloof over time. The book’s balanced account of the shift towards a more “arty” and commercial crafts scene is a good example of this technique. He tells this story through the lens of an ongoing dialectical tension between Maloof’s lovely and finely joined functional pieces and the more adventurous sculptural furniture of Wendell Castle. Castle’s working technique involved gluing stacks of boards together and then going at them with a chainsaw to make impressive but ungainly behemoths. The contrast could not have been more overt, and yet the two makers were consistently included in the same exhibitions. This tension ended in the late 1970s, when Maloof was “promoted” to the role of éminence grise, a “living treasure” and the reigning “dean of American furniture makers.” Of course this beatification was a victory for Castle, or at least for Castle’s conception of furniture, because it consigned Maloof to the past. By describing the rhetoric of those who celebrated Maloof at this critical turning point, Adamson conveys more about the issues at stake than he could through more direct means.
There is one significant drawback to this approach, however. The Furniture of Sam Maloof circles around an absent center, which is the answer to the question: “What does Adamson really think of Maloof?” This answer never comes, which is hard to pull off in 250 pages of analytical prose. Adamson indicates the contradictions and limitations of Maloof’s career, but only by implication. He refuses to judge, letting the reader decide how much to believe in the myth that has been constructed around Maloof. Sometimes, this withholding can be frustrating. Before one has read very far into the book it is evident that Adamson is far too incisive to take at face value the unassuming naïveté for which Maloof is famous. Many readers will become impatient for him to call a spade a spade. This is especially true when Adamson fails to subject the self-promotional 1993 book Sam Maloof: Woodworker to analysis, calling it “honest, revealing, and...unpretentious” (p. 194); or when he uncritically recounts one of Maloof’s favorite chestnuts. Take, for example, the tale of Wharton Esherick’s injunction to Maloof to “stick to your convictions and don’t stray from the way you work and believe,” delivered at the 1957 ACC Asilomar conference (p. 69). Much is obviously at stake here. The story functions as a figurative passing of the torch from one great maker to another, just as the new craft movement is getting underway. It also invests Maloof with the imprimatur of authenticity and moral uprightness; but of course, it is Maloof himself who has propagated the event and made it part of his own legend.
On balance, though, Adamson’s decision not to question his subject’s motives comes across as a sound one. After all, those readers who are inclined to view the maker’s humility as thinly cloaked egotism are tacitly given all the evidence they need. Similarly, those who see Maloof’s furniture (wrongly) as little more than warmed-over Scandinavian modern are given ample ammunition. Adamson painstakingly recounts the story of a commission Maloof received from the New York industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (p. 36). Having ordered one of the Danish designer Hans Wegner’s armchairs, Dreyfuss found that it did not fit underneath the dining table he had just ordered from Maloof. He therefore asked Maloof to rebuild the Wegner chair and to also create a set of five exact replicas with lower arms. Most historians would be tempted to pounce on this narrative as a kind of smoking gun, especially since Maloof’s furniture immediately took a turn toward more organic lines shortly thereafter. That Adamson does not do this is a measure of the care in his scholarship. For after the Dreyfuss experience, Maloof went on to become a member of a Los Angeles–area community of furniture designers. He thus defined himself more in reference to these lesser-known figures—men like Kipp Stewart, Hendrick Van Keppel, and Ernest Inouye—than Wegner, Aalto, or other far-off Scandinavians. Here, as often, Adamson resists the quick answer, and the book is better for it.
The American Craft Museum’s study of Garry Knox Bennett, Made in Oakland, is another kettle of fish, but it also achieves a pleasantly indeterminate complexity. In this case, the density of the scholarship is achieved by dividing the book among four writers of profoundly different outlooks: philosopher Arthur C. Danto; decorative arts historian Edward S. Cooke, Jr.; Ursula Ilse-Neumann, the curator of the exhibition accompanying the book; and John Marlowe, an old friend of Bennett’s from the heyday of the California subculture. The book opens with an essay titled “Philosophizing With A Hammer” by Danto, who has made himself something of a fixture in the contemporary craft literature. Danto’s proper field of study is aesthetics, not art history. Consequently his writings on specific artists and craftspeople often have the breezy enthusiasm of the amateur. He tends to make drastic and sweeping claims about contemporary art, to the chagrin of art historians and the delight of art students and others who need a quick handle on a dauntingly complicated subject. This is true of his contribution here. In fact, the placement of the essay in the book’s pole position suggests that it is meant for readers who only want twenty pages of lively commentary before skipping to the pictures. Danto clearly feels no obligation to explore the historical or artistic contexts of studio furniture.
Instead, he emphasizes a few objects, notably Bennett’s notorious Nail Cabinet of 1979. This is a tall display cabinet made of padouk, with a large nail driven unceremoniously into its front. Danto says, rightly, that Bennett “built the cabinet in order to disfigure it,” and that the nail was “a gesture of liberation.” Bennett made the piece at a time when fine craftsmanship was in danger of becoming an end in itself among studio furniture makers. The periodical Fine Woodworking, beginning in 1975, inaugurated an era in which discussion of technique threatened to overwhelm the conceptual, stylistic, and ideological issues relevant to studio work. Bennett had little patience with this trend. (To this day he gleefully shouts “What kind of glue do you use?” when a furniture maker finishes a lecture.) Danto presents this widely accepted view of the Nail Cabinet well. He even passes along an interesting reading by Fine Woodworking editor John Kelsey, in which the structure of the Nail Cabinet itself is seen as subversive. For the record, none of the supposedly iconoclastic joinery details seem inconsistent with the work of an inexperienced furniture designer, which Bennett was at the time. It is also worth noting that Bennett had a lot of help with the construction from two local cabinetmakers. Nonetheless, one should give credit to Danto for taking a craft-based argument seriously.
It is harder to be patient with his claim that by making the Nail Cabinet Bennett “declared that the entire structure of insider criticism was irrelevant to the art of contemporary furniture.” This is a problematic assertion. First, the nail was itself a piece of insider criticism, as Danto acknowledges. It was aimed squarely at the prevalent trends in contemporary furniture, and on the basis of Bennett’s own testimony does not seem to have been intended to be read as much more than that. It’s fine to suggest that the gesture had greater implications than were initially obvious, but Danto’s version of Bennett’s intentions is just bad art history. Second, the implication that “insider criticism” needed to be cleared from the table, opening the way to full-fledged artistic postmodernism, is disturbing. Currently the studio furniture community is still working hard to develop its internal dialogue, a conversation that will have the sophistication of art criticism but will also specifically address the concerns of furniture. Danto wants to invest Bennett’s piece with the paradigm-shattering quality of Duchamp’s ready-mades, which is a noble goal. In his haste to do so, however, he implies that furniture will need to escape its own category in order to be interesting—a notion that Bennett’s oeuvre flatly contradicts.
The next essay in the book comes from a diametrically opposite position. Edward S. Cooke, Jr., is a longtime supporter of contemporary furniture; he curated a seminal 1989 showing of the material at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and is currently planning a follow-up exhibition. He is also a frequent contributor to this journal and a professor of art history at Yale University. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I studied with him there until recently. But I would like to think that if I had never met the author I would still find Cooke’s essay, “The Urban Cowboy as Furniture Maker,” to be a welcome about-face from Danto’s overreaching. Like Jeremy Adamson, Cooke has done his homework. His account of Bennett’s development as a maker steers an unpredictable course, beginning with a brief summary of the west coast arts and crafts movement. He singles out such figures as metalsmith Dirk Van Erp, architect Bernard Maybeck, and ceramist Frederick Rhead as examples of a locally oriented, intentionally simplified style that stood in opposition to the “rigidly academic” work then practiced on the east coast. These values were transmitted to the San Francisco art scene of the 1950s, in which raffish beatniks like Wally Hedrick and Bruce Connor flourished, and thence to the Bay Area’s 1960s “Funk” movement in ceramics and sculpture.
It is debatable whether Bennett had ever heard of, much less been influenced by, these historical precursors when he started out. That is not Cooke’s point, though. He is establishing groundwork for the argument that Bennett’s eclectic and anti-establishment stance is a matter of cultural as well as personal history. It is tempting to see him simply as a radical child of the 1960s, since he built up his wood skills by constructing his own teepee-shaped house and made his money by fabricating and selling drug paraphernalia. But calling Bennett a hippie does not explain the acuity of his mature work. This is where the value of Cooke’s carefully laid foundation becomes clear. As we read of Bennett’s early use of plastics and painted surfaces, we are reminded of the anti-academic leanings of earlier Bay Area art. And when we learn that he has always avoided making chairs—the traditional test form for any furniture maker—it rings true with what Cooke has described as Bennett’s “oppositional attitude,” inherited from previous generations of similarly minded artists. Cooke refines this point, however, by putting Bennett into strategic contrasts with other makers. Many of these, such as the comparatively little-known Jack Hopkins, J. B. Blunk, and Sterling King, are also self-styled rebels from the California counter-culture. Many of the others are not, however, and it is enlightening to notice how Bennett’s careful handling of his own ideas resembles that of an ostensibly conservative maker such as Judy McKie. This broad studio furniture context gives the reader a balanced account: Cooke presents Bennett not only as an impulsive enfant terrible but also a consummate professional, who has adroitly managed his own artistic and marketplace development.
After the analyses provided by Danto and Cooke, the reader is prepared to dive in to the specifics of Bennett’s furniture. As curator, Ursula Ilse-Neumann was in a good position to provide that information, and made the intelligent decision to let pictures lead the way in her section of the book. The structure is simple but effective. After focusing attention on a specific example of a form, such as a table or bench, Ilse-Neumann gives us a creatively arranged photo essay on the maker’s exploration of that form type. This gives the reader the opportunity to see the development of particular core ideas. Unlike Maloof, Bennett is a fountain of invention, so even the photographs of the finished pieces have something of the air of pages in a sketchbook. The effect is exactly opposite to the similarly exhaustive coverage of Maloof’s furniture. A few of the formal and conceptual possibilities evident in Bennett’s work are brought to fruition, notably his tendency to base an entire composition around a single joint (as in his trestle tables) or a bandsawn cartoon profile (as in his benches and sideboards).
In many other cases, ideas are picked up, used once, and then abandoned. In Eames Chair of 1984, Bennett bisected one of Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic LCW chairs with a planar board and painted the halves black and white. In Tangarry Chest of 1991, he exploited the syncopated façade of a traditional Japanese tansu, placing more than thirty irregular doors and drawers into a single case piece. And in 1996, as if to demonstrate the depths of his creativity, he created one hundred assemblage lamps for a single gallery exhibition. One can imagine the current generation of young furniture makers mining these images for some time to come. The only real regret in Ilse-Neumann’s portion of the book is that she is obliged to give special attention to the new work that Bennett created for the American Craft Museum exhibit. These “tablelamps” lack the integration of form and concept characteristic of his work, and in some cases even seem to have been thrown together for the occasion of the exhibition. But, as Ilse-Neumann writes, Bennett will soon “be off in a new direction, and no one can predict where that will lead.” Indeed, since the book’s publication he has already made a series of chairs that attest to his continued artistic vitality (fig. 2).
The book concludes with a section of back matter that must rank as one of the great documentations of a contemporary craftsperson. The centerpiece is a set of eleven manifesto-like artist’s statements written by Bennett’s self-described “long suffering friend” John Marlowe in 1986. Bennett used to send these texts to galleries and collectors with an explanatory note, thereby exempting himself from the process of explaining his work himself. It is a measure of the persuasiveness of these texts that many over the years have taken them to be authentic (indeed, Arthur Danto quotes extensively from Marlowe’s writings as if they were Bennett’s in his essay in this very volume). Designed to be funny, self-contradictory, and provocative rather than informative, they are an apt symbol of Bennett’s desire to both rebel against and dominate the contemporary furniture scene.
Also included in the back matter is an exhibition history by Elizabeth Bard, and an extremely helpful illustrated chronology no less than twenty-seven pages long, lovingly compiled by Marlowe. A short note at the end of this timeline reads: “Additional information for this chronology provided by Sylvia Bennett.” In fact, this is an absurd understatement, since Sylvia—Garry’s wife—preserved the ephemera of her husband’s career in a manner rivaling the archival accomplishments of Alfreda Maloof. Unlike Alfreda, who carefully preserved Sam’s history but tragically did not live to see the publication of the Renwick volume, Sylvia Bennett also shepherded Made in Oakland to publication. It cannot be sufficiently stressed how much both projects owe to these two women. Therein lies an important question for furniture scholars: at what point will we begin to treat contemporary work seriously enough that the family members of the makers do not have the primary responsibility to record the crucial facts? One hundred years from now, historians will know about Maloof and Bennett exactly what we today would like to know about George Hunzinger, John and Thomas Seymour, or the anonymous “Garvan carver” of Philadelphia. So the decorative arts field can be thankful for these two impressive books. But if we do not see them as a challenge, then we have missed the point entirely.