Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Southwestern woodworking

For spring break, my wife and I traveled to the mountains of northern Arizona, mainly to hike in the sunshine.  One of the other things I wanted to do was see if I could find any distinctly southwestern style of contemporary artisan woodworking.  What follows is a far from exhaustive, probably unrepresentative description based on what I saw.  I hope that anyone who is more familiar with southwestern style than I am will correct or add to my observations.  Unfortunately, I don't have pictures as the galleries and stores I visited frown on photography.

It does appear that there are some unique characteristics of contemporary southwestern artisan woodworking.  The main ones seem to be:
  1. They seem to like a more rough sawn or weathered look and to give the appearance of something roughly made, even in pieces that are very well executed.  No mistaking it for Ikea furniture, that's for sure;
  2. A lot of the hinges and other hardware were large, apparently hand forged and stylish;  
  3. They use a fair amount of natural looking dyes on their furniture, the colors of their landscape;  My wife, who is from Arizona, thinks this is the Navajo influence;
  4. They incorporate a lot of other materials into their pieces, including copper, silver, stainless steel, wrought iron, leather and stones. My hypothesis is that this reflects the relative scarcity of wood in the high desert environment.  I thought these elements often (but not always) looked very nice.
This is quite different from the pacific northwest.  We have so much wood in so many varieties that we seem to use contrasting woods more than different materials in furniture.  You do see a fair amount of furniture made from reclaimed wood though and live edges are common.  I don't see a lot of colorfully dyed pieces.

Seeing all this on my trip got me thinking.  Can I think of creative ways to use materials other than wood in my pieces?  Do I want to?  I did use copper panels in a pie safe, but that's it to date.  Of the materials I saw used in  the southwest, I would be most interested in using either leather or copper.  But, there's a rub.  I don't know anything about hammering copper or tooling leather.  Do the woodworkers work collaboratively with artisans in these other fields or can they do it all themselves?  I am personally less enthusiastic about steel and wrought iron.

As for the colorful dyes, it's an intriguing and potentially attractive idea but I'm drawing a total blank, likely because my artistic ability is nonexistent.  Pacific northwest native artists made and make beautiful pieces with natural dyes and this is where I would turn for inspiration if I ever decide to give it a try.  Their sense of color is the most appealing to me that I have ever seen, although the Navajos are a close second.  I have mostly seen their carvings, but I don't see any reason their sense of color couldn't be adapted for furniture.

In case you haven't sensed this already, this trip made me acutely aware of my limitations, but also of the seemingly endless directions you can go with woodworking.  Your boundaries are created by your imagination, your preferences and your skills.  Come to think of it, that's true of life in general . . . but I wax philosophical.

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