Today is my dad’s birthday. We don’t live in the same state, so today I am missing him and wishing I could be with him to celebrate. It might be a long time before I am able to fly to see him again, and this makes me sad. But I’m surrounded by things made by him, and this means I have a little bit of his presence all the time. And this is one of the reasons I love handmade things. The keep the maker near.
My dad is a furniture maker, and he has been making things for me my whole life. Much of what he has made is with me now, in New York. There is a little art cabinet (so-called because it was made to house my art supplies as a child) that has handles made out of twigs from my favorite tree in my family’s backyard. There is a bookshelf that hung on the wall in my bedroom as a teenager. There is a little table that was my painting table as a child, and is now my coffee table. There is a chest that once held toys and now holds blankets.
The most recent, and most spectacular (though the art cabinet is a close contender) is the liquor cabinet he made for me as a wedding gift. It is a perfect example of his taste and of my own — traditional forms, with something a little unexpected about them. A focus on proportion and craftsmanship, a little mix of English and Japanese sensibilities. This is our shared aesthetic vocabulary.
I grew up spending time in his shop, as he and his team made custom kitchens and one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture. I knew firsthand how difficult the world of custom work was. I also knew how few people could identify good craftsmanship, let alone appreciate it. While I certainly have my fair share of Ikea furniture now (someone with my book addiction is bound to fall victim to the inevitable wall of Billys), I prefer above all else to interact with handmade things in my domestic environment. Of course I understand and appreciate the potential of good industrial design, and growing up the child of a craftsman has meant that I cannot afford to surround myself with only handmade things. They are, quite rightly, costly.
There is nothing as good, though, as an item that is perfect in its little imperfections. Where my father’s work is concerned, actual imperfections are few and far between. His tolerance for gaps is minute, his sense of wood and its behavior over time is perfect. In the liquor cabinet, his playful curves show a mastery and a liveliness that is unparalleled. But there is still something humble about it, something soft and inviting, something that says to me “I was made by a human, and have some of the softness and ease of that species.”
In my own thinking I am greatly influenced by William Morris and Soetsu Yanagi, both of whole were champions of work made by hand. Embracing the extraordinary capacity of the maker, and also loving the humble flaw of the made item, encapsulates my own goal as a potter. As I am currently stuck at home my own designs for tableware are on hold. At the same time, the small rituals of daily life, the cup of tea, the plate I serve dinner on, the knitted shawl I wrap up in when a breeze blows in my window, these are serving to buoy my spirits in this time of uncertainty. At essence, it comes to me as something William Morris said, “own things made by people who love their work.” There is of course a moral implication there (Morris was a Socialist), but to me it is also about a humble, quotidian goodness. These objects are good and beautiful, and using them makes my life feel good and beautiful too, even if it is small and ordinary and impermanent.