Interview with Thomas Moser

Interview with Thomas Moser

Tom Moser

Tom Moser

For years, just about every issue of The New Yorker ran a discreet little ad that always caught my eye. Picturing a piece of simple, elegant wood furniture (a spindle rocker, usually, if memory serves), it was for a studio up in Maine, called Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers. The name was intriguing – quaint and kind of romantic. It sounded like a colonial Yankee craftsman’s shop. I’d always wonder: Who was Thos. Moser? Was he an actual person or a fictional, historical figurehead?

Mr. Moser, it turns out, is very much the real deal. Since 1972 he and his team have produced “solid wood furniture crafted to last a lifetime,” steadily building a small studio into what is today a highly successful company with showrooms in eight cities, from Boston to San Francisco. A self-taught craftsman, he comes across in conversation as part college professor (which he once was) and part plainspoken, practical businessman, with the heart and soul of an artist. Here he shares his thoughts on the ever-changing craft scene of the past four decades, the specials joys and challenges of making a living with your hands, and the remarkable impact of that little ad and old-fashioned name.
Craft, design and industry seemed to coexist closely in the midcentury modern era, and then the pendulum swung toward more personal, artistic expression in craft. Does it seem to you that craft is now moving back to a greater openness to the world of design?

There’s been a movement away from what one might call pure self-directed or self-centered craft as a personal expression to something that might have a stronger economic component. This is something that I felt 40 years ago when I started. First of all, I had no choice. I had four kids and six of us to feed, so I had to earn a middle-class living. I couldn’t just explore my creative impulses. I had to harness them to some kind of an economic underpinning. And I have no problem with that, never have. Over the years from time to time I’ve been vilified because I make too much money. [Laughs.] You’re supposed to take poverty vows if you’re going to be a craftsman. Also, you’re supposed to be underappreciated. Well, I’m being facetious.

It’s interesting – my son David, who’s doing much of my design now, gave a lecture some weeks ago to a group at Morris Yachts up in Maine. They make high-end sailing craft. His lecture made a distinction between art and craft. The way he put it – and I hadn’t seen this before, hadn’t heard of put quite this way – was the function of art is to satisfy the artist, with little or no regard to the viewer. The function of craft is to give meaning to the viewer, and enhance the richness of their life. That’s kind of an interesting dichotomy.

So when you [talk about] the definition between art and craft, not only does one function and the other one doesn’t – or one has a function that determines its worth as much as its appearance – but [it’s also about] the motivation of the creator. And if the creator only wants to satisfy his or her psychic needs, then that probably isn’t a craftsman. Whether you like it or not, craftsmanship requires an audience, and requires people to buy it. Otherwise it’s just catharsis.

So how did I do that? I don’t know. I started out building what I thought people might want, which was a bit of an arrogance on my part. But I started at precisely the right moment in history. Had I started 10 years earlier, I would have failed. Had I started 10 years later, I would have failed. Because in the early 1970s, there was a movement away from what might be called manufactured things to crafted things. People loved the work of the hand. Remember, during the Depression, handmade meant cheap or make-do. A handmade piece of whatever in 1935 was considered inferior to a factory-made piece. And that attitude prevailed throughout much of the ’40s, ’50s and much of the ’60s, where a table made out of wood, by hand, couldn’t compare in value to a plastic-and-chrome dinette set that had artificial leather seats.
Which is all very collectible now…

Yeah, it’s swung back that way. It’s interesting, when did Dustin Hoffman say "plastics"? Remember that, "plastics"?

In "The Graduate."

And it was! It was plastics – that’s what it was.

I was a kid, but I remember, sure.

So we started when people were going back to nature. You know, there was this cop-out, dropout thing, this whole idea about finding earlier values, and a contempt for mass production and conspicuous consumption. People enjoyed things made by hand. I was very fortunate to start around the time that movement occurred.

And, of course, I was very fortunate because the first 10 years or so, I was able to hire some very good people who were, what you might call today, alternative-lifestyle people. People who at another time in history would have been stockbrokers or lawyers, and now they were furniture makers. There are at least 20 of them now around the country [working] as individual entrepreneurs, still making furniture. So were very lucky to have those skills. I like to think that we taught one another, because I myself, of course, was totally unschooled [in woodworking].

So these were craftsmen who were –

Mostly they were well intentioned. But really dedicated, and worked very hard. They would stay five to eight years and then they would go off on their own. They’re all over the place and they’re running their own little businesses now. We all learned from one another. That’s how we grew.

That first decade was quite different from the next decade. Instead of hiring people with master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, I hired people with high-school degrees from Lewiston, Maine, who, at another time in history would have worked in a mill. And they are with me today. We had a dinner a year and a half ago of people who were with us 20 years and longer, and 43 people came to that banquet.

Wow. And how many do you employ at any given time?

Right now we’re at 134, total – that includes sales and marketing, and about 60 on the workbench, building furniture.

When does production become manufacture? What do those words mean? Obviously we’re not talking about cookie-cutter factory stuff, but just in terms of the semantics…

People say, ‘I’ve been to your factory.’ Well, OK, I accept that. More commonly I refer to a shop, our shop. It’s a workshop, an atelier, a place where hand craftsmanship is performed.

You know, there was an Englishman, his name was Pye, who developed the idea of the manufacture of risk versus the manufacture of non-risk. [Editor’s note: the late David Pye was  professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art from 1944 to 1974, and author of The Nature and Art of Workmanship, among other writings.] Manufacture of non-risk means that things are stamped out or replicated one like another, and that it would be difficult to stand in a parking lot of, let’s say, a Ford assembly plant – how long could you stand looking at those Ford cars? After a while you’re bored because they’re all alike. Whereas you could stand on the shore of a harbor and look at boats for hours on end, because every one of those boats is crafted through risk. In other words, none of them are alike: Some of them are beautiful, some of them are ugly, some of them sit low in the water, others list. I mean, the whole idea of manufacture of risk is building something that you don’t exactly know what it’s going to come out as. So there is inherent variety, imposed mostly by the materials, because no two pieces of wood are the same. And of course, by the craftsman – each craftsman has a certain signature that he’ll put to work.

So we have what I call serial production. It’s not one-of-a-kind, it’s serial production, and it’s the manufacture of risk. When people ask me, is it a factory? Ok, sure, it’s a factory – I mean we bring in raw wood on one end and we take out tables and chairs at the other. So we do produce. We add labor and value, and that’s what we do. I don’t like to call it a factory, but if somebody needs to, I can live with it.

There is quote-unquote “art furniture,” which is a phrase I’m not seeing much anymore –

They call it studio furniture now.

– as opposed to a basic design, a creative design, that is executed in quantities, by hand, by teams of craftsmen –

Well, when you say a “one-off” piece, that’s another interesting thing. Does “one-off” mean one, or one series, or one-of-a-kind?  For example, we are just now entering into three very large jobs. One is going to a girls’ school in Baltimore, St. Timothy’s. In fact, 10 of those girls were up here two weeks ago to help build it! They spent a week helping build the furniture that’s going into their library, which is fabulous. But it’s a whole library full of furniture. It’s probably 90 chairs and 40 worktables and so forth. It’s not one-of-a-kind, but it’s unique to them, all done in quarter-sawn oak. It’s custom work for that job. So would you call that one-of-a-kind? Well, it’s one-library-of-a-kind, I would say.

You should know – and this is not unique to recently, this has been the case for many years – about 20 percent of what we make is one-of-a-kind pieces. We use the use word nonstandard. In other words, they’re custom. Almost a quarter of what we make is custom furniture.

But you have some favorite designs, classic bestsellers…

Oh, of course. I would say 80 percent of our revenue comes from the top 20 percent of things we make. But that’s almost always true with companies.

Some craftspeople would like to combine what they call their studio work – you know, their hands-on stuff – with designing a collection for a manufacturer.

Well, if you can do it, that’s everybody’s dream. It becomes bread-and-butter then, and it frees you to do the other. First of all, any craftsman who does what I do – build furniture out of raw wood – if he spends 50 hours a week building it, he or somebody else is going to have to spend 50 hours a week counting it, administering it, and selling it. So that’s always the rub, why many craftsmen let somebody else sell it. They go to a gallery or so, and they only get half of the selling price. There are many craftsmen who would love to design prototypes to have them applied in a much larger fashion and then get a royalty. That would be super.

Perhaps younger craftspeople coming up now are more open to the possibilities than maybe they were 20, 25 years ago. They’re interested in the world of design.

There is also a new economic imperative.

That, too.

Come on, let’s not kid ourselves!  It’s not as easy as it was. The last four years, or three-and-a-half years have been very difficult, for us and every other craftsman I know. It’s been very, very tough. It’s very hard to make a living doing this from scratch.

There’s another reality, something that not a lot of people appreciate, and that is, it’s almost impossible in the 21st century to make money with your two hands. You need more. In other words, you need a collective. Or a cooperative, or a group, or employees. You need more than just your hands. Especially if you’re working in a metropolitan area. How on earth could you possibly work in New York City, just with your hands, making maybe $28,000 a year? You couldn’t live there.

Would you say that in terms of the marketplace, the time is ripe for what a craftsman can bring to the design of a product – that is, that knowledge of material and process and, well, the soul that comes with being a craftsman?

Yeah, I do. One of the problems with industrial design as it’s practiced is the same problem that is practiced with architecture. People need to have an intimate familiarity with materials – how they work, how they don’t work. And the best way to have that intimate relationship is to work with the materials. Far too many architects have never touched a brick in their life. They have no idea how to lay a brick. They don’t understand how wood works. And there are industrial designers who do everything two-dimensionally, especially now with the computer, on the screen. They don’t immerse themselves in the process of making it. 

You might be interested to know that I do not design furniture on a piece of paper. I design it three-dimensionally, on a workbench. I design it, and it works or it doesn’t work, and I change it. And in the process, the word “serendipity” here is appropriate, because chance often plays a role in the design.

In fact, just the other day I was working on a little jewelry box that I want to make. I call it a treasure box. I was doing it at my workshop at home, and I had it all done except for the base, and I did not have a piece of 3/4-inch material that I wanted to build a base out of. I was going to have a little quarter-round molding around the outside. Well, that’s how I had it in my mind, but I didn’t have the wood. So what did I do? I made the top and the bottom interchangeable, and guess what? It’s a beautiful little cube. It’s much nicer than it would have been had I had the material.

So what does that mean? It means that chance – the fact that I didn’t have the wood – resulted in part in influencing the design. And that happens all the time! When you’re working at something, as you go forward, you adjust, you change, you change course, and sometimes you’ll abandon it entirely because you realize, this isn’t going to work. You cannot design a chair on a piece of paper. You have to design with your – bottomside. You have to sit in it. You have to do it three dimensionally.

Did it take a long time for you to learn what would translate well from a handbuilt piece to one that would be viable for production and the market?

Oh, yes. In fact, we’re still learning. The temptation always is to design more like what the artist would produce, irrespective of how it can be replicated – you know, design a pure form, in isolation. The other side of that coin is to design so that something can easily be built. Now when you do that, you run the temptation of making what I call High Victorian furniture, which is pretty much awful, and the reason it was so overly ornamented is because it could be. You know, there were machines that would press oak. There were machines that could automatically make little balls and gargoyles and dentilation and all this gingerbread that goes onto furniture and houses. They designed that because they could design it. Hell, if you can put five balls on the bottom of it, why not put 20? So this kind of wild exuberance occurs.

The worst design, I think, is design that is first and foremost designed in order to be produced. The second-worst is something that is designed without any reference to having it be reproduced, and therefore it cannot be replicated, or not intelligently replicated. So what am I asking for? A balance. To always have in the back of your mind the understanding that whatever I’m doing has to apply to the materials, and the machining, and the dimensions and so forth that are in place.

And yet has to be creatively satisfying to you – it is your vision.

It is definitely a balance.

I’m trying to remember at what point I started to become aware of Thomas Moser as a very successful furniture maker. I would see these elegant little discreet ads in certain publications, like The New Yorker. Was that a deliberate sort of targeted marketing?

Sure. That was very fortunate. We started with just our local little market here in Maine. And then we graduated to being statewide. The Maine Times was a weekly magazine that we advertised in, and Down East magazine, which was a monthly. Then we’d finally sold to every doctor in southern Maine – you know, you do that. And then we said, well, gee, we have to go outside of Maine. So we had what we called a ‘212 Initiative’ – in other words, New York City. And The New Yorker was the engine that drove that. We at one point had the longest history of advertising in The New Yorker of any other advertiser. I think we went 26 years, at least – at least – eight or ten or sometimes 20 times a year, every other issue, something like that. That had a huge effect; that really gave us a leg up. I don’t remember what the percentage is, but a whole bunch of the New Yorkers were sold outside of New York City. They were doing 800,000 print in a run, and so that really sort of helped us. And then, word of mouth. And then, of course, we opened showrooms. New York, San Francisco, Boston, Freeport, Maine –  they’ve all done well. We’re now in Greenwich, Connecticut, that’s a new one, and in the mainline of Philadelphia.

Your designs are lovely – contemporary, classic, easy to live with, elegant.

That’s nice to hear. Those are good words. I like all of them. My son Dave is doing, not all, but a good part of the designing now.

And does he design hands-on as well?

Oh, absolutely. He’s never been schooled for it, either.  I’ve never – a) taken a business course in my life or b) taken a design course. Although I did study the history of art, as a graduate student in architecture. But, yeah, both of us are self-taught.

I think there’s nothing more exciting than discovering with your hands. Lately I’ve been sculpting quite a bit in clay. I was going to go to Italy a few years ago and try cutting marble. I still have to do that. But I still love making things. I can’t think of any other way to live.

Many say that no matter what, the handwork and materials remain a touchstone.

Well, I’ve had a few heroes in life. Sam Maloof was one of them. And Sam, he had, I think, like, five guys in the shop, and he worked hands-on right to the last day.

Years ago I met and spent an afternoon with Hans Wegner. He was the absolute premier chair designer in Europe for the 20th century. He worked north of Copenhagen. He’s the one who created the Peacock Chair and the China Chair and the Wishbone Chair and some of these classics that have been replicated. Anyway, I asked him, I said, ‘Of all the chairs you’ve designed, Hans, which is the one that you are most proud of?’ And he said, ‘It’s the little Wishbone chair. I sell it for $140, and it’s on every ferry in Denmark. Every Dane, at least once or twice, sometimes five times a week, sits on those chairs on the ferry.’ So he was most proud of the fact that his designs were appreciated by his countrymen, not just a handful of very rich people.

That’s a beautiful story. It must feel incredible to know your work is accessible to a lot of people.

Yeah. If you were going to license someone else to produce it, their manufacturing procedure would be such that it could be sold at a much lower price. 

But then you give up control to a certain extent. It has to be the right match, of course.

Well, you know, I look at Florence Knoll as a model. They were able to do exquisite work, by the thousands. Every major Internationalist from the 1950s designed for Knoll. And Herman Miller – they had some pretty good Charles Eames, the work he did was pretty well executed. He’s a classic. He didn’t manufacture anything, I don’t think. I think it was all licensed.

Are you still in the studio much?

Oh, sure, three days a week, sometimes more. And I have a shop at home that I work in. I just designed a sofa. I can’t sew, so I’ve got somebody else doing the cushions. I’m working on this little treasure box. What else? I’m sculpting a bust of my oldest son. I did him 35 years ago, so I’m going to do a before and after.

Sounds like a full, rich, busy creative life.

I can’t imagine any other way.

And you have good people to help you run the company.

I have wonderful, wonderful people. You know, the work ethic in Maine is very, very strong, still. There’s an enormous amount of pride. Every piece of furniture that we make is signed by the person who made it, and the amount of pride that goes into that signature is unbelievable. You know, there are so few people in America today whose work is going to be understood and appreciated by their great-great grandchildren who have not yet been born. And so we have that advantage.

One last thing. The decision to abbreviate your name – that must have been very deliberate.

It was.

From a marketing standpoint, that was terrific.  It made you look and think, “Is this antique? No, it’s contemporary.”  It had wonderful associations.

Right, exactly. I was a college professor, and I was teaching at Bates College. I took a sabbatical to start this company. Anyway, I was driving down the road with a friend of mine, and I said, “Well, what should I call it? How about the Dovetail Shop, or Mortise and Tenon?” And Paul said, “Well, why don’t you call it your name, Thomas Moser?” Well, no one called me Thomas. It was Tom – Tom Moser. I said, “Well, Tom Moser’s kind of bland. We’ll call it Thomas Moser.” 

Then I got to thinking, since I’m a great lover of American antiques: a lot of furniture makers put paper labels in their work, and it would always be Jas. for James, or Wm. for William, or Chas. for Charles.

It’s quaint and charming.

Sure. It’s very 19th century. So I said, well, how about T-H-O-S, Thos. Moser? I’d never called myself that. But that’s what we called it, and you’re quite right.

The other thing that was serendipitous? We were on Cobbs Bridge Road, New Gloucester, Maine. Well, now, what can be more Yankee than that? If I had been from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, I don’t think this thing would have worked.