Why We Make Things Q&A with Peter Korn

Why We Make Things Q&A with Peter Korn

In anticipation of his new book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, I talked with Peter Korn, executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, about the woodworking school, his thoughts on craft, and what’s in store for the future. You can also read my review of his book in the December/January issue of American Craft.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship?
For starters, just in terms of placing the school in the broader scheme of things, if you were living in this country and you wanted to have a career as a professional designer and maker of wooden furniture, there are three schools that you would look at for that sort of training. One is the North Bennett Street School, one is the College of the Redwoods, and one is us. And so what we’re trying to do in our longer programs, especially in our nine-month programs, is give you the absolute best training we can in a given amount of time and as cost effectively as possible. Tuition for a nine-month course is a lot of money ($18,000), but there are 40 hours a week of contact time with faculty, two faculty for 12 students, and 24/7 access to the facilities. It’s a really high level of professional training that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s an alternative to an MFA, you might say. Our training is less conceptually oriented than most MFAs tend to be and more hands-on design- and technically-oriented.

Why did you write this book?
There are a few reasons. One is that I can find no books that are written by makers about the making process and that talk about it in a way that I could relate to - from a larger point of view, from a philosophical point of view, from one that made sense in light of my own experience. I’ve been looking for them still. My book falls in a very strange category in that way.

My progression has been from being interested in how you make things to being interested in design and then moving on to why we make things.

As a craftsman myself - going through my life and observing other craftspeople and artists - I think we generally don’t have very good models for understanding what we do and what its value is. We do it because we’re passionate about it. We do it because it feels good. We do it because we’re compelled to do it. But when it comes to actually thinking about it, discussing it, understanding it in some rational way? We don’t have very good models for doing that – at least I don’t think we do. I’m hoping to at least contribute something to that sort of a conversation - some ideas about why we make things, why it matters, how it fits into the scheme of living a good life, and how the individual effort relates to society as a whole. I hope that there will be people who find what I’ve said stimulating and of use.

How do you see craft and design intersecting?
There’s actually a chapter that’s not in the book that’s about this. The studio craft movement is a demographic event, like any other art movement. It comes along because of certain reasons in society; it has a life cycle, and then other ways of thinking about objects and making take its place. The craft movement from which the American Craft Council came in the 1940s, and which my generation was so heavily involved in, is fading away now. There will continue to be young people who are interested in making things with a craft ethos. Where I see excitement about designing and making things today is at the satellite shows around the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. I see young people who are as passionate as a person can be about this process of coming up with an idea and bringing it into the world. That is similar to studio craft. Where the craft movement was all about developing one’s individual virtuosity, the impetus today is being channeled differently because there’s a different cultural environment toward the making of objects for production.

And I should also say that as a person who came out of the studio craft movement and founded a school based on those values and point of view, I am very excited about helping the school be of use to that new generation of makers. And the school is evolving to continue to have social value, in terms of being a place where knowledge is accumulated and transmitted.

What changes have you seen in your years in the craft field?
I’ve been teaching for 26 years. What I’ve seen since the late '70s is the rise of the studio furniture movement, and now I see it’s sort of in its sunset. The population of our students, for a long, long time, was aging. These sorts of cultural interests go in long waves and cycles. I knew that there would be a decline in interest in furniture making, at least as we relate to it, before there would be a resurgence of interest. And to my great surprise, for the last couple of years, I’ve now seen an increase in the number of young people coming through here. I actually think the pendulum may be back on the other stroke.

For example: In our 12-week and nine-month courses the median age in the class was 26. For us, that’s young; that’s great. I teach a two-week basic woodworking class five times a year, and in the next class I’m teaching, half of the students are women and the median age is somewhere in the 20s, which is a real change.

Can you talk about what an immersive craft experience does for a person?
It’s like watching all the lights go on. People get in an environment where creativity and making are highly valued. People get empowered and activated in ways that just don’t happen in isolation. At our school, it’s worked out really well because in addition to the building that has the gallery and the office, there are three separate workshop facilities with different programs in each one. Having that many different instructors and students on one campus all interested in and excited about the same thing creates more energy on campus.

You will hear people say that taking courses, even a two-week course here, can change someone’s life. But this is what people tell me with reasonable frequency - that coming here changed their life. It may have lit the fuse for them to seriously pursue a really rewarding hobby for the rest of their lives, or they may be professionals that start to be able to do things that they had not even imagined before. It’s actually true. It’s what happens.

Technology and its use in the craft field is changing rapidly. How do you approach that?
We had a class in using CNC routers this summer, and we are introducing the use of CNC technology into our nine-month course, simply as one more skill to teach students. We’re not luddites. We’re trying to incorporate those capabilities into what we teach as they become relevant to people who are going to be working they way our students work, which is usually small-shop, self-employed designer/maker, product designer, that sort of thing. And we’re not going to buy a CNC. We’re going to have students work with local CNC operators who charge by the hour. That’s how - at least for the foreseeable future - most people would be working anyway.

All the different technological things that exist - whether you’re talking about older technologies, like the router, or newer technologies, like the 3D printer - they are tools in the service of bringing ideas into reality. One of the tricks is not to become too dependent on one technology, but to broaden one’s horizons. If you’re too dependent on one technology, it’s limiting - including being too dependent on hand tools. You might as well make use of everything.

What role does the gallery play at the center?
Students have the opportunity to see excellent work first hand, and it was very important to be able to give the students in our nine-month course a professional exhibition experience. Another thing we do with the gallery is try to advance public awareness of the field.

We have a lot of shows that are Maine-centric; we have a biennial for Maine woodworkers going up in January, and that has actually been really interesting. It serves to increase the awareness and communication among the Maine woodworking community, as well as the public’s awareness of it. It contributes to the professional growth and overall quality of the Maine woodworking community.

We also usually do at least one show each year that’s national in scope, and we’ve had several shows travel to museums around the country. One of the ones I loved the most was two years ago. It was a competition for woodworkers under 30, and it was an incredible amount of work to pull it off. We had $40,000 in prizes, and we raised the money to have free shipping. The excitement, in terms of the number of applications, and the people who got into it got fairly good publicity for their work, and then the energy at the opening and the fact that it traveled to four museums around the country – that was all really great.

What’s coming up for the center?
We built a new woodturning studio and turned our old woodturning studio into a proper finishing classroom with two spray booths. That’s going to allow us to introduce some new programs that will be 12-week intensive, professional trainings in woodturning, finishing, and woodcarving. There are no curricula like that in the country, in those areas or anything close to them, that I’m aware of.

We finished a $3 million endowment campaign, part of which is to create a scholarship fund. I think a major area of growth for the school over the next decade will be to increase the endowment for scholarships so that a broader audience can afford to come here and go to school.

In terms of me personally, I intend to keep working here for an indeterminate amount of time, but I’m also planning to retire while I’m still relatively young because it’s healthier for the organization to not wait until I’m a doddering old curmudgeon. The transition from founder to the next generation of leadership is really critical for a nonprofit, and I think the board is going to take that on in a very direct and measured way. Our growth as a school really has been predicated all along on the idea of founding a permanent institution that does not need me in any way, and we’ve gotten there. At this point I’m no harder to replace than any other executive director - so I’m highly dispensable, and I expect to be dispensed with - but not right away. Not next week.

Anything else you'd like to add?
What shouldn’t get lost is the idea that’s important to me, the idea that animates the school. What matters about making is that it is a form of being creatively engaged in the world that seems to really be a key to finding meaning and fulfillment in one’s life. And I don’t care if it’s in crafts or sculpture or composition or even business. Really doing the hard work of trying to change the world in some way that matters is what we try to facilitate here in our field and what seems to matter in general. It’s a different take on what matters in life than what the mainstream of our society serves up.

To learn more, check out Korn’s website and the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.