Artful Furniture: The Commonplace Transformed into the Extraordinary
By Brian Fair Berkey
Peter Joseph Gallery, 1993
One of the central tenets of postmodern thought holds that the meaning of a given text (that is, any object imbued with cultural significance) is fluid, not fixed. Thus meaning is not inherent, because the viewer brings with him a uniquely-angled perspective, beyond the control of the maker; he makes of the text what he will. By this reasoning, there is no true author, only a various set of readers.
As a writer myself, I bridle at the very notion. Hey, wait a minute – if I didn’t write this, who did? And yet I can’t deny the hard kernel of truth to the idea, having witnessed with firsthand astonishment how variously readers have taken what I thought was perfectly clear in my own work. The world of postmodern consciousness is a tricky place, full of paradox, and no one illustrates this better than James Schriber.
From the moment I first met James, long before I had seen any of his work, I was struck by his heightened sense of style. He is one of those people for whom it is almost a kind of aura, subtle but immediately visible. From the house he built and lives in (imagine a classic porch wrapped country farmhouse as if it had been “modernized” in the Fifties, the whole of it then embellished in a witty update), to the way he dresses (most often involving a tension between the banal and the elegant, say, a pair of expensive Italian shoes worn with beat-up jeans), James pursues the satisfactions of style with what amounts to a reflex.
By “style” I mean that set of individuating choices, conscious and otherwise, that all of us make as an expression of identity. Superficially, the palette might seem infinite – it’s a big world. But no one is sui generis, especially in this era of instant mass information and global-merchandising. We all swim in the same sea, filtering its nutrients through the sieve of our personal histories, savoring them according to that complex formulation of cultural determinants that we so casually refer to as “taste.” We absorb and metabolize, each in our own more-or-less unique fashion. The more stylistically-challenged among us will simply find a mode that approximates what we’re looking for and swallow it whole.
Artists, of course, carry the articulation of style to a different level, where it becomes a means of higher expression. And James’ most basic impulse – in the accoutrements of his daily life, as I mentioned above, but more importantly in his art – is to pick and choose, to mix up and modify.
Here is a postmodern man by nature, driven to mess with things until a new synthesis has taken place. And although it may not be immediately apparent from the work, he is unabashed in citing popular culture as the primary source of his inspiration.
Schriber was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, a child of the postwar baby boom. Dayton was home to Frigidaire, National Cash Register and a host of automotive-related industries; here was a city exemplary of that industrial optimism peculiar to the American Fifties and Sixties. From his father, who was a commercial contractor, James learned early on the pleasure of making objects with his hands; he was also intrigued by machinery, by the way things worked. He got his eye, he says, from his mother, a housewife and designer manque.
And there was quite a world to see. In those days how long ago it already seems – mass industrial design was still in its manic adolescence, as yet barely hindered by market research, media regard and other forms of self-consciousness. The luscious curves of a Sunbeam toaster, the tailfins of a ’59 Coupe de Ville: these seem to us now like artifacts of a lost Golden Age in much the same way that early Hollywood movies appear ineffably classic.
Given James’ academic credentials and the people he’s worked with over the years, he has the requisite appreciation of fine furniture’s history and speaks of it knowledgeably. But this came later. If you ask him what his most formative influence was, back at the beginning, he has a one-word reply: cars.
Dayton was a car-culture town, like hundreds of others around the country. And even as the geniuses of Detroit were yearly pumping out their extravagant visions, a significant fraction of the car-buying masses was already turning those designs to their own ends, chopping and channeling bodies, exposing and chroming working parts, decorating surfaces with lacquer and metal-flake, flame and pinstripe. Melding disparate elements into something different, into cars that were full of references to antecedents but still distinctly new. In a word, deconstructing them.
At some point, the young student of Big Daddy Roth turned into a Child of the Sixties. The British Invasion, itself a reworking of early American rock n’ roll with new elements, arrived with a shock; hard on its heals came the impeccably produced Motown groups, themselves not less a product of industrial Detroit than cars. Then finally the psychedelic era, with its counterculture ethic of rebellion and individualism. There were a lot of Believers, in both the music and the attitude; James was one of them. Here was a world waiting to be re-formed.
Through the lens of his politics, he began to see himself taking a different path. As yet unconnected to furniture, much less art, his vision simply involved living in a rural place, being self-reliant, doing something with his hands. So off he went to Vermont, and it was there, in the legendarily permissive atmosphere of Goddard College, that he discovered the process of making objects to please his own sense of rightness. Somewhere along the way, wood became the medium.
Since then, his career has taken a more traditional direction: the Artisanry Program at Boston University was followed by a stint with a design/build collective of friends from Goddard who worked on both residential and commercial buildings. For years now he has run a shop in New Milford, Connecticut, turning out not only commissioned pieces and gallery shows but architectural woodwork too. This commercial side of his business not only shows his fondness for the hurly-burly of contractors and deadlines, but harks back to his initial inspirations: designs meant to be made and sold, thenceforth to take a functional place in the world.
All his pieces begin life as a series of two-dimensional drawings, mostly elevations. “I like to start with a single graphic image,” James says, and, indeed, his finished work has a strong linear quality. But it also has real depth, especially in all the streamlined curves: Witness the cherry Bed (1993) and the pair of Bed Side Cabinets (1993). This third dimension he arrives at by a laying-on of hands through a succession of mock-ups.
It is a labor-intensive method of working, made more so by his compulsion to hash out the details of structure – to “engineer” it – until it has a beauty unitary with the whole piece. (You have only to see the bubinga Bench (1993), a single swag gesture realized to its last perfect detail, to understand this process. The motion-filled upsweep of the Coffee Table (1993) legs would do nicely, too.)
So as you gaze upon the highly finished objects on display here, bear in mind the person at the other end of the process, the one hassling around in his shop at the rough and uncertain beginning. At that point there is no object, only a set of influences and the artist’s skill in elaborating them. Viewed in the light of its inspirations, James’ furniture might seem the antithesis of everything I’ve related here: no loud colors, no flash, no sense of corporate design or mass production. No wheels, either. These are elegant, one-of-a-kind wooden objects, bespeaking lavish quantities of hand-work; they aren’t cars.
But somewhere, standing behind the motion and grace in all these voluptuous curves, their surfaces polished to a high shine, is a Dayton teenager with a sponge-like appreciation for pop culture and a sharp eye for design. From his love of boat-tail Corvettes and sunburst Stratocasters, of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the rounded-corner fridge in his Mom’s kitchen, comes this highly artful furniture. Now there’s a postmodern image for you, paradoxical though it may seem. Through the simple marvel of creative consciousness, he has transformed commonplace things into the extraordinary objects in front of you now.
Brian Fair Berkey (1951–1997) was an author and woodworker. He wrote The Keys To Tulsa (Washington Square Press, 1991), which was later made into a feature film. ©1993 Peter Joseph Gallery