Why we make things

The thick pine forest that lines the sides of southern Maine’s curving costal road is interrupted by a sloping green field, where four barn-red buildings are clustered together. Inside, table saws hum as they slice through planks of oak and lathes swiftly spin as they curve blocks of walnut.

“There’s a tremendous amount of creative problem solving in carpentry,” says Peter Korn, Executive Director for the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, as he motions over a banjo neck in progress on a workbench. The Center, he explains, teaches design and technical skills simultaneously, “because we want to encourage people to exercise their creative abilities along with their cognitive problem solving and their manual skills.” In 2013, Korn authored Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, a book charting his life and the development of his philosophy on making as it formed over a lifetime of working as a craftsman and teacher.

why we make

Ash table built by student Dave Richard

After receiving a history degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972, Korn set off for Nantucket and began to work as a carpenter—one of the few possible occupations available on the island.

A few years later, friends of his were expecting a baby and Korn decided to make the child a cradle based off an image he had seen in a book, where pine spindles were secured into a frame with Gothic arch-style curves. For three days, Korn crafted the cradle in an unheated barn. It was a transformative experience.

For the following 12 years, Korn worked as a self-taught and self-employed furniture maker, a period marked by moments of artistic success and critical acclaim—as well as struggles to make ends meet. “I never thought about efficiencies,” he says with a half-laugh. “I love cutting all my joinery by hand. No one in their right mind does that if they’re trying to put a reasonable amount of hours into a fine woodworking project.”

Without even slightly shifting his board-straight posture, Korn leans forward over his tidy desk as he begins to talk about the heart of his work. “I was trying to make furniture that had the qualities of simplicity, and integrity and grace,” he says. “I had imagined that by learning these skills and practicing them, I would cultivate those same qualities within myself. That led me to see that I had come to craft essentially as a process of becoming, or a process of self transformation.”

why we make

Centre for Furniture Craftsmanship. (Photo: Mike Juliana)

When his book Working with Wood: The Basics of Craftsmanship was published in 1993, Korn decided to jumpstart his dream of starting a woodworking school. “I wanted there to be an institution that stood up for the idea of craft in our society,” he explains. Korn rented a post office box to have a business address and advertised for two-week courses in basic woodworking. The classes quickly filled up, so Korn secured a barn on a Maine blueberry farm and taught nine courses to students travelling everywhere from California to Texas to learn how to cut joinery and plane wood. Over the following decades, the school has grown considerably: courses are taught year-round, three buildings have been added to the campus, and museum-worthy student work shines in the gallery.

“There is a deep centeredness in trusting one’s hands, mind and imagination to work as a single, well-tuned instrument—a centeredness that touches upon the very essence of fulfillment,” says Korn without once blinking his ice-blue eyes. “I think that we inhabit our humanity to the fullest when we inhabit our creatorly abilities.”

This story was originally published in Kaufmann Mercantile’s Field Notes.

Photo credit (header): Vicky Hugheston