The Book Everyone’s Talking About

This book that everyone is talking about has finally arrived, and it’s amazing.

For once, I’m not talking about a Gordon White book, although I’m waiting eagerly for the second volume all the same.

No, I’m talking about Chris Schwarz’s (blog) new book, The Anarchist’s Design Book available from Lost Art Press,which is about how to build vernacular furniture (i.e, the home-built stuff, not the fancywork Chippendale desk or the Shaker armoire), which was popular from 1200-ish AD until the middle part of the 1800s.

His basic point is simple: Why should your taste in furniture be the same as your boss’s boss’s boss? Why should you want to build, own and use high-quality furniture which represents the tastes of initially the aristocracy, then the oligarchy, then the kleptocracy? Why should you use and admire the furniture tastes of the people who want to enslave you?  Why not build your own — simple, affordable, producible using simple and easily-available tools and inexpensive but sturdy wood — and demonstrate to the world both your artisanship and your lack of concern with the high style of the Neo-Classical and Rococo eras? Wouldn’t that be nice?

Books of lost art
shown with “with the grain” and “anarchist’s tool chest”

I’ve come to admire Schwarz’s writing style and his woodworking style.  He was the editor of Popular Woodworking magazine for many years, and then left. Shortly thereafter, he wrote The Anarchist’s Tool Chest (my ‘review‘ here), about developing a love for hand-tools in woodworking, and learning to make beautiful things with only the traditional set of about fifty tools that every wood-worker should gradually collect and care for.  It was the sort of love affair with wood and with craft that I admired as a beginner in the world of design thinking, and helped push me in the direction of modifying my school’s Design Lab as a makerspace with carpentry tools and a focus on building stuff out of good materials as opposed to scraps.  I learn things from him, not just about tools or how to build things, but also how to think as a woodworker and a designer.

The book itself is beautiful.  Lost Art Press produces elegant volumes well-assembled. The Anarchist’s Design Book has a book-cloth cover embossed with a white, cursive of whorls and swirls.The edges of the pages are black, but the cream-white pages inside are illustrated with copperplate images produced especially for this volume by Vermont intaglio artist Briony Morrow-Cribbs.

The first part of the book is an introduction to the philosophy of the anarchist woodworker — to detach, in part, from worrying about mastering the arts of veneer and dovetails, and focus on producing simple but beautiful furniture for your own use. Schwarz doesn’t spend a great deal of time on his philosophy, except to speak lovingly and honorably about the work of common people to make their own things for long and hard use — and ultimately, when broken, to be fuel for the fire that makes the bread that you eat while sitting on the floor until the next chair or stool is finished.

The second part of the book is a lengthy discussion of staked furniture — the sawhorse, the three-legged backstool, and the trestle table with a drawer.  Photographs and copperplate artistry provide complete directions; a tool list at the end provides a thorough explanation of what to buy to supplement your existing tool kit, and what to make where necessary.

The third part of the book deals with furniture made of boards: tool chests, board chests, armoires, bookshelves, the aumbry… the coffin.  It’s telling, really, that Schwarz reminds us in the opening lines of this chapter that we have the right to make our own coffins, and that no funeral home and no cemetery has the right to tell us our DIY coffin is unacceptable even though it’s built with building-supply pine at $0.80 a square foot.

And that’s sort of his overall point, really.  You can build the cradle for your child using staked construction and board construction, and you can save your loved ones the trouble of buying an expensive casket, and do all the different tasks in between, with furniture and constructions you build for yourself.  He tells the story, as well, of meeting cabinetry expert George Reid many years ago.  George lived in a ranch-style house in Ohio — and yet, during a tour of the house and workshop, Schwarz was struck by how out-of-place and weird the furniture was: replica Queen Anne dressers and Georgian corner cabinets, Windsor chairs and Chippendale highboys. In an ordinary and fairly small midwestern house, Reid had replicated the furniture of self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe.

This book asks, “why should it be like this?” And then provides clear instructions on how to build beautiful furniture that matches an aesthetic far better suited to our own lives; an aesthetic that feels more in line with the simple loom, and my efforts to make clothes of my own. A great read.  I have some furniture to build, I think.

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