Imagine an Ivy-league graduate with well-educated parents. Dad is a lawyer, Mom a historian. Instead of going some traditional route our newly minted college graduate is smitten with making things, especially furniture. Eventually his love for making things translates into starting a school where others can explore the glories of making beautiful things with their own hands.
Well, Peter Korn is that man. Now in his mid-sixties he ventured out on a most unlikely path, but one that he has never regretted. He tells the story in his beautifully rendered book, Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman.
Here is five minute video of Peter Korn’s school for making furniture:
Moore: To have a bit of the context, tell our readers why you chose a very different profession than most of your classmates from The University of Pennsylvania.
Korn: It may be more accurate to say that the profession of woodworking chose me. All the time I was in school, right through college, I felt that I was living life at second-hand. Real life was somewhere out there, waiting to be discovered. When I finished college in 1972, I moved to Nantucket Island, which was then a quiet, forgotten place. I needed a job and applied to every type of business. As it turned out, the first offer I had was from a carpenter. Building things out of wood with my own hands opened the door to a life that felt authentic, and after two years I began to make furniture.
Moore: What do you find most satisfying about building beautiful furniture?
Korn: There are stretches in the workshop where one becomes so immersed in the making process that time and self disappear. That depth of engagement is the creative state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” and it is immensely satisfying.
Moore: George Trow gave you some counsel about “stepping outside normalcy.” How formative was his input?
Korn: I would say that George’s input was less formative than was his counterexample. I could barely keep up with his conversation, although I had no doubt that it was brilliant. Referring to his own predicament in life, George once told me that the more deeply you think, the smaller your audience becomes, until finally you find yourself speaking to an audience of one…and you are relegated to the madhouse. My feeling, at that moment, was that it would be more than enough, for me, to someday communicate just one true thing accessibly and straightforwardly.
Moore: My own bias (based on counseling many men) is that a large number don’t really incline towards their true vocation for fear that it won’t pay the bills. What are your own thoughts on how big a motivation fear is in not taking one’s best path for work?
Korn: My feeling on this question is that you have one shot at this life, so follow your heart early and often. Trying and failing isn’t the worst experience, as long as you learn and adapt. I failed to make an acceptable living as a furniture maker, and when I closed that door, others opened that built on the skills I had gained. Often, the biggest obstacles to success are the rules we set for ourselves, and I certainly had to change my own expectations to reach a good place. Similarly, many students at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship dream of working alone as self-employed furniture makers. Unfortunately, when one works alone there generally isn’t enough time for marketing, maintenance, bookkeeping, sales, purchasing, and everything else it takes to build a successful business, while still putting in enough hours at the bench. One solution is to build a larger business and hire employees, but this takes the owner away from the bench and into the office. Another is to work for someone else and spend all day, every day, at the bench. But something in the initial business model often has to change in order to pay the bills.
Moore: You mention that the Renaissance changed how we understood art. My marginal note on this page is “Massive implications flow from this.” Unpack for us a bit of what the Renaissance did when it comes to categorizing true art.
Korn: The cultural definition of art has changed throughout history, and continues to change today. The separation of object making into fine and applied arts only came into being as the Renaissance made a hierarchical distinction between the work of the mind and the work of the body. Art and architecture were associated with mind. What we now call craft was associated with the needs of the body and relegated to lower status (where it remains to this day). One of the central themes of the book is to show how “woodworkers who design and build one-of-a-kind functional furniture and potters who throw utilitarian teapots and dinnerware are as likely to be exploring, expressing, and prescribing for the human condition as are painters and sculptors.”
Moore: What has been the most gratifying thing about starting a school where others can develop their own abilities to make beautiful furniture?
Korn: The best part of establishing a nonprofit woodworking school has been pulling in harness toward a goal in which I believe, alongside of the wonderful individuals who have gravitated to our staff, board of directors, faculty, and community of support. I love the people with whom I work.
Moore: What are a few things you would like readers to take away from reading your book?
Korn: Practicing a craft or any creative art can be rewarding in ways that go far beyond the standard societal measures of wealth and fame. There is the sheer pleasure of the work itself, of trusting in one’s hands, of experiencing flow, of seeing tangible results, of adding some small bit of beauty to the world. There is the feeling of utilizing one’s human capacities to the fullest, with head, hands, and heart singing in unison. There is a quiet sense that one’s thoughts and actions make a difference within a larger frame of reference.
The effort to bring something new into the shared world out of one’s own imagination can be daunting. But while trying to do so—whether in the creative arts, science, business, or even one’s own kitchen—we generate lives that are rich in meaning and fulfillment, especially if the things that we create will matter not only to ourselves, but also to others.