Furniture goes manly

Joost Van Bleiswijk, a 34-year-old
Dutch designer, makes domestic objects like clocks and candlesticks,
chessboards and china cabinets out of Cor-Ten (otherwise known as “weathering”)
steel that he sets outside his Eindhoven studio for a month or so, until it
accrues a nice coat of rust.

Aaron Raymer, a sculptor born in
Louisville, Ky., and living in Brooklyn, had a day job installing Sheetrock for
years before he realized he could use the stuff in his own pieces.

He used to make shiny, highly
polished pieces that gleamed like prerecession bling, or a Manhattan skyscraper
built before the crash. Then he became interested in tougher, grittier
finishes, and he’s been playing with the weather ever since.

“Small raindrops and lots of wind
looks best — who knows why?” van Bleiswijk said recently, speaking by cell
phone outside a restaurant in his hometown. Soon, he said, he’ll be working his
pieces over with a blowtorch. His goal, he said, is to “do even heavier metal,
and do it even more rough. I think, in this time, people are bored with
too-perfect things.”

Thwack! So much for lacy Tyvek
garlands, corseted velvet chairs and Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Or delicate
Black Forest woodland imagery — indeed, anything that smacks of embroidery or
the gentle arts is for sissies. So are teddy bear chairs, or even high-tech
chairs designed with computer software and in materials hatched in a test tube.

Rough-looking furniture that
carries a whiff of shop class, handmade by guys who have their own power saws —
and know how to use them — is design’s new tack. Art is a many-gendered thing,
but right now it is emphasizing the influence of the Y chromosome.

“Butch craft” is how Murray Moss,
the canny marketer and former fashion entrepreneur, describes the work of van
Bleiswijk and others. “It has a “rough-hewn, virile and heavy-lifting
aesthetic,” Moss said, albeit one that is sensitively rendered or considered, a
nod to the history and semiotics of the word “butch.” 

There are boiled-leather vases
cinched with wing nuts and riven by brutalist steel shafts made by Simon Hasan,
a British designer. The undulating shapes look like the bubbling lines of an R.
Crumb drawing. Hasan uses a technique once deployed to soften and shape the
thick hides for medieval body armour; in a photo on his Web site, he wears a
smithy’s apron.

The “keel tables” by Oscar Magnus
Narud, a Norwegian designer, have gutsy iron legs you whack in yourself with a
mallet provided by Narud. He said he liked the idea of making furniture that
was resilient and utilitarian; furniture you could fix yourself, and even if it
was chipped wouldn’t be ruined.

“I’d been looking at old Norwegian
pieces that are put together with little fixings,” said Narud, who works in
London, sharing studio space with his Royal College of Art pal, Peter Marigold.
“A lot of pegs and wedges and things like that that are very simple but make a
very sturdy piece of furniture.” It is in contrast, he noted, to super-modern,
super-slick furniture whose value would plummet if its precious veneer were to
be nicked. 

“I think today people are very
suspicious of a certain kind of ornament,” Marigold said. “Like when I see
laser cut, I think that’s just lazy design. This kind of restraint” — restraint
being the quality he was assigning his own and other semi-tough pieces — “is
important because you try to focus on the idea rather than the form. I think
things that are well finished should come from industry. For me to make
something that’s smooth and shiny would take a lot of unnecessary effort that I
think would distract from the content. The ‘butchness’ is a focusing of my
effort rather than a lack of focus.”

Marigold is no mere art school
theorist, however. He has serious craft cred and can wield a power saw with the
best of them. Tellingly, he recalled a conversation he had recently in a pub
about English schools and how, he said, “If you’re creative and vaguely intelligent,
you’re pushed into doing art, but if you are — how can I put this? — a bit
thick, you’re pushed into doing craft.”

Do tough times call for tough work?
“Do people want to be reminded of tough times?” asked David McFadden, chief
curator and vice president of the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan. “A
real collector might want pieces that carry the voice of right now.”

But he added, “If you are looking
for a functional piece of furniture, you may not want to see rough screws.”

Butchness, he continued, is in the
eye of the beholder. “One man’s butch is another man’s femme. We attribute
certain characteristics to design objects — they are clues to personality, but
not the whole Freudian session. Marigold’s work is an example of the
juxtaposition of the extremely refined with the extremely crude. It’s the
design version of the raw and the cooked.”

The fathers of butch furniture
could be said to be makers like Paul Evans, fomenters of the studio craft
movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Or Tom Dixon in the 1980s.

Moss draws a line back to a “bowl”
made with a slice of an iron I-beam by Enzo Mari around 1957.  “The toughness is there in the material,” he
said. “And in the banality, the humbleness of the material. And yet the
elegance is truly evident.”

For the last 10 years, said Paul
Johnson, a gallerist in New York who represents vintage work by Evans and other
’70s-era craft types, “design has been very futuristic, very flashy. I think
what’s happened in the world has allowed the artists who make more affordable
things with their hands to gain market share over someone who has to spend a
ton of money to get their work produced.”

As McFadden observed: “People are
really eager to experience process, and something tangible. We live inside our
heads so much. There’s sensuality to these designs, and it’s not in terms of
comfort, but in a more basic, instinctive sense. The other part of marketing
contemporary design is that everyone is looking for a younger audience of
collectors. I think the butch craft design definitely has a resonance with a
younger person. There’s a humour or a whimsy to the phrase — it sounds cool.”

Andrew Wagner, editor of ReadyMade
magazine and a former editor of American Craft magazine, put out by the
American Craft Council, described Moss as “a master marketer.”

He added, ruefully: “What the old
school craft world needs is a Murray Moss. It needs a Moss to step up and come
up with the language. Murray has an amazing knack of taking stuff that’s pretty
far out there and making it come to life. What he’s showing now, and what these
guys are doing, is nothing new, it’s been happening for decades. But people got
caught up in production furniture, and this idea of making it yourself kind of
got lost and kind of stale.”

In an era defined by an appetite
for “conspicuous authenticity,” to borrow a phrase from Andrew Potter, author
of “The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves,” out this year
from HarperCollins, it’s easy to be cynical. Butch Craft could be arts
collective in Bushwick, or maybe a Viking metal band, the phrase peppered with
umlauts, or a reclaimed-wood furniture collection produced by bearded hipsters.

Feh, Moss swatted the idea away.
“This isn’t an inelegant going back to the rough gesture,” he said. “It’s not a
guy going out and making a bed of antlers. It’s a progression toward a very
elegant gesture. It’s just that the materials have this toughness and are an
alternative means of giving an art content form and expression in a functional
object.”

What he means is that his artists
have thought hard to present rough. Which leads us back to “butch,” a term
hatched years ago by the lesbian community to describe a kind of
hyper-maleness: a woman’s performance of masculinity, as queer theorists like
Judith Halberstam, a professor of gender studies at the University of Southern
California, and author of “Female Masculinity,” will point out.

“It’s an old term, but it’s still
brimming with meaning,” Halberstam said recently. “Today, I would define it as
a counter-gender identity.”

Moss would agree. “I thought about
this a lot,” he said. “I used the term ‘butch,’ versus ‘masculine’ or ‘tough’
or ‘manly,’ because what I mean by this is work that is stereotypically
considered manly, but expressed by a personality that is stereotypically considered
sensitive or feminine.”

In other words, an artist.

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