We ask Peter Korn, furniture maker and founder of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine: Why do we need to make stuff?
By Ian Aldrich
Jun 16 2020
Shown in his home workshop, author and woodworking instructor Peter Korn is the focus of a mini documentary released online last fall, A Life’s Work: The Philosophy of a Craftsman.Photo Credit : Trent Bell
The importance of craft is a subject that Peter Korn has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about—first as a furniture maker on Nantucket in the early 1970s, and later as the founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. The author of Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, Korn believes that using our hands to turn natural materials like wood and clay into meaningful objects is a vital part of the human experience. “The creative impulse is ineradicable,” he says. We caught up with Korn, now 69, at his campus office to talk shop.
Human beings have been evolving for a long time, and for most of it the focus has been fashioning things from natural materials to create objects. I mean, the reward for building a better spear was that chances were you were going to survive longer. It’s biological as opposed to cultural. That’s true even as we live in a more digital world. You see the fallout all the time: People get detached; there’s a gnawing, hollow center that they can’t put their finger on…. We simply didn’t evolve to experience the world through devices.”
“Going into a creative space, you become a different person. I’m not saying it’s like Star Trek, where you go into the machine and come out and you look different. But you are going to feel different, and your experience of yourself and the world around you is going to be improved in some way.”
“What you get out of craft or the creative process isn’t so much what you end up with—it’s being engaged with the process as it’s happening. That’s the fulfilling part. When you’re knitting a sweater or making a piece of furniture, you’re fully engaged in something that’s as good as life gets. When you’re skilled at using tools and working with nice materials, it feels good in a multi-sensory way. You’re listening to the tools. You’re feeling the impact of the mallet or the chisel. You lose yourself. That’s just a sheer physiological pleasure. The normal worries about life—bills, the kids, your work—fade into the background. I think of it as a chance to inhabit your highest self.”
“I don’t think it’s necessary to do what you love for money to get full value out of it. I meet people all the time who think that if they sold their furniture, it would validate them and make them real somehow. Like that’s the only way they could be considered actual furniture makers. But if they’re making furniture, they are real furniture makers. And getting paid for what you do isn’t always more pleasurable. I know that from experience.”
“What I think really matters is the process of coming up with an idea and making it manifest in the world. Not any idea—I’m not suggesting that coming up with a better idea to make turtles extinct counts—but an idea that you will truly find meaningful. To me, craft is a good way to do that, because when you’re working with real materials you can see what you’re doing and you can measure the success of what you’re trying. There are tangible results you can share. There’s tremendous satisfaction in that.”
“I have a lot of respect for the people who come here as students. They’re willing to start at a basic level of something and take the chance that they may not have the aptitude for what they’re trying to do. They’re risking time, money, and ego. And then there’s the risk they take of making a readjustment to their understanding of themselves in the world: how they see themselves and the story they have of who they are. That’s not easy, and not everyone is willing to do that. But the rewards can be astonishing. A young man from California came here a few years ago. He was a cameraman in the film business. Maybe there was something in his life that he wasn’t finding satisfying. Well, in the few years since then, he’s quit his career and become a professional wood turner. He now travels around the country and talks to woodworking groups. He found something in himself and about himself, and he has a whole different way of life now.”
“When you’re starting on the creative process, you can’t know the result before you get there, or it wouldn’t be a creative process. It’s a process of discovery. Every piece of furniture I make is a snapshot of my ideas at a given time and a springboard for making it better the next time. But you have to do it. You can’t just sit around and think about what you want to do. Ideas just disappear so fast. Since my book came out, I’ve had people come up to me and say things like ‘I was a weaver when I was younger, but I don’t know how to get back into it. What should I do?’ The answer is really simple: Get some yarn and start weaving. You just need to start doing it.”