Feature Mondays - Clark Kellogg archive

Monday 28 April 2014

We meet Clark Kellogg, a Texan-based furniture maker who loves creating functional pieces

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Like many children, Clark loved making things out of LEGO bricks, spending a lot of time building castles and spaceships, as well as more ambitious projects such as a 'working' guillotine! Built with help from his father, the guillotine had a wooden blade and was made for a high-school English-class assignment about Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. "To this day I'm not entirely sure what that book was about, but I had a lot of fun making the guillotine", he says.

Clark later took a two-week class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship (CFC) in Maine, before deciding to pursue a career in furniture making.

"It wasn't until after college that I realised you could build furniture for your actual job. It just hadn't occurred to me at all!" he explains. He enrolled in the then-brand--new nine-month Comprehensive programme at CFC, and a few years after that he completed the Fine Woodworking programme at the College of the Redwoods (CR) in California.

Favourite pieces

Clark's favourite pieces of his own work are the ones that are kept in his house and can be used every day. Some of these are items that were made on spec but didn't sell, but the ones that are most loved are the ones that Clark built specifically for himself and his wife. Part of their charm is that often these took just a few days to make, instead of the few months usually required to make a commissioned piece. "I really like a little kwila (Intsia bijuga) vanity table, which was a birthday present for my wife, and one of my favourite things ever is a dish/sink-implement rack, made from a piece of scrap kwila. It took all of about 10 minutes to make, but it makes me happy every time I hang something up on it", he says.

Awards and recognition

In 2010 Clark was excited to receive an Award of Merit for his cypress (Taxodium distichum) 'Garden Bench' from the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft as part of their CraftTexas show. A further honour came in 2012 when some of his lettercarving was included in Letter Arts Review's annual juried issue. "It was really nice to be recognised by a magazine that is not specifically focused on woodworking or furniture making," he explains.

Design considerations

Almost all of Clark's work is made on commission. He explains that his biggest consideration is always the function of a piece, "Even if that function is kind of made up - as it might be for a spec piece - I try to be as specific as possible. Whatever it is that the thing is supposed to be doing, I want it to do that one thing very, very well."

Once the function is established, he determines what the mood or tone of the piece will be, friendly or formal, masculine or feminine? "I try to imagine the piece sitting in the client's house, office, church or wherever. Is it smiling and waving, silently standing guard or is it happy sitting quietly off to one side?" he asks himself. Figuring out the tone of a piece will, more often than not, also determine what sort of wood he will end up using. "I know some makers prefer to start with the wood: 'I have this piece of walnut that just needs to be a cabinet', etc. But to me that feels too open-ended. It feels like floating in space."

Once those three things - function, tone and wood - are more or less worked out, everything else starts to fall into place. He will generally build a full-scale mock-up out of poplar (Populus spa.), cardboard and hot-glue to get a sense of the piece's volume and to work out if there are going to be any parts that could be problematic later on in the process. If need be, he will then make a full set of dimensional drawings, and after that "It's off to the races!" as he puts it.

Influences

The two makers who have had the most influence on Clark's work are James Krenov and Chris Pye. His thoughts on James Krenov are included in Makers' Maker, but here he describes his admiration for Chris Pye: "The variety of work that Mr Pye takes on, all of which is done to an exceptionally high level, is inspiring in itself, but the way he can coax life and movement and tension into a piece of wood is, to me, astounding. I think he might be some kind of wizard".

Clark also considers himself lucky to have had some 'amazing' teachers throughout his training, such as Peter Korn, David Upfill-Brown and Aled Lewis at CFC in Maine, Ejler Hjorth-Westh, Michael Burns and the other instructors at the CR shop in California.

David Pye's book The Nature and Art of Workmanship has had a huge impact on the way Clark works, or at least the way he thinks about work. "[David Pye> had this idea about levels of detail within a piece - that as someone approached a piece, be it a stone building or a wooden bowl - they would learn more and more about it. I try to keep that in mind while I am building a piece - there can be these little surprises that you might not have noticed the first, second or even fifth time you looked at it."

Lately, he has also been inspired by works from the Art Deco period. "Even if aesthetically it doesn't quite fit in with what I am working on at the moment, the underlying maximalist approach somehow appeals to me: the level of detail, the emphasis on materials, the idea of, just for lack of a better term, absolutely going for it. For me, coming up with a useable form - just the form itself - is difficult enough, but then to see the way that designers and architects of that era would pile detail into pieces, in a way that made sense and related to the whole - it wasn't just pattern for the sake of distracting busy-ness - is awe-inspiring", he explains.

Context vs design

For Clark, context is important and he always aims to fit a piece to its environment and its users, rather than trying to force it to conform to his own style. "Making a piece right, one that stands on its own and does't require all kinds of smirking, ironic subtext, to me, always takes precedence over 'design'", he says.

Prioritising context over design made Clark stand out from some of his fellow students, as he explains: "There was this weird thing at school where people were super-concerned about finding their 'voice', as though if all of your work didn't more or less look the same, you somehow didn't qualify as an artist, or a capital-D-Designer, or whatever. It felt like you had to pick a 'look' for your work, and whatever came up after that, you had to fit what you were doing to that look, even though it was sort of arbitrary to begin with. From one commission to the next, I have no idea what I am going to be working on. Even if pieces might be completely different from one another, I still try to make each and every one to the very best of my ability. I guess what I am trying to say is that, as best as I can, I try to let each piece be its own piece."

Plans for the future

As well as furniture commissions, 2014 will include some teaching work and perhaps also some tool-making: "This October I will be returning to the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship to help Peter Korn teach the same two-week Basic Woodworking course I took 16 years ago, which I am really excited about. I am also hoping to develop a line of woodworking tools and hardware sometime in the not-too-distant future."

His enthusiasm for his work means that he's unlikely to ever run out of ideas: "The list of things I would love to make seems to be getting longer every day. I don't know if that is a sign that I am doing what I am meant to be doing, or that I should maybe consider working a little faster! If I had one wish it would be for a 30-hour workday. There is just so much to make," he says.

Clark's excitement about his craft comes through clearly and this passion can only mean that there is better work to come.

"To a certain extent I am not all that bothered about what it is exactly that I am making - I am as happy building furniture as I am making tools. I try to take on work that will be challenging and interesting. Every project has its own unique set of challenges, and I want every piece to be a learning experience. The goal is to take what I learned from the last project and apply it to the next one. I never want to stop learning this craft. A close friend once told me he never wanted his best work to be behind him. I think those are words to live by."

Makers' Maker: Clark Kellogg on James Krenov

This is probably the least-inspiring answer ever, because he has inspired entire generations of woodworkers, but the maker that has probably had the greatest influence on me is James Krenov. Unfortunately, I never trained with him - he was retired by the time I arrived at College of the Redwoods - but I'm so glad I at least got to meet him. He had this sense of line and proportion that was just unbelievable. He could read a board, he could see things in it, when I think most people - myself included - would just think, "That will never work".

I don't want to say too much, because I don't feel as though it is my place to - I never knew him personally - but going back and looking at his body of work ... it just had - and still has - this amazing clarity of purpose. You get the feeling that even though he claimed he was sort of making it up as he went along, each one of his pieces knows exactly what it wants to be. There is this balance: soft without being mushy, crisp without being sharp. Good or bad, you get the sense that he was less concerned with failure than what it would mean to stop exploring, to stop trying new ways of putting things together. It is brave, inspiring, beautiful work.

(PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF CLARK KELLOGG)


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