Dona Meilach on Modern Wood Furniture

Originally posted January 28, 2010 on

Dona Meilach (1926-2008) was a seemingly indefatigable connoisseur, champion, and chronicler of craftsmanship. All told, she wrote over 40 books and several hundred articles on a broad range of craft topics and techniques. A glimpse at some of the titles—“Creating Art from Fibers and Fabrics,” “Creating With Plaster,” “Papercraft,” “Collage and Assemblage,”—speaks to the encyclopedic breadth of her interests, as well as the depth of her knowledge: she not only studied but also performed the crafts she wrote about.

Her tactile, scholarly, and catholic approach enabled her to deeply understand the craft movements of her era (1960-80’s), and to grasp the tendencies and elements that were significant and innovative. In my library, I have three of Meilach’s books: “Contemporary Art With Wood” (1968); “Creating Modern Furniture” (1975); and “Woodworking, the New Wave”(1981). Along with “Creating Small Wood Objects as Functional Sculpture” (1976), these works form as good an introduction to postwar craft woodworking as exists. Part how-to guides, part visual encyclopedia, these books provide both detailed technical information and lavishly illustrated curatorial information.
“Creating Modern Furniture” is the focus of the present post. Subtitled “Trends, Techniques, Appreciation,” it provides an overview of the craft woodworking movement of the mid-70’s, featuring 580 photographs, mostly of works by a multitude of American artisans. The first part of the book describes woodworking techniques and praxis, including sawing, sanding, grinding, joining, gluing, finishing, and veneering. Trees, wood, lumber, tools, and even work area and safety are discussed.

As interesting as this is, the book’s value lies in the examples that are shown—Meilach had a truly great eye for innovation and beauty. With hindsight, the book contains work by the usual suspects, who may or may not have been usual suspects at the time.

This list includes Michael Coffey, Gary Knox Bennett, Jack Rogers Hopkins, J.B. Blunk, Wendell Castle, Mabel Hutchinson, Jere Osgood, George Nakashima, Wharton Esherick, and John Makepeace. The standout here for me is Jack Rogers Hopkins, a California artisan who worked in laminated, steam-bent woods. I’ve included an image of an installation with a grandfather’s clock and a dining table, and a close-up of the dining table, which to me is the most stunning object in the book. Meilach cites Hopkins for virtuosity, and notes that the interaction of the various wood colors in the table (teak, maple, and birch are used) adds to the total sculptural concept.

Beyond the dozen or so artisans who have become household names in the design market, there are a few dozen more with similar talent, and here the book becomes a guide to future collectability. A few of the more eye-popping works, shown here, include a low table of African Padouk wood by Joe Barano (“a marvelous interplay of sculptural forms”); a coat tree and lounge chair by Edward Livingston; a double love seat of fir by Robert Dice; a “Clam” chair of walnut with fur and leather interior by Edward Jajosky that closes on itself; and a door by sculptor and jewelry designer Svetovar Radakovitch that includes surprises such as inset chunks of colored glass and cast bronze hinges. As striking as these pieces are, they do not even figure in the chapter “Fantasy Furniture,” which includes a surreal-looking chest of drawers in a mélange of woods by Denis Morinaka and a cabinet with doors-within-doors by Ann Maimlund, both pictured here.

When Herman Met Rockwell: The Definitive Moby Dick

Originally posted August 6, 2009 on


“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”


So begins “Moby Dick”—first paragraph, anyway—the man meets fish (well, aquatic mammal) epic penned by Herman Melville in 1851. Immortal words now, but for a period of time prior to 1920, largely forgotten ones, along, not incidentally, with the words and works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Reassessment and rediscovery began in the early 1920’s, partly through the efforts of critics such as Lewis Mumford (“The Golden Day,” 1926, and “Herman Melville,” 1929), and Carl Van Doren (“The American Novel,” 1921). Interestingly, and again not incidentally, the same wave that brought Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau back into view also re-introduced Richardson, Sullivan, and Wright (Mumford, The Brown Decades, 1931).


But the biggest boost to Melville’s reputation came from Rockwell Kent, with the publication in 1930 of the 3-volume Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick, illustrated and designed by Kent. Both the limited edition (1000 copies) and the Random House trade edition, also published in 1930, sold extremely well, helping push Melville back into the public consciousness. Melville was overdue, no doubt, but this was clearly a Reese’s peanut butter cup moment, a happy marriage of writer and illustrator. Indeed, it would be hard to find a writer-illustrator combination as well-matched, unless maybe it is Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman, though Kent and Melville didn’t work together, and surely didn’t party together (Kent was 9 when Melville died in 1891).


That Melville and Kent were kindred spirits is evident in their biographies and their paths, which crossed literally and metaphorically. Both men spent significant portions of their lives in and around New York and the mountains north and west of the city. Melville was of the generation of romantic writers and thinkers that included Emerson and Thoreau; he was also a sailor and an adventurer—his first three novels, “Typee,” “Omoo,” and “Mardi,” recount his travels to exotic lands. Kent was weaned on mysticism and transcendentalism, reading Emerson and Whitman extensively (he also illustrated Leaves of Grass). He, too, was an adventurer and fellow traveler (in more ways than one: Kent received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967). Kent’s early books include “Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan” and “N by E,” recounting sailing adventures to Tierra del Fuego and Greenland. Additionally, Melville’s scathing indictment of commerce and materialism in “The Confidence Man” is echoed in Kent’s embracing of socialism.


So when Kent was approached in 1926 with an offer to illustrate Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast,” he suggested “Moby Dick” instead, and the rest is publishing history.


Since 1930, Melville’s—and the book’s—place in the pantheon of literature has remained secure (Starbuck’s, anyone?), while Kent’s artistic reputation has largely waned in the face of abstract expressionism and successive art movements. But the illustrated “Moby Dick” has remained in print for 75 years, thrilling generations of readers with Melville’s incandescent prose and Kent’s dramatic and haunting engravings.


llustrations from “Moby Dick” illustrated by Rockwell Kent; courtesy of Plattsburgh State University.