April 22, 2010


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Artist laureate
David Lamb makes furniture in Canterbury

By Karen Plumley arts@hippopress.com

Canterbury master furniture maker David Lamb is set to be the state’s fifth artist laureate. Gov. John Lynch nominated him to the post and he was confirmed by the Executive Council. He’ll serve in the role through March 2012. Lamb grew up at Canterbury Shaker Village, where he apprenticed with master European cabinet maker Alejandro de la Cruz. Lamb is chairman of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association (www.furnituremasters.org). Visit www.davidlambfurniture.com.

Q:How did you get into the furniture making industry in the first place?
It started a long time ago in 1972 when my mom married my stepfather..., who was working at the Shaker Village in Canterbury. So my family lived on Shaker property, not being Shakers, but being employees. ... I grew up in the environs of a very architectural and historically significant environment. Alejandro de la Cruz, he was my next door neighbor and he knew my interest in art. He invited me to be his apprentice when I was 14. That’s how it started. I was with him for three years.

What was the three years like?
Basically it was all hand work. In the movie The Karate Kid, the kid approaches Mr. Miyagi because he wants to learn karate and Mr. Miyagi nods his head and grumbles and puts him to tasks. He’s painting his fence and waxing his car. And the kid is wondering, Where is this going? ... There’s a lot of philosophy in it, incredible patience, high standards. You have to have the appreciation of what’s been done before you, in order to know where to go. To make a long story short, all of a sudden... the kid automatically reacts, because of some of the tasks he has been doing, waxing a car with the right hand going clockwise and the left hand going counterclockwise. I saw a lot of parallels in my apprenticeship. My apprenticeship was all hand work, all at the bench. Even though there were machines around, I was not to use the machines. It was learning how to use the tools, developing my eye-hand coordination so I could pick up a tool and know what needed to be done and not have to sit and think about it.... Right off the bat, it was sharpening tools. That seemed to go on for weeks. Then it was basic joinery skills...all these foundational, structural things. You don’t just start drawing, you need to know how things are made. All these kinds of very traditional things.

[Lamb said it was different from the American way of doing things.]
As a society, we’re very impatient. When we’re at a fast food restaurant and it takes more than 15 seconds for the hamburger to be done, we get impatient. I just completed a piece that took a year. The discussion with the client, the design and development, patterns, everything, including making and finishing the piece — for anybody to work on one project for a whole year, it’s demanding. That’s what the training is all about. If you gloss over and rush through a certain aspect, a great example is the finish on a piece. It’s easy to say, you’re done carving and with the joinery, just throw the oil on it. If you put a second-rate finish on it, that step is going to make the whole piece second-rate. If the sanding or scraping isn’t thorough, it’ll show. It takes time to do it right.

What’s that like, working on a year-long project like that? You must play mind games with yourself.
A year is on the long side. Typically, shorter jobs are as short as three weeks. Typically, the projects I’m doing take two to three months. They’re all fairly involved projects. That’s evolved over the years. I was doing a lot of end tables and coffee tables and as my reputation grows...people start to ask for more complex things. ... Sometimes I’ll have three or four going at the same time and I can focus on, say a week, on one, then a couple days on another one. Sometimes there’s a real physical need to do that. ...While you’re curing one, you jump on to something else. This last project, once I got into the real work, that was all I did. It was an overwhelming project that needed my total attention.

What do you like about this line of work?
I like everything. I like getting the phone calls, someone wants me to do something. That’s great recognition that they value what I do. I like the whole discussion of “What is it you want?” I like how you can develop an idea, the patterns, the design ... texture and color, and all the mechanical things. That’s the craftsman part...and of course the physical building, milling it up, ... the beauty of the wood starting to reveal itself. The finishing is really exciting, even though you’re at the end. The color starts showing up — “Wow, this is fantastic.” And then waxing at the end and before you know it, it’s out the door and you haven’t had a chance to absorb it.

Is it hard to wave goodbye to some of these pieces?
Yeah, sometimes it is. Especially if there’s a deadline for delivery because of some event. ... A previous long-term project stayed in the shop for a while. The frost heaves were so bad I didn’t dare try to transport it until it started to settle down. Because it was such an involved project, I got a chance to absorb and reflect on it. ... That was great to be able to see it and to show people when they would come in. ... In doing commission work, sometimes you’re lucky to get a nice photo and that’s what you’re showing prospective customers. When you have a piece of work...being built, that’s when you can see the whole three-dimensional thing. ...But the nature of the work, it’s out the door as soon as it’s done.

How would you characterize what you do?
I do all different forms, chairs and sofas, chests and drawers, church furniture, altars, crosses.... Style-wise, I’m quite diverse in my approach. Basically, I take a traditional foundational approach to it and I branch off to neoclassical, or baroque, or a more period form. Then I can do something very contemporary, organic-looking pieces... I love the variety. I feel I have command over a number of different styles. I don’t feel like I have to work in one stylistic vein to accomplish my goals as an artist.

What are your thoughts on taking over this post as artist laureate?
Well, I’m thrilled. First of all it recognizes furniture making and what we call studio furniture making as an art form. It’s not just being a craftsman. And there’s nothing wrong with being a craftsman. We’re really artists at the same time. Often with the arts ... with dance and things like that, they really serve no physical function except to please the eye. Furniture does that and also serves a function. It’s a high art form. That’s what I want to promote. The phrase “the New Hampshire advantage,” the arts and crafts in this state, that’s a huge advantage. People come from all over the country and parts of the world to see what we have to offer...

[In a tough economic climate, fine furniture is an investment.]
...This actually has investment value. ... There’s a practical reason to invest in fine furniture. It’s in it for the long haul. It’ll last ... eight, 10, 12 generations. You  have to like what you buy because you would really enjoy living with it and sharing space with it. .... — Jeff Mucciarone

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