22 March 2017

The last of the Nanjing turners

The turner's atelier
During an outing to visit the whereabouts of a relocated open air antiques market, I happened to find a turner's shop along an older stretch of Shengzhou lu. The turner himself hardly stirred as I approached his workshop and snapped a few photos of the interior.
The view from the workman's perspective on the streetscape
He is a turner in the classic sense that he only does lathework. The narrow shop had a ladder in the back that gives access to an upper level where he might maintain his household. The arrangement struck me as medieval, which in the conservative environment of mainland China, is not unusual, but this way of life is nearing an inexorable finality. I thought of this essay as I gawked about, seemingly like a time traveler. None of the tooling was commercially made. Some of the lathe chisels shows signs of having been made from recycled files. This spartanness is as much due to the paucity of Chinese manufacturing as much as the extreme conservatism of Chinese tradesmen, less pride of craft, apparently than stubbornness and group conformity.
Handmade lathe chisels

The lathe machinery

 tablesaw most commonly seen on jobsites
At my request, my wife asked him whether there were any other furnituremakers in the neighborhood. He uncrossed his arms to gesture that there was another turner a few doors down and then settled back into zombie mode. I wasn't able to learn who typically commissioned him to manufacture banisters, table legs, or whatnot. I bought two file handles that he had for sale in a bucket outside his door at 4 RMB each.
 a lot of turned piecework

Handles or turned offcuts

The handles demonstrate the skills of a workman who keeps a pattern in his mind's eye: controlled irregularity. I've had trouble find ferrules in China for student projects. The term in Chinese is, 铁箍,  tiegu. These ferrules, however, appeared to be nothing more than cheap tin. An unapplied example bent more easily that metal from a tin can.
File handles
We walked past the second turner's shop and saw a near copy of the first. Further ahead, we turned into an alley and began walking amidst a neighborhood undergoing demolition, renovation, and relocation of its residents. It's generally unclear what is happening whenever such Haussmannesque efforts are underway. Residents, squatters, and scavengers tend to hold their ground in order to negotiate for higher compensation from the local government.
Cat perch

historical architecture: demolition by neglect
Often the true nature of the renovations are obscured to keep the beneficiaries of public works projects in the shadows. The attitude outside of Shanghai towards historic preservation to demolish down to the bare ground and rebuild in order to make the area 'more beautiful'.  Historically this represent how one dynasty superseded the previous one.
recurring rafter tail detail

Shared courtyard of Republic houses

While it's too soon to say, there might better concerted efforts to preserving some of the preserved elements in this neighborhood. Historic markers identified these buildings as built during the Republic era. It's frustrating to see so much exposed timberframing that could have been preserved even 10 years ago with a minimum of efforts to keep it dry.
Semidemolished housing

Squatters and Squalidness

13 March 2017

Architectural elements: Shanghai spolia

modular units on display
The last few decades have seen cycles of construction and demolition across the mainland Chinese landscapes. This has been most evident in the cities where many urban and prefectural governments finance their operations by seizing and reseizing properties and leasing to developers for denser, higher priced redevelopment.
Windows and shutters against remnants of courtyard wall
This system creates masses of waste as concrete and brick structures get jackhammered on a large scale to be dwarfed by the new construction projects. Often the bricks get salvaged depending on the speed of demolition; more commonly it's only the rebar that gets extracted and recycled. As I have documented before, some structures built during the early years under Mao Zedong possess enough wood materials to justify prying the materials apart before bringing in the bulldozers. The numbers of such structures is disappearing fast as many cities set upon apartment buildings constructed in the 1980 and 1990s for yet another round of redevelopment.
Garret access ladders, perhaps
It was only happenstance that brought me to a Shanghai construction site where I discovered a very well organized sale of architectural salvage. The existence of such a market, which I have observed nowhere else, demonstrates two points. First, the high standards of construction in Shanghai has deep roots and continues in this manner. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are active buyers for such salvage within Shanghai. I've talked with several Chinese who don't believe that wood is strong enough to be used to build houses! The buyers coming to this lot understand construction methods that have become obsolete elsewhere and notably value the aesthetics and functionality of these repurposed materials.
Lap joints with traces of plaster

Beaded exposed timbers

I don't know how long this sale had been going on when I stumbled across it. There were bundles of tongue and groove flooring in empty storefronts slated for eventual demolition further up the street. (The interiors were too dim to photograph effectively.)
Stacked newel posts

Pilaster with carved motif, tongue and grooved flooring bundles

It's comforting to documents positive actions such as this. For those interested, the address is 612 Kang Ding lu, Shanghai. Prices are negotiable so act now!
Glazed doors

Was this tenon (drawbore) ever pegged?

09 February 2017

Authenticating plastic

There is a trend in woodworking that has been annoying me because I could not adequately understand the appeal and I've had difficulty in explaining the phenomenon as I perceive it. I don't want to write a long expository essay now because I don't have the inclination nor sufficient historical background yet I still want to use this opportunity to describe this trend and to make a prediction.
The term 'live edge' has been used to describe wooden furniture with undimensioned edges. Famous examples of this sort of sophisticated rusticity date from before my time on this earth. I think I first noticed it in the work of George Nakashima. Being young and naive, and wanting to rebel against whatever I thought I needed to rebel against, I thought the idea of furniture that didn't quite appear to be furniture was cool. There's something compelling about a piece of contemporary livingroom furniture that still retains features of a raw log that appeals to an SUV driving professional, to a manly salaryman, and equally to an urbane hobbit.
Challenging the limits of what a sawyer can do
As I grew older, more discerning, and less cavemanish, I turned against this style of furniture for several reasons. I realized that these pieces are very impractical to live around. They are essentially oversized sculptures that require their own zones to accommodate them and be displayed in. In such a way, they can enhance the opulence of an already grand mansion since they generally are out of the price range of most homeowners. They cannot be adapted average households nor do they lend themselves to being moved about while an owner chases a career path and relocates his belongings in a Uhaul rental.
The movers are gonna need a lot of bubblewrap for this item

Like rooted giants themselves, these items are massive and made to convey permanence. None other than a Rockefeller was one of the first and most prominent collectors of Nakashima furniture. Not only could he afford to purchase a 200 piece lot of furniture on commission, his inheritance could equally afford the mansion to house them all. Equally, if one has the resources to rebuild a house lost to a fire exactly as it was built in the 1970s and the prestige to have it written about in the NYT, then the high cost of Nakashima is appropriate to one's social stratum. Even a single table merits a wistful essay in the paper of record. This is furniture beyond the price range of most everybody reading this weblog, and those in the club like it that way.
Opulent rusticity for simple senatorial elites
In addition to signifying upper class membership, Nakashima style furniture is more to be thought of as sculpture rather than as utilitarian items. It's not a surprise that so many museums want his furniture since so many original owners must have houses the size of museums to be able to display them. It can be wondrous to look at objects that beguile the eyes with unexpected shapes. It's a table but it also looks like a tree! Yet these chairs and tables with their sharp arrises and untrimmed edges are often uncomfortable to live around. They are certainly not child friendly as if children would be allowed near the Nakashimas! And cleaning a 'live edge' requires more than just wiping it across with a damp cloth. Yes, museum quality to be sure.
Those aren't holes; they're artistic flourishes put there by nature
Members of the upper classes have always wanted to distinguish themselves through material culture. In this respect it should not come as a shock that the gentry choose to flaunt their money and cultivate taste buy purchasing handmade furniture. They want to acquire what others can only look at. This distinction is heightened by the fact that retaining the 'treelike' quality, no piece can ever be duplicated. And as their accountants point out, one of a kind items more likely appreciate in value over time. As much as every tree develops organically, the craftsman imposes less amount of handwork than is seen on mass produced furniture.
more base than tabletop
Born in 1905 Nakashima's fame and income grew steadily after WW2, an era of increasing mass production in housing trends, clothing, and lifestyles. This has echoes with the Arts and Crafts movement that was a reaction to mass production and industrialization in the UK. But the late 19th century craftsmen still didn't have to contend with the creeping imposition of plastics into their trade. Plastics and modern adhesives are essential to contemporary industrial furniture manufacturing and designers attempt in so many ways to obscure this reality.
Color coordinated with the avocado Frigidaire
Growing up I learned that paneling is how walls get covered. 9 groove paneling is 4x8 large sheets of masonite or hardboard with blackened channels running lengthwise and printed to resemble wood figure. Often it was glossy smooth but it might also be textured with raised wood grain. There are specialized color coordinated corrugated nails for this material. It was a fast way for finishing surfaces in expansive suburban built bedrooms for the babyboomer children in the post war years. It was also so cheap and light enough that redoing it was as simple as with repasting wallpaper up.  My mother demonstrated this makeover to me numerous times.
I visited a hotelroom a few days ago to find an interior that seemed to be inspired by the paneled interiors of my youth. It was a challenge to take a photo without catching the reflective glare from the sheen.
Photoperfect wood

Matching floors

Plastics are used to create a faux wood appearance.  I grew up surrounded by this ubiquity and only learned with effort how the original paneling was intended to finish a room interior e.g. wainscotting, which it was putatively based upon. This plasticized ersatz wood is marketed primarilyto the working class. It can still be found in the best appointed doublewides. The upper classes, therefore, want nothing to do with it. A hotel designer can employ it to affect an easy to clean, modernist cachet, which can be ripped out and replaced cheaply when the management wants something new in short order.
Lastly, it is often convenient to flatter the upper class by downplaying their baser financial motives and instead highlighting the spiritual aspects of their investments. The artist and the dealers willingly go along with this pretense.
The slab church missal

In order to counteract this straightforward objective,
''His prices have gone up a lot. At the same time Los Angeles collectors are instructing their decorators to find Nakashimas, you see the best pieces at auction going to Swiss and German collectors and French dealers.'' said James Zemaitis.
we must muddle through pithy platitudes about intangible qualities that only sufficiently degreed art historians and museum curators can typically compose.
In Nakashima's own words:
''We work this material to fulfill the yearning of nature to find destiny,'' he said, ''to give this absolute inanimate object a second life, to release its richness, its beauty, to read its history in life.''
His own daughter, who, since her father's death, has taken over the Nakashima brand, offers a metaphysical salespitch:
''Work for him was a spiritual calling, a linking of his strength to a transcendental force, a surrender to the divine, a form of prayer,'' his daughter, Mira Nakashima,...
From the same article lastly comes this more businesslike assessment:
Mr. Aibel specializes in Art Deco antiques, but he has also been the premier dealer in vintage Nakashima furniture since 1985. ''By my estimate, George Nakashima made about 25,000 pieces in his lifetime,'' Mr. Aibel said. ''I've handled some 2,000 of them.'' Tomorrow evening he is the host of a book party for Ms. Nakashima.
Nakashima's work will also be seen at Sanford Smith's antiques show, ''Modernism: A Century of Style and Design,'' which opens in Manhattan on Thursday (through Nov. 16). There will be several pieces in the Moderne Gallery booth, with prices from $7,500 to $35,000.
Dead artists make for great investments. Get in while the getting is good, people! The time to buy is now. 
George Nakashima coffee table up 34% on estimate at Skinner
Over time the aesthetic sensibility of their betters has trickled down to the tastes of the masses, too, who are comforted by easily identifiable 'real wood'. I encountered some of this when I once suggested that milk painting was an appropriate surface covering for some student projects when I was still working at MYLab. To a man, the novice woodworkers wanted only to finish their projects with oil so that they could 'see' the wood. This phenomenon is also played out in Shaker revival furniture. The Shakers, a preplastic celibate cult, were quite happy to brightly paint their interiors and pine furniture. In the revival movement, however, the emphasis is on the clear finished pieces. The Windsor chair form has also experienced a revival but with the exception of a handful of craftsmen who make the furniture entirely by hand and apply milk paints accordingly, the commercially made items are often treated with a clear finish with mixed and jarring results.

Real wood but not too much

Disunified but reassuringly 'real wood' for the masses

Recently this emphasis on 'real wood' has gotten a boost from a woodworker who moonlights as a television actor in his spare time.  Finally an entrepreneur has made Nakashimas for the working man's wallet.
Offerman in the style of Nakashima
Finally, I was recently prompted to articulate these disjointed ideas by a visit during Lunar New year to a Shanghai stationery shop with its own cafe.  I saw the tabletops in the late afternoon sun and was initially deceived into believing that they were built with rough sawn planks.
Surface detail
Oh, the versatility of plastics! I had to look at the end grain to be fully clear about the matter.
Patterned to deceive

Endgrain in plastic is still to be avoided

The manufacturer had moved up to the next level, not only reproducing the figure of the wood, but also the texture from a coarse bandsawn blade. It's an homage to the Nakashima cult by intentionally making a table that is more difficult to wipe clean. But in melamine for the coffee swilling masses!

It is only a matter of time before the next step is to be achieved. I predict that we will shortly see more examples of this trend to recreate 'real wood' industrially using plastics in the manufacture of Nakashima style furniture. And so I wonder: what then will the upper classes turn to in order to fill out their palaces?

Are there possibly any others who share my blasphemous viewpoint?