Country Bookseller

Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Dan Krotz

Doug Stowe is the Director of Wisdom of the Hands at Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs and a nationally recognized furniture maker especially known for the intricate small boxes he makes. I own all of his books and read them for instruction and for the simple pleasure of seeing how extraordinarily beautiful things are created. My favorite is Making Elegant Custom Tables.

  Stowe is also an advocate for the expansion of manual training in high schools. In Woodworking Teachers Network, Stowe asks, "So what happened to woodshop? Why have the last 30 years brought such a decline in hands-on learning in schools?"

  In partial answer, Stowe writes, "The seeds of the decline of [manual training] were planted a long time ago when the 'Russian System' was chosen over Educational Sloyd, or, the 'Swedish System.' The Russian system was designed for the sole purpose of pushing students into industry with few basic preparatory skills. It was widely promoted and supported by industry and government because there was a demand for a largely unskilled work force."

  In simple terms, students coming out of high school industrial arts programs had too many "unnecessary" skills to fit comfortably into a military and industrial production process where machines trumped craftsmanship. No wonder both students and educators rebelled.

  Stowe argues that manual training needs to go back to its roots, to leapfrog over the "industrial arts" production-oriented agenda and recapture the spirit and flesh of craftsmanship. Poetically, he writes, "The training of the hand is crucial to the engagement of the heart."

  That engagement is obvious in Making Elegant Custom Tables. In precise, yet encouraging language, he instructs the reader "how to" build nine different tables from the relatively easy (a deck table made of recycled redwood) to the more complex (a limestone-topped hall table). Whether complex or easy, Stowe's tables are simultaneously original -- with some Shaker and Mission antecedents -- and classic in the same way as is the little black dress, the '61 Karmann Ghia, and Grace Kelly.

  These books present some cataloging challenges for booksellers because they seem to properly belong in the Art or Art History sections rather than in Do It Yourself. Beautifully photographed, and with detailed plans and materials lists, Making Elegant Custom Tables certainly works as instruction, but the philosophical subtext is so rich with respect for the material at hand, whether sassafras, cherry or walnut, and for the maker who takes it in hand and to heart, that we feel the presence of William Morris, Gustav Stickley, and Charles Eastlake.

  These three innovators broke new ground with designs that democratized decoration and furniture making, while concurrently acknowledging the importance of machines and tools without dislocating, dishonoring or minimizing the role of the worker-maker. Stowe's books, teaching and originality make him a similar and effective advocate for manual arts students and craftsmen alike.

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