A Visit To The Vesterheim.

A hanging wall cupboard from Trondheim Norway,
The geographic location where most of my genetic code hails from.

Just last week I took a joyful day trip with my wife to view some of the wonderful fall colors my corner of the world has to offer and to visit a couple locations we've been meaning to see for a while. A location I've been meaning to visit for some time is the Vesterheim Museum, the National Norwegian-American Heritage Museum, located in nearby Decorah Iowa. 
That I have waited this long to make the short pilgrimage is a personal embarrassment. I will be returning again and again.

I've said before, I believe in study and practice and the best way to develop an eye for good design in furniture, (the first step to freeing yourself from the shackles of measured drawings, cut lists, and the design ideals of others) is to look at a lot of furniture. I mean really look. I have amassed more than a metric ton of books that address and chronicle furniture styles and history from ancient Egypt to Robert Adams to Sam Maloof. These are my text books, but understanding is only improved by field trips. A picture on a page will not fairly relate the way a cabinet stands in a room or hangs on a wall any more than a print of Van Gogh's work can truly capture the textures, colors, and brush strokes of seeing one in person. 

If you're building in three dimensions you've got to get out and see the work in three dimensions. The Vesterheim is a treasure trove for furniture and decorative arts. 

The "large piece" storage room. 

Wonderfully subdued colors in this corner cabinet. 

I had a bit of a personal epiphany during the several hours we haunted the exhibit that put to rest something I've been struggling with. 

Check out the grain painting on the fall front!
I like the slightly oddball proportions to this piece. 

There is a design aesthetic that resonates in woodworking social media and print for "clean lines and perfect proportions" whatever that means. I don't disagree with it, per say, I just find such things ---lacking to my eye. Those of us hungry to read and see anything to do with the craft have spent years wading through magazine articles devout to Arts & Crafts, Shaker, and Modern, (sometimes Danish Modern) furniture styles. I understand why. They're popular styles that can teach basic joinery techniques and be summed up in 2500 words or less. 

It sounds like I do, but I promise I hold no grudges here. 

The other side of the coin is woodworking revolutionist Chris Schwarz. I am and always will continue to be a rabid fanboy of his work, but you can be a fan and a friend without having to fall on your own knife in worship. His work in recent years, bringing Campaign Furniture out of the shadows and delving into the bare bones of vernacular furniture forms is inspired stuff and I definitively have some staked chairs waiting in my future but mostly because I see his techniques as a way to lo-jack myself into actually making some chairs. 

I understand his concepts both getting butts out of chairs and making something instead of buying into a cycle of work and consumption and the distillation of design into a silhouette. The shadow cast by a form can be iconic and important. Still the bare canvas approach leaves me wanting more. I have studied Art enough to understand the importance of Modern and Minimalist work. Deconstructionism to the core of color, light, and form is an important exploration, but I don't want them hanging in my house anymore than I want to work at a stake-legged desk with a single exposed drawer. 

I enjoyed reading The Anarchist Design Book, I've made my way through it twice now, but there were only three pieces that I came away liking a lot and will probably end up working with.

I like the boarded chest, because I've always had a thing for six board chests, they a versatile, blank canvasses that have existed for a millennia or more. I have built these before, I have one on the bench right now, and I will build them again. 

I like the bed design a lot but mostly for it's strength and utility, 

I like the three legged staked backstool most of all. Mostly because it's an outlier that seems to work so well. It's my favorite piece in the book. 

Subtle lines of kolrosing cover a spoon
I didn't write this post to bag on Chris. I wrote it because since I discovered his work and writing I have been willing to walk lock step after his lead and yet with The Anarchist Design Book I had a little different experience. I actually felt some honest to goodness dissent but I didn't understand why.

Some of it I blamed on my own maturing as a maker, my own vision and bla, bla, bla. . .

The rest I figured out in an afternoon inside the Vesterheim. 

I am very over clean, modern lines. You can keep your perfect Krenov Cabinets and ubiquitous Shaker Side Tables. I like color, lots of color and contrast. I like vivid, complicated carvings. I like grain painting that isn't really simulating wood grain. I like oddball proportions, offset turnings, elaborate mouldings, and custom hardware. I like when you open a door or lift a lid and the inside of a piece surprises you more than the outside.   

You can chalk it up to genetic memory, or you can say I've taken too many shots to the cranium, but the end result is a weird mix of vindication and self aware comfort. 

Thank you Chris for leading me out of the woods and helping me find the road.

Thank you to the Vesterheim Museum for helping me understand the fork in the road I've chosen. 

Now to finish up a few distractions and get back to work on my neglected book. 

Ratione et Passionis


  1. I tend to share this aesthetic, and I too prefer carved and painted surfaces, especially in the direction of gothic or neo-gothic. I'm sure Chris Schwarz would be pleased with your breaking from his own design aesthetic—as he says, "Disobey me."


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