Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: A book review by Bob Morris

Why We Make ThingsWhy We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman
Peter Korn
David R. Godine, Publisher (2014)

How and why the creative effort “is a process of challenging embedded narratives in order to….”

Peter Korn poses an intriguing question: “Why do we choose the spiritually, emotionally, and physically demanding work of brining new objects into the world with creativity and skill?” This book is his extended response to that question. After completing his academic assignments for the University of Pennsylvania, he embarked on what became a journey of discovery during which two epiphanies occurred. (More about them later.) “My intuition from the first day I picked up a hammer was that making things with a commitment to quality would lead to a good life.” In this book, he retraces the steps of his journey “with reference to larger frameworks – historical, sociological, psychological, and biological – to discover how and why that intuition turned out to be valid.”

His readers tag along with him from Nantucket Island to Frederick (Maryland) to New York City and then Philadelphia before relocating again. this time to the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village (Colorado) for which he served for the six years as Program Director before finally founding (in 1992) the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport (Maine). Along the way, he published Woodworking Basics: Mastering the Essentials of Craftsmanship (Taunton Press, 2003) and The Woodworker’s Guide to Hand Tools (Taunton Press, 1998). Why We Make Things and Why it Matters is his third book. And along the way, he was stricken by cancer and struggled with personal losses best described by him in the book

With regard to the aforementioned epiphanies, the first occurred in November (1984) when he had been hard at work on a cradle: “After three days of intense focus, cold, and solitude, the cradle is complete — a miraculous birth in its own right. I have somehow transform benign intent into a beautiful functional object. This is my moment on the road to Demascus. I am overtaken by the most unexpected passion.” (Page 28).

The second epiphany occurred in 1991 during his sixth year at Anderson Ranch. By way of background, he explains that he had previously composed an artist’s statement, one that included a sentence that brought his emerging ideas into focus. It read: My own values became clear when I eventually realized that the words I used to describe my aesthetic goals as a furniture maker — integrity, simplicity, and grace — also described the person I sought to grow into through the practice of craftsmanship.” (Page 102) That sentence was his second epiphany.

While re-reading the book in preparation to compose this brief commentary, I was again reminded of similar experiences that James Joyce describes in several of his letters and short stories as well as in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Of course, I have no idea whether or not Korn had Joyce and his work in mind when sharing this especially significant moment during his own development. Be that as it may, his transition from carpenter to craftsman is near complete, with details best revealed within the narrative, in context.

What’s my take? Of greatest interest and value to me is what Peter Korn has to say about how he “found his way in the world” by committing himself to (as Richard Sennett expressed it) “doing something well, for its own sake.” Consider this brief excerpt from Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observes: “To achieve the kind of world we consider human, some people had to dare to break the thrall of tradition, Next, they had to find ways of recording those new ideas or procedures that improved on what went on before. Finally, they had to find ways of transmitting the new knowledge to generations to come. Those who were involved in this process we call creative. What we call culture, or those parts of ourselves that we internalized from the social environment, is their creation.”

For Korn, these “essential” observations by Sennett and Csikszentmihalyi ring true: “There is great satisfaction to be found in work that engages one as an end in itself.” His experiences can be described in many different ways. He found his calling, he found himself, he found his True North…all quite correct.

For me, the key to understanding the experiences that Korn discusses, many of which resemble our own, is to think of how he created a good life as well as a successful career. He and countless others have learned through their own experiences that what they love to do, what they most enjoy, is probably what they do best, despite challenges and setbacks along the way. “And so it is. As a maker you put one foot in front of the other and you own the journey. Finding creative passion that governs your life may be a curse as well as a blessing, but I would not trade it for anything else I know.”

One final point: It will come as no surprise to those who are already familiar with Peter Korn’s art and craftsmanship that he complements his lean and effective prose with preliminary sketches and then photographs of some of his creations, illustrations that are of superior quality. They bring his story to life in ways and to an extent words alone cannot. Bravo!

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