There are two generally agreed upon generations of Amerian studio furniture makers: the first and the second generation.
The first generation of furniture makers were dedicated to the preservation of the natural beauty of the wood they worked with and in bringing out the qualities of the wood that are essential to its character. These groundbreaking craftsmen cut the trail for the second generation of furniture makers who focused on innovation and detailing that created a decorative style hidden with subtle meaning and narration.
The most common names associated with the first generation of furniture makers are Wharton Escheric, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and James Krenov and Tage Frid.
Wharton Escheric is considered the father of studio furniture making. Escheric was the first to start making a living soley making furniture by himself in his own studio. His style and dedication inspired many of his contemporaries such as Wendell Castle to pursue a career in furniture making. Starting out as a printmaker, Escheric began hand carving frames for his prints. Soon the critics became more intrigued by the hand carved frames than the artwork that the frames were meant to highlight. Escheric began to explore woodworking and developed a style which unifies the gap between the arts and crafts movement and the cubistic and abstract expressionist which were popular at the time. Escheric considered himself a sculptor rather than a furniture maker. He was devoted to the character of each piece of wood that he was currently working with and transforming the wood into a functional object, focusing on bringing out the subltle qualities of the particular piece of wood. Wharton didn’t believe it was possible to make duplicates of a sculptural furniture piece because every piece of wood has a unique character which must be treated as an indidual unit and not to let the overall design influence the wood but rather have the particual piece of wood direct the design of the furniture.
Sam Maloof is comes from a Lebanese descent and began his career as a graphic artist and illustrator in Southern California. After Marrying his wife, Alfreda, Maloof designed and built furniture for their started home out of plywood. The designs received a lot of local attention and Maloof, with the support of his friends, left his job to pursue a career as a furniture maker. Maloof is most known for his rocking chair designs, but in fact this design wasn’t conceived until later in his career. Maloof created a mature style early in his career, preferring walnut to other woods, Maloof’s lifetime career focuses on improving, perfecting and evolving his original designs that were originally conceived at the beginning of his career. Maloof has a true love for the wood and a true knack at hand shaping wood using only his eye as a measurement devise.
George Nakashima was formally trained as an architect receiving his MArch from MIT. After traveling to Japan and China in the late 1930’s, and learning from a woodworker in a relocation camp during World War II, Nakashima begins to focus on furniture as an outlet for his creative expression. Nakashima’s creative expression however, doesn’t lie within himself, but rather in the particular wood his is crafting. He lets each piece of wood direct him in the overall form of the particular piece he is working on. Once he become successful and could afford the luxury, Nakashima would stockpile large quantities of slab wood and would often wait years until he fully realized the design that lay within that particular slab. Along with his custom work, Nakashima offered a production line that was visible through a catalog. Some of his trademarks include letting the irregularities of the wood become part of the beautiful aspects of the slab wood and also using butterfly joints in the top of his tables to insure their stability in fragile points in the slabs.
James Krenov considered himself a “composer rather than a “designer”. Like the other first generation furniture makers, Krenov was more concerned with the wood grain and staying true to the wood rather than overall style and design. His most recognizable pieces are case pieces which are raised off the ground a couple feet in an almost stilt like fashion. Krenov recently passed away and was recognized in Fine Woodworking magazine for his dedication to the craft and education of others in his techniques and experience.
Tage Frid is most reknowned for his dedication to education and the progression of furniture making. He his author of multiple educational books and video series and as well as a regular contributer to Fine Woodworking Magazine. In 1948 he helped establish the wood department at the School for American Craftsmen and in 1963 left the New York school where he moved to Rhode Island to start the furniture department at Rhode Island School of Design where he continued to teach until the 80s when his former student, Rosanne Sommerson, took over as chair of the department. Frid’s work is characterized by design simplicity. Although Frid was definitely concerned with the overall grain and pattern of wood grain and staying true to the wood, of the first generation of furniture makers he was perhaps the one most concerned with overall design rather than letting the wood dictate the direction of the design process.