An Inspiring Clarity
DESIGNERS ON DESIGN – AUGUST 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
The elegant simplicity of master craftsman Gerald Curry inspires young furniture maker Thomas Mifflin
In a culture obsessed with originality, admitting to one’s influences can be a tricky thing. Even the word itself—influence—now seems to carry negative connotations.
Consider the typical movie review. Critics seem to relish making unflattering comparisons to older films, and their use of the phrase “influenced by” often implies “derivative of.” The same holds true across all the arts—the shadow of influential artists looms large for decades. An American writer who uses simple, declarative sentences, for example, inevitably draws comparisons to Hemingway. If a young singer/ songwriter with an acoustic guitar blows a single note on a harmonica, the Bob Dylan references come rolling out. This is the world that we live in
While few will deny the unique genius of a Hemingway or a Dylan, every artist is, to a large degree, a collage of influences. Even though Picasso may be the most influential painter of the 20th century, his work was greatly influenced by Cézanne and countless others before him. Because great artists can use their influences to create something fresh and innovative, influence can be a beautifully subtle thing. When Maine Home + Design asked the young furniture maker Thomas Mifflin to name a seasoned master of the Maine furniture scene who has influenced and inspired his work, we wondered if he might choose someone making decidedly contemporary, sculptural work akin to his own. We were pleasantly surprised when he didn’t. The 31-year-old Mifflin, who opened his first shop less than two years ago, says that it was the work of Union-based furniture maker Gerald Curry that inspired him at a crucial point in his growth as a designer and craftsman. Known for his exquisite reproductions of 18th century American furniture and classically influenced contemporary designs, Curry seemed an unlikely choice at first. But after the two men sat down and talked with Maine Home + Design, the many connections made complete sense. The Journey to Curry
Mifflin began his apprenticeship with wood while working side-by-side with his father at his family’s Coastline Boatworks in South Portland. The duo offered a full line of boat-related woodwork including furniture, cabinetry, decking, and fiberglass work. Mifflin soon became particularly interested in the teak, mahogany, and cherry custom furniture he and his father were building. Enamored with the furniture’s arching and artful lines, Mifflin began studying sculpture at the Maine College of Art (MECA) in 2003 so he could push his design ideas to the next level. Mifflin was soon filling his notebooks with sketches for sculpture, furniture, and pieces that blurred the edges between the two. But the art-school setting, which often emphasized appearance and brash affect, soon left him feeling torn about his appreciation for functionality. “Everything was conceptually based,” Mifflin remembers, “and the ‘shock factor’ of a piece was really important.” After growing restless in the classroom, Mifflin sought out the comprehensive nine-month woodworking program at Rockport’s Center for Furniture Craftsmanship (CFC) in 2005. “I had all these wacky drawings I’d made at MECA,” he says, “and I needed to learn how to make them real.” While trying to gain the knowledge and skills he would need to create the designs he had envisioned and sketched, Mifflin says he began to feel overwhelmed early on at CFC. “I was just getting overloaded by all of this amazing education about furniture making,” he remembers. But the inundation of knowledge left him feeling directionless rather than focused. In a moment of providence, a display of furniture built by the CFC faculty cleared the fog that had been building in Mifflin’s mind. In the middle of the display sat a half-round demilune table designed and built by Gerald Curry. Mifflin knew the name, but not the man; though Curry has taught classes at the CFC for years, Mifflin never studied under him. The table was the epitome of Curry’s recent design work: traditionally influenced, but divested of extravagant flourishes in favor of more subtle, contemporary details. Mifflin remembers the clarity he felt while looking at the dark walnut table with its light maple accents. “I saw a real simplicity and elegance to the piece,” he says. “Jerry had taken just a few elements and used them perfectly.” But that pared-down perfection, as Mifflin saw it, wasn’t simply the product of a great design; it was a creation that could only have come from a conscientious woodworker who had been plying his craft for many years.
From Museum to Workshop
As one of nine children, Gerald Curry spent much of his childhood minding the counter at his family’s hardware store outside Boston. In his mid-20s, after stints in college, carpentry, and the army, Curry became fascinated with fine period furniture. Lacking a proper school that taught woodworking and design, Curry instead got his furniture education at an institution just down the road from his home: the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Three or four times a week, Curry would wander through the museum’s American furniture collection—which contains 1,500 pieces spanning four centuries—and study the pieces as closely as possible. Curry’s woodworking apprenticeship was completed under the tutelage of past masters. He would make sketches and crude measurements on scraps of paper and occasionally the museum’s curator would pull open a desk drawer or cupboard to show him the details of its construction. Back in his workshop, Curry used the time-honored tradition of trial and error to hone his understanding of furniture construction. Surprisingly quickly, he became proficient in reproduction work.
Realizing that a career in furniture making would require a low-overhead lifestyle, Curry and his wife, Sheila, escaped the expensive, overcrowded streets of Boston and moved to Union in 1976. With his extensive knowledge of period furniture, Curry soon built up a loyal clientele, somewhat unintentionally, for his reproduction and restoration work. Though he had always intended to use his hard-earned, self-taught skills to design and build contemporary furniture, Curry spent the next 25 years crafting, among other things, Queen Anne and Chippendale reproductions. Today, at 56 years old, Curry has finally broken with the past. For the past seven years, Curry has used his extensive knowledge of traditional construction—hand-cut dovetails and precise mortise-and-tenon joinery—to design pieces that do away with the ornate trappings of period furniture. “I still love classical proportions,” Curry says, “I’ve just tried to strip them down.” While thrilled by the constant challenges he encounters while bringing his own designs to fruition, Curry appears to have no regrets about the circuitous route he took to contemporary furniture. In fact, he still takes on the occasional restoration job. “I think a key to surviving so long as a one-man shop,” he says, “has been staying versatile. Young woodworkers shouldn’t get caught up thinking that restoration work, for instance, is somehow ‘beneath’ them.”
Today, both Curry and Mifflin are producing new designs that have one foot firmly in tradition and the other in originality. While perhaps not as clearly as Curry, Mifflin says he is also attempting to infuse even his most artistic pieces with a sense of history. “It’s always been my goal to combine the modern furniture form with traditional joinery skills,” he says. In terms of personalities, the two furniture makers appear to meet somewhere in the middle: while Curry is young and maturing as an artist, Mifflin is just a bit old-fashioned. When Curry bemoans the fact that many of his students at the CFC now turn on their iPods and disappear into themselves while they work—rather than interact with and learn from their fellow students—Mifflin admits that lately he’s been turning the music down in his own shop. “I used to crank up the tunes and knock stuff out,” he says, “but these days I’m enjoying how a quiet shop allows me to listen to a piece of wood while I hand-plane it.” Curry gives a knowing nod to Mifflin’s admission. Yet Curry still works with the tenacity of a kid who is lost in the rush of his first creation. “Woodworker’s have this obsessive personality,” he laughs. “It’s almost like we feel that each piece we’re working on will be the last thing we’ll ever make.” With one craftsman just starting out, and the other starting over, it’s fair to say that both Curry and Mifflin will continue to create inspiring and influential pieces of contemporary furniture for a very long time.