Chris Schwarz's Blog

Come for the Alpacas; Stay for the Furniture Design

In my home life, my passion for furniture design is a bit like a subscription to Playboy magazine. I keep all my books about woodworking and furniture in my office. I pore over them at night when the kids are asleep. And I don’t drone on about joinery or 18th-century workshop practices at dinner.

It’s not that I’m actively concealing the stuff. It’s just that my kids’ days are filled with so much activity and learning already, that there is little time to talk much about furniture. I’ve also been waiting for the day to arrive when they are old enough to build furniture in the shop with me.

That day arrived on Saturday.

This weekend we all drove down to Harrodsburg, Ky., for the state’s first-ever Alpaca festival. My two girls like a goofy-looking animal as much as any kid. And so the 100-mile trek to see this cousin to the camel seemed worth it. The festival was held on the grounds of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill , one of my all-time favorite places on earth. The setting, the buildings, the furniture and the food are a balanced meal for any furniture junkie.

I figured that the last thing the kids would want to do would be to tour buildings and workshops, but that was OK by me. Saturday was for the alpacas, which hum when they are distressed. So we heard a lot of alpaca humming, chased some wild turkeys, saw a sheep being sheared in 4 minutes, made felted soap and bought finger puppets.

After some lunch, we had an hour before we had to head back home, and I thought I’d sneak off to the Centre Family Dwelling to take some photos of the firewood box there, which I’m building for the “I Can Do That” column in the February issue of Popular Woodworking. I told the girls they could go pet some more alpacas or come with me into the building. Surprisingly, everyone wanted to go with me.

After an hour in the Centre Family Dwelling, we almost had to drag the girls out of there. They were both bewitched by the building itself and the objects inside. They wanted to see every room, look at all the tables and chairs and learn about all the displays. They marveled at the acoustics in the meeting halls. They pointed out unusual dovetail joints on a seed box (I guess I’ve been droning on at dinner more than I thought).

Maddy, my 11-year-old, pointed out pieces that she thought I should build for the magazine. Katy, the 6-year-old, was fascinated by the system of pegs on the walls (she also is quite the cleaner, so that’s understandable).

Then they discovered the continuous banisters that run from the ground floor to the third. They immediately knew what a technical challenge it was. They asked to borrow my camera so they could take pictures of things that interested them (they took about 50). Katy’s photo of the peg system is at the top of this entry.

Then the two girls pulled themselves up into one of the deep window wells and looked out over the rolling hills of Central Kentucky, which look the same as they did in the early 19th century when the building was built.

“We could live here dad,” Maddy says. “I could look out this window forever.”

Sometimes I forget about the power that furniture and architectural design has, even over people who don’t immerse themselves in it. On Saturday, the long-gone brothers and sisters of that vanished order reached across almost two centuries of time and planted a seed in the minds of my girls.

Next stop: To the shop to build a wagon for their toy horses to pull. It’s time.

– Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “Come for the Alpacas; Stay for the Furniture Design

  1. Jon Johnson

    Pleasant Hill is indeed a wonderful place, Chris. We visited nearly 10 years ago. Maybe it’s time to go back. I envy your 100-mile proximity. It was a long drive from Pennsylvania!
    Mr. Cunningham is right: one does tend to overlook the smaller details. From your photos, I’m lusting after a close-up detail of the chair rail. It would look great on my dining room walls. Hmmm…

  2. Gary Roberts

    Chris… with all due regards to your photographic skills, I believe that it is time to turn this particular function over to your daughters. Katy’s photo of the chair hanging on pegs is everything a photo should be… dynamic, well composed and giving the viewer an impression that someone just hung the chair there a moment ago.

  3. Kari

    I share your love of all things Shaker and had the opportunity to visit the Hancock Shaker Village two years ago, where the famous workbench pictured on "The Workbench Book" is found. There is something so peaceful about Shaker design, something in the balance and proportion, that seems so comforting. Like your girls, I felt that I could live there, too!

  4. John Cunningham

    Chris,

    I was just at Pleasant Hill on Labor Day weekend. It is a magical place. I got to talk with one of the resident woodworkers while I was there, he an interesting observation during our discussion – almost every woodworker who comes there seems to get so lost in the furniture that they never seem to notice the smaller things. I enjoy the furniture as much as the next guy, but my interest on this visit was more toward the boxes, trays, and other smaller items that are just as interesting and timeless as the larger items. If you look closely the "tree of life" theme is actually carried in these items in unusual ways, the cutouts for the tray handles for instance are a silhouette of the "tree". Don’t know that I could have lived by their tenets, but it is a magical place all the same, its good to see that people are preserving it.

    John

  5. Jason

    Chris,

    I’m a bit curious about the peg system. Is there a standard distance between the pegs? It dawned on me that a cabinet designed to hang on two pegs (pictured in your blog), wouldn’t be very mobile unless all the pegs were the same distance. Also, it seems that chair backs were made the perfect width to fit on two pegs.

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