December 1, 2013

Master woodworker explores why we create in new book

The director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship is also a dedicated baker and now author.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer


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This is a dancing swan desk crafted by Peter Korn, director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport. (Photo courtesy Peter Korn)

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Courtesy photo

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“WHY WE MAKE THINGS AND WHY IT MATTERS: THE EDUCATION OF A CRAFTSMAN,” by Peter Korn, was published Nov. 21 by Godine Publishing of Boston (176 pages, hardcover, $22). Korn is founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftmanship in Rockport.

ROCKPORT — The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship smells like a bakery. Peter Korn, the center’s founder and executive director, is a weekend baker, although his pursuit of the leaven arts often blends into the work week.

Just as the smell of wood fills the workshops here, the aroma of baking bread fills the offices.

Korn, who turns 62 this month, has been a dedicated baker since college. He loves the simplicity of the craft: Mixing ingredients, working them and adding a personal touch. The result is a thing of beauty.

It’s a similar satisfaction that he enjoys when designing and making a beautiful desk or chair.

Korn explores the nature and reward of the creative process in a new book, “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman.”

A master wood worker, Korn has written how-to books in the past. “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters” feels more like a memoir. Korn writes about his personal journey in pursuit of his craft and the satisfaction of being a successful creator, of making and shaping an object with one’s hands and mind.

He asks, how does the making of an object shape our identities? How does creative work inform society? What does the process of making say about us as individuals and as a society?

More personally, the book is a conversation about what it means to be human, what a good life is and how work fits into that. He writes about his two bouts with cancer, and how surviving Hodgkin’s disease informed and motivated his interests.

In many ways, Korn is an unlikely creator.

“I had no role models for doing anything with my hands growing up,” he said.

He was raised in a Philadelphia family that stressed intellectual pursuits. His father expected his son to become a doctor or lawyer. Korn studied history at the University of Pennsylvania.

The first time he worked with his hands was as a summer carpenter on Nantucket in the 1970s. He liked the physical work, and felt satisfied making things well.

Friends of his were having a baby, the first of his contemporaries to have a child. Korn bought materials three days before the baby was due, and spent the next 72 hours making a cradle from his will and intent.

The event changed his life.

It set him on a path as a self-sustaining furniture maker, leading him first to New York City, where he sold his work, to Anderson Ranch in Colorado, where he taught, and eventually to Rockport in 1993, where he opened the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.

He directs the nonprofit school, which has a budget of about $1.2 million. Each year, the school teaches about 400 students how to design and make beautiful things with their hands from wood. Some are functional pieces of furniture, others are more sculptural in their approach.

At any given time, 30 to 50 students are on campus, filling the workshops with energy, sawdust and, ultimately, art.

Some pay $1,300 for a two-week basic wood working class. Others pay nearly $19,000 for a nine-month intensive that culminates with a group exhibition in the school’s Messler Gallery on campus.

While the outcome of the student experience at the school is a tangible object, Korn is really teaching what it means to live a satisfied life. Four decades of creativity have revealed to him that the satisfaction of being creative is not necessarily the finished piece, but the act of making.

“The world is not begging for another chair or another desk,” he said. “When we go into the studio to create these things, we feel that by going through the process we will emerge at the other end as a different person.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Peter Korn, director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, poses for a portrait in one of the school’s classrooms. He came to Rockport in 1993, where he founded the center that has taught thousands of aspiring craftsmen the art of creating in wood. Korn’s new book, below left, is “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman.” Below, Korn’s dancing swan desk.

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Randy Howell of Leesburg, Va. works on his case piece as part of a nine-month comprehensive course at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. (Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)

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This is a continuous arm chair crafted by Peter Korn, director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport. (Photo courtesy Peter Korn)

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