ROCKPORT, Maine — After crunching up the gravel driveway of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, the first things a visitor might see are the manicured grounds, with artful wooden benches, carefully placed greenery, and neat, two-story buildings resembling barns.
The building closest to Route 17 bears a plaque that says “Office and Gallery.” Displayed on a floating shelf positioned in front of the entrance is a stack of Peter Korn’s new book, “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman,” released this fall by Boston publisher David R. Godine.
Korn is the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship’s founder, executive director, and now its resident author; the book is a memoir of his professional and personal journey from Ivy-educated hippie to master craftsman and school administrator, as well as a philosophical treatise on the creative process. It’s also a handsome object, its dust jacket illustrated with full-color pictures of woodworking tools.
Korn’s office is tucked away in a corner and looks out at the rolling hills just beyond the school. In addition to his desk — a heavy cherry number he made himself in 1983 — the space contains its share of more prosaic items, including a desktop computer and black plastic paper trays. Taped up on the metal file cabinet next to Korn’s workstation is a cartoon he clipped from The New Yorker. In it, a hooded figure stands over a shirtless man stretched out on a wooden rack. The caption reads: “You think this is torture? I write in my spare time.”
“In furniture-making, the most creative part is the design process before you build the thing — most of the details are worked out before you even begin to cut wood,” says Korn, dressed in a flannel shirt, green down vest, hiking boots, and large, wire-rimmed glasses.
“You see that dictionary stand?” he asks, gesturing toward an elegantly curved walnut pedestal near the door. “I used to make six of those at a time. Once I had the design down there was nothing creative about making them — it was rote work. But writing is all challenging.”
Particularly for him: “When I was in high school and college, I was not a good writer,” he admitted. He improved by writing in a professional capacity, first at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen, Colo. He began working there in the early ’80s, following a decade of solitary craftsmanship and his first bout with Hodgkin’s disease. Some years later, Korn had a short-lived woodworking column in the Chicago Tribune. He published the first of his three how-to books, “Working With Wood: The Basics of Craftsmanship,” in 1993, the same year he founded the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. The ideas Korn presents in “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters” began taking hold around that time.
“I’m not particularly introspective,” he says. “[But] I figured out that the traits I’d been trying to express in my furniture were integrity, simplicity, and grace, [and] these were actually the traits I’d been trying to cultivate in myself by becoming a master craftsman. Once I saw that I practiced craft because doing that was going to help me discover who I was . . . I realized that everyone in the arts goes into the studio as a process of self-transformation and discovery.”
He resolved to write a philosophical treatise in order to work out his own thoughts about the creative process. “When I started writing the book, I learned that my own ideas weren’t ridiculous,” he says.
On a recent visit, Korn’s woodworking students are undergoing a similar transformation. In the Workshop Building — one that, like all the others, smells thoroughly, almost thrillingly of wood — a dozen students, several in plaid flannel, listen raptly to instructor Kevin Rodel’s lecture on technique. They are aspiring craftsmen in the sixth week of a 12-week intensive furniture-making course. Their first project had been to design and complete a piece of furniture that incorporates both dovetail and mortar and tenon joints. At present, they are working on a solid wood case with a door and a drawer, and the next room was filled with evidence of their labors: nightstands and cabinets rested on the dozen workbenches spread evenly throughout the room.
In an adjacent building, Ted Bryant, a Virginian, sits over sketches drawn with a French curve. Taking a nine-month course at the center, he had worked on Wall Street for 25 years before turning to furniture making six years ago, during the economic downturn. Bryant had taken several woodworking classes before he arrived at Rockport, but none had challenged him quite so thoroughly.
“The design aspect is super important here; the really hard part is coming up with something that’s mine, but it’s exhilarating,” he says with a grin.
In its 20 years of existence, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship has gone through its own transformations. What began as a single building added its fourth this year, which houses the Whittington Turning Studio and the Tina Proctor Finishing Studio, where it will soon offer the nation’s first professional-grade course in woodturning.
The center also recently acquired its first 3-D printer, presided over by Mark Juliana, who has figured out how to print replacement saw bits out of red plastic. Juliana once worked in the tech industry, but now is a full-time employee at the school. “I really wanted to work with my hands,” he says, explaining the change.
Korn, who’s in his early 60s, rarely works with his hands these days, at least not to build furniture. For him, writing a book gave him “the sort of meaning and fulfillment that I found, for many years, through furniture making.”
Perhaps because he applied a craftsman’s care and force of discipline, the book took nearly nine years to complete. Every morning, he’d write from 6:30 to 8:30, then he’d drive to work. “I’d keep a piece of paper on the seat next to me because somewhere on that hill up there, another piece of the knot would untangle in my mind,” he says. After two years, he had a manuscript, but it wasn’t very good.
“The first finished draft I had was all ideas without a single personal thing in it — it was so dry and boring,” he says. After friends helped him spice it up, he tried his luck at finding an agent and publisher but was met with rejection. “Everyone always asked which shelf it would go on at Barnes & Noble,” he said. Several revisions later, he finally found an agent — one who made him revise yet more.
“A table has a single iteration,” he says, thumping his desk. “A table is done because you can’t go back. If I don’t like an edge, I’ll change it on the next table. With words, you can go back and change an idea any time.
“The single most satisfying thing about writing that book was at the very end of the process. I was revising the second-to-last-sentence, and I finally got a word right, and it was so thrilling.”
He conjures a book from behind his desk and points to a sentence on the last page: “As a maker you put one foot in front of the other and you own the journey.”
“It was this word right here. Own.” He smiles.
“When you’re getting toward the end of your life, at least you can have owned your own journey. It was just the right word.”