November 28, 2009
Alan Peters, Britain's greatest furniture maker, is dead at 76
His obituary in the November 5, 2009 issue of The Economist explains what made him unique; it follows.
Alan Peters, furniture-maker
Reaching blearily, in the morning, for a pair of socks, few people give a thought to the smooth running of a drawer. But to Alan Peters [top], who for many years was probably Britain’s best furniture-maker, a properly fitted and functioning drawer was the acme of his craft. A perfect drawer, he would say, had to slide in on a cushion of air, and when pulled out had to cause the other drawers to retract, very slightly, into the almost airtight case. It must show no hint of “slop” from top to bottom or side to side. The front must fit into the opening like a plug, with no light or gaps visible.
All very well to say; but Mr Peters, true to the Arts and Crafts Movement in which he had been trained, was working with “timber rather than walking sticks”, in William Morris’s phrase. Solid wood moved: it faded in sunlight, swelled in humidity, dried out in central heating, in constant sympathy with its surroundings. In Mr Peters’s hands it adjusted to the user, too: to sit in one of his chairs was to feel the back give a little, graciously, as if “it wants you to”. Wood moved slowly, but not equally, with its mixture of springwood and summerwood, straight and wavy grain, knots, rings and imperfections. And it would always go the way it was naturally inclined.
For drawer-sides, therefore, Mr Peters liked reclaimed Victorian timber, which was “as stable as it was ever going to be”. Honduras mahogany was the best, or quartersawn oak, brought into his workshop to climatise and then fitted when the weather was dry. Fitting was a matter of continuous checking and swift, soft planing; only one stroke of a plane, he would say, separated a perfect drawer from a sloppy one. Backs were fitted to sides, and sides to fronts, with immaculate dovetail joints—another Arts and Crafts trademark—that were hardly glued, but tapped in with a hammer. The drawer-bottom was solid cedar of Lebanon, for the smell. His last little touch, as he planed the top edge of the front, was to bevel it slightly, front to back, so that the inward taper perfected the fit. At that point, “so close to where I want to be”, he found himself proceeding more and more slowly, almost with reverence.
Mahogany into ash
Smoothness was essential. He could not understand people who made drawers, or any other piece of furniture, with sharp edges. They had to be planed, rubbed with fine sandpaper, polished with paste wax, to a soft and glowing evenness. He himself could not keep his hands off wood. Reading a book, he would stroke the table beside it. Looking at a chair, his hands would be all over the rails and the struts. Picking up some stray offcut, he would begin to smile. Wood, like a warm and living thing, had to be respected and loved.
His teacher, Edward Barnsley, had eschewed power tools. At the Froxfield workshops in Hampshire, where Mr Peters was apprenticed at 16, eagerly sweeping every last wood-curl from the floor, there were treadle saws, and only natural daylight illuminated the aproned young men bent solemnly over their work benches. As Arts and Crafts dictated, everything was done by hand. Mr Peters, steeped in that ethic but open to things new, found power tools useful in his own workshops in Surrey and in Devon. A portable drill or an electric chainsaw could save labour, and make light of roughing out big boards. Once that was done, he set to the real work: with hand drills, handsaws (their teeth rubbed, to run more smoothly, with a candle end), his bevelled-edge chisel and his wide, heavy, trusty Number 7 plane, which he used for everything.
His exquisite work made him the leader of the craft furniture revival of the 1970s and 1980s, and brought honours in both Britain and America. But how it had begun, this love-affair, was mysterious. As a boy he made a workshop in his parents’ cellar, mapping out dovetails with dividers while other boys played football, and he courted his future wife with the history of tables, chairs and cupboards. He was hooked young, and stayed there.
His motivation, he always said, was not to produce art. Many of his pieces were extraordinarily beautiful: a semicircular table with the wood adzed perfectly like an opening fan, a scalloped bowl in a block of solid wood, a rosewood cabinet panelled with pale sycamore. (His influences were eastern as well as English, strongly shaped by a trip to Japan in 1975 in which he had watched woodworkers, crouched on the floor, cutting cedar “soft as cheese” into pieces of elemental simplicity.) Each humble drawer, too, was beautiful, with sides and front in deliberately contrasting woods linked by dovetails: light oak into rosewood, mahogany into ash. But much of that quality, he would have said, came from the wood itself, in the swirl, curl and quilting of Devon walnut, perhaps his favourite, or the dark, coloured stripes of Macassar ebony, so hard to work.
What mattered most to him was that a piece was simple and honest, that it worked, and that it was good enough to put his name to. If people called it art, all well and good; but his was the ethic of the craftsman. As Barnsley, his teacher, once put it, a rural artisan simply had to do his best. “If the wheel axle pin squeaked, if the beam had sapwood in it, if the haystack leant”, everyone in the village would know who had done it. Or, for that matter, if a drawer jammed.
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