Wood Working

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Wood Working Through The Ages

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Skull Hook (Agiba), Large "agiba" or "skull hooks" were used to display trophy skulls within the men's ceremonial houses of the Kerewa people of the Papuan Gulf region, on the south coast of New Guinea. Agiba depict important ancestors, often the mythical founders of village clans.

Each clan owned one or two agiba which were kept in the clan's allotted space within the ceremonial house. The skulls of slain enemies were hung from the agiba with loops of rattan. As time passed, a platform was often constructed in front of the agiba to support the weight of the growing pile of skulls. Together with its skulls, the agiba was both a shrine and a source of supernatural power. The displays of trophy skulls were also status symbols, which marked the clan's prowess in warfare and headhunting.

Model of a Riverboat, This model of a riverboat is not a modern reproduction, but was made nearly four thousand years ago. The paint, the bits of linen cloth on some of the figures, and the twine are ancient. The boat and more than twenty other models of boats, gardens, and workshops were found in a small chamber in the tomb of Meketre, a Theban official who began his career in the civil service under Nebhepetre Mentuhotep of Dynasty 11 and continued to serve successive kings into the early years of the next dynasty.

Meketre is shown smelling a lotus blossom, seated in the shade of a small cabin, which on an actual boat would have been made of a light wooden framework with linen or leather hangings. Here the hangings are shown partly rolled up to let the breeze through. Wooden shields covered with bulls' hides are painted on each side of the roof. A singer, with his hand to his lips, and a blind harper entertain Meketre on his voyage. Standing in front of them is the ship's captain, with his arms crossed over his chest. He may be depicted awaiting orders, but he may also be paying homage to the deceased Meketre. As the twelve oarsmen propel the boat, a lookout in the bow holds a weighted line used to determine the depth of the river. At the stern, the helmsman controls the rudder. A tall white post amidship supported a mast and sail (not found in the tomb), which would have been taken down when the boat was rowed downstream-as it is here-against the prevailing north wind. Going south (upstream), with the wind behind it, the boat would have been sailed.

The boat is similar to one Meketre might have used in his lifetime. Certain details, however, suggest that on this voyage Meketre is traveling toward the afterlife. For instance the blossom he holds is the blue lotus, a flower the Egyptians associated with rebirth.

Meketre's tomb had been cut into a very poor stratum of stone, and had completely collapsed, leaving a dark, gaping cave in the cliff. In 1920 the Museum's chief excavator, Herbert Winlock, was having the tomb cleared in order to obtain an accurate floor plan for his map of Eleventh Dynasty necropolis. The tomb had been robbed in ancient times and the discovery of a small hidden chamber filled with almost perfectly preserved models that had remained hidden for nearly forty centuries was one of those fortuitous events that lend such an aura of romance to the often mundane and methodical discipline of archaeology. At the end of the excavation season, the models were divided. Half of them went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the other half, including six boats, four models of food production, an enclosed garden, a procession of three offering bearers led by a priest, and a tall offering figure (Highlight #9), came to New York.

Stationery box, The bold designs and gorgeous floral decoration in sprinkled gold on the gold and black lacquerwork of this large box for writing paper are characteristic of lacquer ware associated with Kodai-ji. This temple, built in 1606 in memory of the great shogun Hideyoshi (1539-1598) by his widow, is the epitome of the lavish taste of the Momoyama age. Despite several fires, the temple preserves a corpus of some thirty lacquer objects, which include architectural elements and utensils used in the fabled castles of the ostentatious Hideyoshi. Distinctive features of the Kodai-ji style, in vogue from about 1568 until well into the early seventeenth century, are its naturalistic rendering of plant motifs, usually autumn grasses, in large forms on a ground frequently divided into alternating diagonal fields of black and sprinkled gold. The wisteria-laden pine and the bridge bordered by spring willows have classic literary associations appropriate to boxes of this type. Bridges-this one recalling the famous structure at Uji-were particularly favored as an artistic motif during the early seventeenth century. Technically, the making of Kodai-ji lacquer ware was not as complicated as were earlier and later works of the Koami school artisans, who simplified their traditional methods to produce the bold decorative effects and large quantities demanded by lavish Momoyama patrons. The sumptuous technique employed here, which includes the inlay of gold and silver sheets, suggests a date late in the Momoyama period.

Arm Panel from a Ceremonial Chair, This fragmentary panel from the left arm of a chair was found in the tomb of Tuthmosis IV in the Valley of the Kings. Traces of glue on the surface suggest that the beautifully carved low relief with its exquisitely executed details was once covered with gold sheeting. On one side, the king is shown as a sphinx subduing the enemies of Egypt. The front edge of the panel is missing, but the text before the king's face probably read: "Lord of the Two Lands, Menkheperure, son of Re, Tuthmosis, [given] life like Re." The falcon at the upper right represents "the Behedite [Horus], the great god, with dappled plumage, giving life and dominion." The text above the sphinx's back reads: "Horus, the lord of might and action, trampling all foreign lands."
On the other side, the panel depicts "the young god, Menkheperure" enthroned, wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. In front of him is the lion-headed goddess Weret, whose name is written above her head. Behind the king is the ibis-headed god "Thoth, Lord of Hermopolis, giving all life and dominion." Thoth says, "I have brought you millions of years of life and dominion united with eternity." Behind the throne is the phrase "All life and dominion around him [like] Re."

In 1903 Theodore M. Davis discovered the tomb of Tuthmosis IV, whose throne name was Menkheperure. The fragmentary remains of the king's funerary equipment included this arm panel and a second one, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The scenes on the panels suggest that the chair was used either for the king's coronation, or possibly for his thirty-year jubilee, the Sed festival.

Figure from Ceremonial Housepost, The Kambot people live along the banks of the Keram River, a tributary of the lower Sepik River in New Guinea. This figure was not originally an independent sculpture but probably formed part of a housepost supporting the roof of a ceremonial house. The image represents either Mobul or Goyen, two mythical brothers who are associated with the creation of plants and animals. The brothers' spirits were believed to reside within the houseposts at certain times. This figure is probably the largest known work produced by the Kambot. The head is a double image in which the eyes and nose of the central face also form the arms and flute of a second, smaller figure.

Bedroom from Sagredo Palace, Venice, In design and workmanship, this bedroom, consisting of an antechamber with a bed alcove, is one of the finest of its period. The decoration is in stucco and carved wood. In the antechamber, fluted Corinthian pilasters support an entablature out of which fly amorini bearing garlands of flowers. Other amorini bear the gilded frame of a painting by Gasparo Diziani, depicting dawn triumphant over night. Above the entry to the alcove seven amorini frolic, holding a shield with the monogram of Zaccaria Sagredo. A paneled wood dado with a red-and-white marble base runs around the room. The unornamented portions of the walls are covered with seventeenth-century brocatelle. The bed alcove has its original marquetry floor. The stuccowork was probably done by Abondio Statio and Carpoforo Mazetti. The amorini are beautifully modeled and the arabesques of the doors are exquisitely executed. Everything in this bedroom forms a buoyant and joyful ensemble.

"Carlton" Room Divider, Sottsass is not only one of the most influential designers of the latter half of the twentieth century but also one of the most paradoxical. While he has had a successful career producing industrial designs for the mainstream corporation Olivetti, for everything from typewriters and computers to office landscapes, he has also been iconoclastic as well, creating strikingly unconventional consumer-oriented objects that challenge the bourgeois audience at which they are aimed to reassess its assumptions of the limits of "good taste." Between 1981 and 1988 Sottsass and a small international group of like-minded designers who called themselves Memphis, created nonconformist furniture. The totemic "Carleton" room divider is an outstanding example of his Memphis designs. Although intended for a luxury market and of fine workmanship, it is made of cheap plastic laminates rather than fine woods. The vivid colors and seemingly random interplay of solids and voids suggest avant-garde painting and sculpture. Yet, typical of Sottsass, underlying the surface brilliance is an entirely logical structural system, of real and implied equilateral triangles.

"Fortissimo" Screen, 1925-26, Although trained as a sculptor, Jean Dunand began to explore the potentially more lucrative field of decorative arts, particularly metalworking, early in his career. His success in this area was immediate, and his pieces were regularly included in important exhibitions. He soon developed an interest in lacquer as a decorative finish for metal objects. In 1912 he undertook to learn the closely guarded secrets of traditional Asian lacquerworking from the Japanese master Seizo Sugawara and began to produce lacquered furniture and decorative panels. Combining age-old techniques with contemporary forms and abstract decorative designs, Dunand experimented with new ways of using the material, incorporating it into jewelry, textiles, and even society portraiture. His premises at 70, rue Hallé in Paris contained a showroom and specialized workshops for lacquerworking, metalworking, cabinetmaking, designing, and model making. He employed more than one hundred craftsmen and assistants, including a number of Indo-Chinese lacquerworkers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Dunand participated in important Paris exhibitions. He supplied large-scale decorative panels for the "Ile de France," "L'Atlantique," and "Normandie" - the great ocean liners that were showcases for the best of French contemporary design. His work was shown widely throughout Europe and the United States and was acquired by major museums, including the Metropolitan. Dunand's work is impressively exemplified by this magnificent screen, one of a pair (the other is entitled "Pianissimo") executed after the designs of the Russian-born sculptor Séraphin Soudbinine (a favorite student of Rodin) for the music room of the Port Washington, Long Island, residence of Solomon R. Guggenheim in 1925–26. It is likely that Soudbinine conceived the pictorial composition and was responsible for carving the bas-relief figures of the angels and the geometrically abstracted rocks, all of which were affixed to the flat panels of the screen with nails and wood dowels. The completed screen was lacquered by Dunand. The sumptuous gold lacquer, both matte and glossy in finish, was probably applied by a craftsman named Zuber whose sole responsibility in Dunand's studio was the delicate application of gold leaf and powder to freshly lacquered surfaces. The richness of effect is enhanced with tiny shards of mother-of-pearl and eggshell scattered over the surface. Natural lacquer is the byproduct of the sap of various trees indigenous to Indochina (Vietnam), China, and Japan. The harvested sap must be sealed in airtight containers and allowed to separate into differing layers of density over several months. Multiple coats are generally used for depth and richness of color: the densest lacquer is mixed with plant fibers for use as undercoats; the finest is applied with brushes made from human hair for the surface coats. In order to harden, each layer must be "cured" in an environment with controlled levels of high humidity. The hardened lacquer must be polished smooth before the next layer can be applied. A wide variety of colors (with the exception of white, which cannot be achieved in natural lacquer) can be obtained by adding metal oxides or natural vegetable dyes to liquid lacquer. Traditionally, to introduce white, tiny shards of eggshell are set into a freshly applied wet layer. A large object with up to twenty layers of lacquer could take two years to produce.

Plant Stand, 1903 At the turn of the century a number of avant-garde Viennese designers made an abrupt switch from the flowing organic lines of Jugendstil and Art Nouveau to a strict yet vigorous geometry. In 1903 these designers banded together to form the Wiener Werkstätte ("Vienna Workshops"), a designers' cooperative under the direction of the noted architect and designer Josef Hoffmann. Founded on the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Wiener Werkstätte strove to provide a range of well-designed, often handmade products for a sophisticated audience and indeed could supply everything from an architectural setting to the smallest decorative accessory. Outside manufacturers were frequently used to produce and distribute designs that the Wiener Werkstätte was unable to realize in their own studios. The renown of the workshops was such that by the early 1920s they had opened branches in Paris, Zurich, and New York. Otto Prutscher was a prominent member of the Wiener Werkstätte and a former student of Hoffmann. This plant stand, as well as a number of designs for similar plant stands by Prutscher, was produced by Beißbarth & Hoffmann AG, a manufacturer in Mannheim-Rheinau, Germany. Its architectonic design represents a particularly advanced take on the new geometry. The black-and-white checkerboard of painted squares is echoed in the alternating tiers of square cachepots. The motif is similar to one employed at the time in Glasgow by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose work was well known and admired in Vienna.

Washstand, 1904, While a young architectural apprentice, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the son of a Glasgow policeman, attended evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art, where he met Herbert MacNair, Frances Macdonald, and her sister Margaret Macdonald (who would later become Mackintosh's wife). Together they formed "The Four," producing watercolors, poster designs, and small decorative objects that were published in "The Studio." In 1889 Mackintosh was hired as a draftsman at the architectural firm of Honeyman and Keppie, where he would remain until 1914. It was there that he developed a unique design idiom based on the forms and materials of traditional Scottish architecture. Mackintosh undertook all aspects of a design commission, providing every element, from an architectural setting to small decorative objects and textiles. His best-known commissions include a building for the Glasgow School of Art (built in two phases, 1897-99 and 1907-09) and Hill House (1902-04), the Walter Blackie residence in the Glasgow suburb of Helensburgh. Perhaps frustrated by a lack of success at Honeyman and Keppie, Mackintosh left Glasgow in 1914, and by 1920 he had completely abandoned his architectural career. He increasingly turned to watercolor, a medium he continued to explore until his death. Mackintosh designed this washstand as part of the furnishings for the Blue Bedroom in Hous'hill, an eighteenth-century residence in a suburb of Glasgow he remodeled for Kate Cranston (Mrs. Cochrane) and her husband. Miss Cranston, one of Mackintosh's most important clients, was the proprietress of a group of highly successful tearooms in Glasgow, many of which she had Mackintosh design. With its uncompromising shape and brilliant abstract panel of glass, the washstand shows the architect/designer at the height of his creative powers.

Features On Site
Art Museums
Featured Artist

Skull Hook (Agiba)
19th-early 20th century; Kerewa people; Papua New Guinea, Gulf Province
Wood, paint, fiber; H. 55 7/8 in. (141.9 cm)
Featured Artist

Model of a Riverboat
ca. 1985 B.C.E.; Dynasty 12, early reign of Amenemhat I; Middle Kingdom Egyptian; Western Thebes. Gessoed and painted wood, linen twine, linen; L. 50 3/8 in. (128.9 cm)
Featured Artist

Stationery box
Momoyama period (1568-1615), early 17th century, Japan. Lacquer, with sprinkled gold decoration in Kodai-ji style, inlaid with gold and silver foil; H. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm), W. 17 15/16 in. (45.6 cm).
Featured Artist

Chair of Renyseneb
ca. 1450 B.C.E.; mid-Dynasty 18; New Kingdom, Egyptian. Ebony, ivory; H. 35 in. (86.2 cm) The back of this wooden chair, which belonged to the scribe Renyseneb, is handsomely veneered with ivory and embellished with incised decoration showing the owner seated on a chair of identical form. It is the earliest surviving chair with such a representation, and it is the only nonroyal example known. The scene and accompanying text have funerary import and may have been added following Renyseneb's death to make the chair a more suitable funerary object. The high quality of its joinery and the harmony of its proportions testify to the skill of ancient Egyptian carpenters. The mesh seat has been restored following ancient models.
Featured Artist

Arm Panel from a Ceremonial Chair
ca. 1400-1391 B.C.E.; Dynasty 18, reign of Tuthmosis IV Egyptian
Cedar; Max. H. 9 7/8 in. (25.1 cm).
Featured Artist

Figure from Ceremonial Housepost
19th-early 20th century; Kambot. Kambot people; Papua New Guinea, East Sepik Province, Keram. Wood, paint, fiber; H. 96 in. (243.8 cm).
Featured Artist

Bedroom from Sagredo Palace, Venice
18th century (ca. 1718)
Stuccowork probably by Abbondio Stazio of Massagno (1675-1745); and Carpoforo Mazzetti (ca. 1684-1748); Ceiling painting probably by Gasparo Diziani of Belluno (1689-1767)
Italian (Venice). Wood, stucco, marble, glass; H. 25 ft. 2 in. (767.1 cm), W. 18 ft. 2 in. (553.7 cm), D. 13 ft. 2 in. (401.3 cm).
Featured Artist

"Carlton" Room Divider, 1981 Ettore Sottsass (Italian, born Austria 1917)
Designer; Manufacturer: Memphis s.r.l. Wood, plastic laminate; H. 76-3/4, W. 74-3/4, D. 15-3/4 in. (194.9 x 189.9 x 40 cm).
Featured Artist

"Fortissimo" Screen, 1925-26 Séraphin Soudbinine (French, born Russia, 1870-1944)
Designer; Jean Dunand (French, 1877-1942). Lacquered wood; Each panel: H. 98, W. 35 in. (246.9 x 89.9 cm).
Featured Artist

Music Stand, 1962
Wharton Esherick (American, 1887-1970), Designer
Cherry wood. Wharton Esherick, a pioneer of the Studio Craft Movement, is renowned for his furniture and architectural elements of sensitively hand-carved wood. More interested in his craft than in publicity or volume of output, Esherick preferred to work with a small number of like-minded clients. Even so, he created hundreds of unique pieces during his lifetime and only rarely produced designs in multiple numbers. The original model for this music stand was made in 1960. The design was later replicated with the help of an assistant in an edition of twenty-four, of which this is one. The donor purchased this example from the Esherick family.
Featured Artist

Plant Stand, 1903
Otto Prutscher (Austrian, 1880–1949), Designer; Beissbarth & Hoffmann

Painted wood, metal; H. 36-1/2, W. 15-3/4 in. (92.7 x 40 cm) 
Featured Artist

Washstand, 1904
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Scottish, 1868–1928), Designer

Oak, ceramic tile, lead, colored and mirror glass; H. 63-1/4, W. 51-1/4, D. 20-3/8 in. (160.7 x 130.2 x 51.8 cm).


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All rights reserved. Revised: July 01, 2007 .