The Art of Craft
J. Jeffrey Wamhoff’s desks are meditations on work, time, nature, and beauty.
Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
Installations for about 500 major exhibits, the complex mounting of the Ellsworth Kelly show, easels for rare prints—as chief cabinetmaker for the Saint Louis Art Museum, J. Jeffrey Wamhoff met more than three decades of deadlines. Then he retired and really got to work: slowly and methodically, free of commissions and commercial obligations. He’s ready to pull art from the wood itself.
• My great-grandfather was in the woodworking business, Imse-Schilling Sash and Door. They made windows and doors from scratch, the old German way, and paneling, church pews, altars… I still use his workbench.
• I don’t consider myself an artist. But there’s a kind of conversation with the wood, a meditation.
• I’ve found myself making desks—desks I could hand down to my children.
• A desk is like a blank sheet of paper: It’s something you have to confront. You have to bring something to it, approach it with some sense of purpose. To me, a desk is like a workbench.
•For primary show woods, I like maple, some cherry, good mahogany. Those are mild woods; they react consistently. But wood doesn’t have a mild temperament unless it came from a fairly substantial tree. If it grows too fast, it’s not very workable; it has too much tension. A lot of construction lumber is grown that way, under the auspices of sustainability.
• A lot of fine designers have gotten a bad rap because they didn’t focus on how their design would be made. They did the design and left the joinery to someone else.
• Work is all about calling it complete.
A Desk’s Jobs
“If you’re going to work,” Wamhoff says, “you’d better set yourself up to work. It doesn’t happen automatically, and it doesn’t happen by chance.” Here’s a checklist to start you thinking:
• Do You Even Need a Desk?
Is there an advantage for you in creating a specific working area? If so, think about how you work. Do you need a desk per se, or just a big table or counter?
• If You Do Need One…
Should it be one that’s flat or tilted? Sitting or standing? How deep and how wide should it be? How much elbow room will you need? Where do you want to be able to stack stuff as you work?
• What Extras Do You Want?
Do you want shelving above your desk? A roll-top or other cover? Cubbyholes? A secret compartment or two?
• How Special Should It Be?
Do you want a desk you can lock, for privacy? Do you want an heirloom? Do you take your work seriously enough?