Review by Edward S. Cooke, Jr.
Thos. Moser: Artistry in Wood

Thomas Moser, with Brad Lemley. Thos. Moser: Artistry in Wood. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002. 192 pp.; numerous color and bw illus. $60.00.

Thomas Moser may arguably be the best-known contemporary American furniture maker working outside the production or contract field. Through advertisements in magazines like The New Yorker, retail stores in major urban centers (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Charleston, and Washington, in addition to Freeport, Maine), and institutional work (especially for university libraries), Moser and his traditionally based contemporary hardwood furniture have maintained high visibility for the past fifteen years. He produced the book under review with the intention of conveying “the thinking behind the aesthetic and structural design choices I have made” (p. 60). He charts his development as a maker, then follows with chapters on his preference for cherry wood, his design aesthetic, and his notion of craftsmanship. Lavishly illustrated with images of his furniture—environments as well as single works and details—the format also includes sidebars on particular topics such as his failures in toy manufacturing, the development of a special form like the deacon’s bench, and an homage to George Nakashima. The overwhelming use of color images, in which the saturated auburn hues of cherry dominate, and the celebratory journey from humble beginnings to worldwide appreciation link this volume to a genre of seductively illustrated autobiographies of contemporary woodworkers such as Sam Maloof and George Nakashima, a link Moser seems to desire.[1]

Moser views himself as the lineal descendant of the nineteenth-century vernacular cabinetmaker, one who employed a skilled economy to make simple, well-proportioned, utilitarian forms of local woods. When he first left his academic job and opened a shop in 1972, he parlayed knowledge of historical furniture and antique restoration to build pine case pieces and tables in federal-period and Shaker styles, often using paint as a finish. In 1976 Moser grew concerned about imitation, realizing that by copying the work of old New England craftsmen, he was merely “enhancing their stature, not our own” (p. 48). Yearning to build a market niche on more than his “workmanship, sharp tools, and quick hands,” Moser made a conscious decision to create his own aesthetic, celebrating black cherry, with an oil finish, as the primary wood and ash as a secondary wood for spindles, turned legs, and drawer linings. Like the studio furniture makers of the 1950s, he responded favorably to the warmth, depth, and translucence of cherry and began to use it to make comfortable, durable, and traditionally constructed (dovetailed carcasses and drawers, mortise-and-tenoned panels, etc.) furniture loosely inspired by federal and Shaker examples. In 1980, in response to the increased appreciation of furniture made during the arts and crafts movement earlier in the century, Moser began to incorporate visible joinery as part of his design aesthetic. Such an interest in explicit workmanship may have also developed from the studio furniture field’s devotion to technical virtuosity in the 1970s. In the 1990s, Moser’s firm expanded beyond its rectilinear vocabulary and began to explore more curvilinear work.

Although an autobiography can often cross the line into boosterism and promotional claims, Moser’s volume contains some elements of interest to furniture historians. His chronicle of the early years of his shop provides insights into the motivations and decisions of many who pursued craftwork in the 1970s as an alternative career. The frustrations and limitations of white-collar work, even university teaching, and the allure and satisfaction of making things and integrating thought and action are key to his story. The most obvious and consistent theme in the book is his sense of the role of craftsmanship. Neither an impractical romantic hung up on the moral value of handwork nor a self-indulgent maker who spends thousands of hours creating “a frivolity for the elite few” (p. 146), Moser expresses very specific opinions on the need for keeping a production mentality while making what William Morris referred to as “good citizen’s furniture.” This sort of work is unpretentious, timeless, functional, and geared toward the human body. Establishing his first shop in New Gloucester, Maine, right near the Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake, Moser lauds the Shakers as the historical standard for this approach and seeks to update that same philosophy. It is no surprise that just as the Shakers relied on the circular saw and extensive outwork systems to make their work efficient and economical, Moser has embraced labor saving equipment like a computer-guided core cutter to shape his plank seats, justifying the use of such mechanized tools in conjunction with finishing handwork as the proper balance of efficiency and inefficiency. He acknowledges that some critics see this as a compromise of principles, but he lays out a shop floor mentality in which the fast production of parts with an eye to quality and safety should be wed to careful skilled handwork in the assembly and finishing stages. Drawing inspiration from Danish cabinetmaking firms that he visited, Moser even set up his shop with these two elements separate.

Another striking aspect of Moser’s story is his commitment to hiring and teaching a wide variety of help. Over the years he has employed people with advanced degrees as well as working-class Mainers, and he has consistently hired women. Many people found their true calling as craftspeople, with twenty-three going on to start their own furniture business. In Maine you can construct a family tree of Moser employees who have taken some aspect of the Moser philosophy and developed their niche in a small shop situation, whether producing Shaker inspired work (Chris Becksvoort), arts and crafts (Kevin Rodel), or even batch production (Doug Green). Others have developed personal styles in small shops in Maine (Bill Huston and Lynette Bretton) or moved to Vermont (Jim Becker) or even Seattle (Stewart Wurtz) to set up small shops offering similar lines. In this manner, the Moser shop has served as an important training ground for northern New England small-shop furniture makers and as a catalyst for the field’s growth. However, Moser does not acknowledge that his influence as a teacher was greatest in the first fifteen years of his business, when his shop relied heavily on skilled workmanship to achieve efficiency.

In his emphasis on the personal qualities of workmanship and teaching, Moser offers a selective history of his firm that links his work to that of prominent contemporary woodworkers like George Nakashima or more historical figures such as the Shakers or Gustav Stickley. The book’s format, plethora of color images of details, and language of craftsmanship reveal Moser’s intention to be considered as an equal to studio furniture makers and to earn a reputation as a consummate designer-craftsman. However, the emphasis on process and workmanship obscures other aspects of the Moser operation, particularly its evolution from small shop to production shop similar in scale to Danish firms like Johannes Hansen, who manufactured much of Hans Wegner’s work. Employing more than a hundred workers and enjoying sales that exceeded fifty-eight million dollars in 1998, Moser oversees a large sophisticated plant (approximately sixty-five thousand square-feet) with some skilled furniture makers but a greater number of specialized workers. He first expanded his manufacturing and retail operations in the mid-1980s, but initially found it difficult to sustain such a widespread endeavor. In about 1990, he developed a more profitable arm of his business—corporate and library commissions. The images in the volume and the role of his son Aaron as manager of “corporate and institutional selling efforts” (p. 56) suggest that these large commissions play an increasingly important role in the firm’s economic health, but there is little discussion of them in the text. Even a partial list of clients suggests the success of this venture: the J. Paul Getty Trust Center, the law school libraries at Yale and UCLA, the arts library at Harvard, the libraries at the University of Pennsylvania and Seton Hall University, the Thoreau Institute Library, and the offices of The New Yorker.[2]

Moser’s misreading of the English design historian David Pye is instructive in placing Moser somewhere between the studio furniture maker and the contract furniture industry. Whereas Pye extolled the virtues of the “workmanship of risk,” Moser misquotes him and celebrates the “manufacture of risk” (p. 160), revealing his approach to the field. Like his contemporary Charles Webb in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moser emerged from a studio furniture background and benefited from employing a number of individuals interested in craft as an alternative career, but in the mid-1980s he changed directions. He consciously sought to parlay the look and values of the individual shop in the manufacturing realm. Moser’s work itself does not compare favorably to that of studio furniture makers like Walker Weed, Sam Maloof, or George Nakashima who preceded him; it seems stiff, derivative, and overly self-conscious. While the individual work suffers when compared to that of some designer-craftsmen, the designs and workmanship of the library and institutional work rise above the standard millwork usually found in those locations. It is in the realm of manufactured craftsmanship that Moser has really made his mark and will be remembered. It is unfortunate that his book does not lay out that particular story in greater detail, distinguishing between the earlier and later phases of his firm. The book is less a history of the firm than Moser’s treatise on craftsmanship that telescopes or blurs that history.[3]

Edward S. Cooke, Jr.
Yale University

American Furniture 2003

  • [1]

    George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections (Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco: Kodansha International Ltd., 1981); and Sam Maloof, Sam Maloof, Woodworker (New York: Kodansha, 1983).

  • [2]

    Studio furniture makers are independent producers, either self-taught or academically trained, who work in small shops or studios. While these makers use machinery, and may employ assistants or specialists, they produce a limited number of works. Their work is often custom-made for commissions, or sold through galleries, specialized shows, and personal connections with buyers. For additional insight into the term and its historical development, see Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Gerald W. R. Ward, and Kelly H. L’Ecuyer, with the assistance of Pat Warner, The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940–1990 (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003). See Zachary Gaulkin, “The Many Sides of Thomas Moser,” Fine Woodworking, no. 128 (January/February 1998): 70–73. A 1984 small, largely black-and-white catalogue available at the Cumberland Avenue store in Portland, Maine, asserted that all Moser furniture was made with historical joinery and that “there is no mass production in our workshop. Each item of furniture is built entirely by one or by small groups working together and orders are filled, each in their turn.”

  • [3]

    See David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968; reprint, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971).