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A little more on Rietveld’s crate furniture, discovering Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture, and thoughts about the purpose of a blog

More on Rietveld’s crate furniture

Off the back of writing up the Rietveld-esque crate stool how-to, I started looking in to more about the origins of Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture. The best write up I’ve found is “A restorer’s blog: Pre-war crate desk by Rietveld”. It sounds like Metz & Co, the company selling much of Rietveld’s furniture, was skeptical.

“We cannot sell wood chips,” director Joseph de Leeuw had written to Rietveld.

It’s worth reading the post in full for a ton of anecdotes and context, as well as some useful comments from a master furniture restorer.

Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture

While researching, I also came across this post which introduced me to Louise Brigham, an American designer and teacher best known for her box furniture.

Her background is one of privilege, but she seemed to wield her privilege reasonably well. She came from a comfortably wealthy Bostonian family, and her parents died in her teens. Their death, combined with family wealth, likely allowed her to buck the normal pressures on a woman living in her time. She instead pursued her creative and social ambitions.

After studying both the Pratt Institute and the Chase School of Art (now Parsons), she became involved in the settlement house movement in Cleveland, OH where she experimented with furniture made from boxes and crates. She then travelled around Europe studying craft traditions. Supposedly she visited Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh in Glasgow, which I feel you can see in some of her designs. Perhaps her most impactful time was spent in Spitzbergen, a treeless island that is part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic where she really honed her design rational, ethos, and aesthetics.

She was prolific in the early 1900s. In 1909—over two decades before Rietveld’s crate furniture—she published Box Furniture, a book charmingly illustrated by Edward Aschermann on how to make furniture from crates. The book was reprinted multiple times and translated in to many languages.

To all who care for simplicity and thrift, utility and beauty, I send my message.

Louise Brigham, Box Furniture, p25

In the early 1910s, she set up a woodworking “laboratory” for children called the Home Thrift Association. During WWI she started one of the earliest ready-to-assemble furniture companies, Home Art Masters.

Why haven’t we heard more about her work?

For further reading on Louise Brigham, there are a few articles and books out there that look worthwhile. The interiordesign.net article “Thinking Outside the Box: Louise Brigham’s Furniture of 1909” by Larry Weinberg published in 2009 provides a lovely introduction to Brigham and her book. See also Kevin Adkisson’s paper “Box Furniture: Thinking Outside the Box” from 2014 for much more detail on her, including her later life.

The most extensive writing on Brigham currently appears to be Antoinette LaFarge’s book Louise Brigham and the Early History of Sustainable Furniture Design. I haven’t read it, but it looks promising.

And of course, check out Brigham’s Box Furniture available to view or download for free on archive.org. Love it, this book being part of the Internet Archive feels very in keeping with her vibe.

I’m planning to dig in a bit to Alice Rawsthorn’s writing. Her short article on Brigham for Maharam prompted me to look at her other articles. The list is extensive. Looking at that list, she seems to have covered so many of the women I have had some major or minor curiosity about over the past few years. See her writing on Louise Brigham, Ruth Asawa and the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in San Francisco, architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, architect Sophie Hicks and her home, Lucie Rie and her buttons, furniture and interior designer Clara Porset, Bauhaus photographer Gertrud Arndt, architect Jane Drew, interior designers Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, architect and activist Grete Lihotzky. I think I need to pick up a copy of Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude or Hello World: Where Design Meets Life at this point.

On a more personal note, I identified strongly with Rawsthorn’s short article on her most treasured possession for Elle Decoration. My most treasured possessions from my maternal grandmother are cookbooks and kitchen tools. Her battered plastic cake stand, a perfectly shaped spatula, a muffin tin. From her mother, it’s her quilt patterns cut from scrap cardboard and cereal boxes, and her flower drawings for embroidery. This is not to say that I don’t also cherish more traditionally precious heirlooms, it’s just that the objects with utility feel like they maybe have more of the life of the person in them.

Some thoughts after reading Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”

I finally read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”. I was reminded of it yet again while surfing around the web looking at all of the above and found a copy online.

Keepers of private notebooks are a differ­ent breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Harsh. But probably fair.

See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there […]

Exactly.

We are not talk­ing here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consump­tion, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Now this is interesting, and it sort of hits on the difference between a personal blog and a blog that feels more business-driven.

The best personal blogs I’ve come across feel like a glimpse in to someone’s personal notebook, something filled mostly with notes written with the author in mind first and foremost vs notes that have been written with a wider audience in mind. A good personal blog can (and maybe should) contain a mixture of both, since they both can be absolutely great and useful. But when it is only ever writing for an audience… well that doesn’t feel like a personal blog, to me.

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.

“It all” being moments, memories, the good and the bad.

I hope to have this site when I’m 80. I may not like some of the things I wrote 50 years prior, but at least I will be able to reacquaint myself with former me-s. I hope I don’t lose sight of this purpose.

And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

A difference between Didion’s era and now: some of my notes could help you, and yours me. Another reason that I love personal blogs. It just seems so hard to find them sometimes.

A notebook, that’s all any of this is, really.


Edited 10 May, changed “like a personal brand exercise” to “more business-driven”. The phrase “personal brand” has a lot of negative connotations, so “personal brand exercise” felt way too snarky on a re-read. Business-driven blogs by individuals are super important, and useful! They’re just different, and there’s space for all of that (and a mixture of all the above) online.

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How to make a Rietveld-esque crate stool / table

A woman in an orange beanie sitting on a pine stool made in Rietveld’s crate style

In late February, we made a stool based on Gerrit Rietveld’s kratkrukje or “crate stool” designed in the mid 1930s. Skip to the instructions, or skip to the cut list and plans.

We’d been looking for something that could act as stool-cum-sidetable for a little while. Haven’t had any luck with secondhand or antique shops, everything we found was too ornate, large, cushion-y, or expensive. And while we’re fine with the idea of buying something from Ikea or a similar store, nothing we found felt quite right. Also, the thought of wandering through Ikea at the moment made us a bit anxious.

So having had success with Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione in the past and buoyed by Hannah’s Rietveld crate chair success last summer, we decided to go down the DIY route. Rietveld’s crate stools have been on Sam’s mind since he saw them in the Radical Nature exhibition designed by Sara De Bondt at the Barbican back in 2009. Those stools were created by Simon Jones of Jones Neville by reusing and cutting down old exhibition panels.

There are a bunch of Rietveld crate furniture photos and designs knocking around the world wide web, but very little relating to this specific stool as far as I can tell. I have a feeling that it wasn’t included in the bilingual book How To Construct Rietveld Furniture, but can’t be sure since I don’t own it.

At any rate, there are a few photos online including this photo from Bibliotheek Rotterdam, this blog post, and a photo of the stools in situ at the Radical Nature exhibition.

According to Bibliotheek Rotterdam:

This stool is known to exist in several sizes. Metz & Co. also sold a table similar to this design. According to Gerrit Rietveld’s son, Jan Rietveld, both the Rietveld and Schröder families were involved at one time or another in producing and selling Crate Furniture.

Since we couldn’t find plans for the stool, we made our own based on the photos mentioned above. We didn’t have scraps to reuse as Jones so elegantly did, so we ended up buying three 1″ × 6″ × 6′ whitewood boards and basing our plans on the most economical use of that lumber.

It’s definitely a bit more expensive than a KYRRE stool from Ikea, the materials were a little over $30 in total and of course there’s the labor. We did this in a few hours over the course of a few days, but it probably took us longer than it would normally because we were working out the process and tweaking our initial plans as we went. All-in-all it was worth it. It’s a satisfying little lump of furniture.

Here are the steps to make one for yourself.

Read more

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Hannah’s Rietveld crate chair and other DIY furniture

HB gave herself a scrapheap challenge and made a Rietveld crate chair. I’m green with envy, it looks so great. She said it’s super comfy, which makes sense given the Adirondack-y angles and nice big armrests wide enough to rest a drink. Photos below are from the lady herself.

Plans for a Rietveld crate chair drawn by Hannah Blows

Hannah’s plans

Woman sitting in Rietveld crate chair in garden with a cat behind her

Hannah relaxing in the finished product with a friend in the bg

Definitely would like to make this, we need some furniture. Note to self: minute differences in the angles, measurements, screw placement, materials, etc. make a big difference in the final result. Tread with care and joy.

In relation to the crate chair, see also Rietveld’s original plans, Self-assembly’s instructions, and Susan Young’s Instructables post.


Other beginner-friendly DIY furniture

For other beginner-friendly DIY furniture that is geared towards simplicity (fewer cuts, mostly right angles, straightforward lumber sizes, not much fuss in finishing, etc.), check out: RietveldBuilder, this Rietveld couch plan on Etsy, Van Bo Le-Mentzel’s Berliner Hocker, Ian Anderson’s Two-by-two chair on Self-assembly, the Wave Hill Garden Chair (inspired by Rietveld’s Red Blue chair), Rietveld’s Beugel chair (I can imagine tweaking this design slightly to be more easily made with few tools), Jesse Kamm and her husband’s Donald Judd-inspired furniture, Judd’s original wood furniture that one could attempt…

I’m sure there’s a lot more along these lines out there by more female and less Euro-centric designers, would love to see other inspo and plans.

Materials and tools

If you’re not salvaging, then you have to select materials at some point. Popular Woodworking has some good writing on this topic, particularly their Choose the Right Plywood, How to Prepare Construction Lumber for Furniture, and What’s the Difference Between Screws? articles. Some DIY furniture plans like Enzo Mari’s Autoprogetazzione call for nails, but most of the time you’re better off with screws and glue for longevity.

The bare minimum of tools I like to have around for a DIY furniture project along these lines includes: a sliding t-bevel + protractor or a combination square; a sharp hand saw (read about Japanese pull saws vs Western push saws); multiple grades of sandpaper; a drill with a bit for pilot holes; a screw driver that matches up with your screw heads; a long metal ruler; a pencil; and a good vacuum. Additional items that are great to have include: a chop saw or table saw; a countersink bit attachment; and clamps.

Measurements are such a critical part of furniture making. If interested in figuring out how to choose good measuring tools, see Popular Woodworking’s “Precision Instruments for Woodworkers” parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. You probably don’t need crazy high-quality tools for the sorts of DIY furniture I’m talking about here, but if you’re buying a new tool, you might as well buy the best you can afford.

Edited 26 June 2020 at 11:30am to add notes about materials and tools and to add Self-Assembly links since it’s back online.

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Judd essay on function v. art

I’ll be your interface* is a recently-closed (shame!) exhibition organised by Roxana Fabius at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. The exhibition featured recent work by Dexter Sinister and objects from the Marieluise Hessel Collection.

There was a talk in March at the Judd Foundation (NYC) about work that doesn’t make a “crisp distinction” between function and art, sounded interesting (see more on Dexter Sinister).

Required further reading since I missed the talk: Donald Judd, It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp, 1993.