Learning from an American Marquetry Master

Arthur Dodge August 14, 2015
Silas Kopf double-bevel sawing with a fret saw

I had the pleasure of speaking with Silas Kopf a few days ago. He was the first person to encourage me when I began Inlay-Arts.com back in 2010, saying that “it’s a good thing for the field.” Being again at a pivotal point with Inlay-Arts.com, I asked – “Would it be good to write a book about modern inlay arts?”  His affirmative response was heartening.

Few are aware that these ancient and pedigreed art forms are being re-imagined by contemporary artists and designer-craftsmen. Even if I decide not to produce an actual tabletop book about the contemporary inlay arts scene, the exercise will provide a context and logical way of organizing categories and tags for Inlay-Arts.com.

Master of the Medium Award winner 2015

The Smithsonian’s James Renwick Alliance recognized Silas Kopf with its 2015 Master of the Medium Award for lifetime achievement in the wood/furniture category. Silas told me that he enjoyed visiting with longtime friends during the awards brunch at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. – Here’s what the James Renwick Alliance said in their announcement:

“Silas Kopf of Northampton, Massachusetts is the honoree in the wood category. He is known for his inventive and witty inlaid furniture. Kopf has been making studio furniture since 1973. His “Bad Hare Day” (pictured below) was purchased for the Renwick’s collection by the JRA in 2008. His work can also be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, as well as numerous private collections. Past honorees in the wood category include Sam Maloof, Wendell Castle, and Judy McKie.”

Learning about the American Studio Furniture Movement

At the start of Silas Kopf’s marquetry career,  he apprenticed with Wendell Castle, a principal figure in the American Studio Furniture Movement. Silas Kopf tells this story in his book A Marquetry Odyssey (page 9); and in the book’s forward Glenn Adamson had this to say about Silas Kopf:

“He is easily America’s most adept practitioner of marquetry, and a keen student of the craft’s history as well. In this respect he is unusual among contemporary studio furniture makers, who tend to pick and mix their allusions to historical precedent rather freely. Kopf, by contrast, has a profound respect for precedent. He came by this attitude honestly. The first two artists in the field that Kopf encountered were Richard Scott Newman and Wendell Castle.”

– Glenn Adamson, director of the Museum of Art and Design, N.Y.C.

Since I’m learning more about the American Studio Furniture Movement, I asked Silas to comment on the following reading list items:

1. Edward S. Cooke Jr. – The Long Shadow of William Morris; as well as Modern Craft and the American Experience.

2. Bruce Metcalf and Janet Koplos – A History of American Studio Craft, plus the many stimulating posts on his blog.

3. Glenn Adamson – Thinking Through Craft; and The Invention of Craft.

4. Peter Korn – Why We Make Things and Why It Matters.

He liked all of the items but suggested that I read Peter Korn’s book first. I so enjoyed reading this self-reflective and insightful book that I called Peter Korn and scheduled an interview. I’ll post the highlights from this conversation in a two-part series in about a week.

Upcoming Marquetry Workshops with Silas Kopf

Silas Kopf will be teaching a marquetry workshop at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine, August 17-21, 2015; followed by a fun “make a ukulele weekend” August 22-23. Peter Korn is the founder and executive director of this leading American woodworking school. Here’s what he had to say about Silas Kopf and the workshop:

“Silas’s course fills quickly and has a wait list because Silas himself is so well respected. Marquetry – taught by Silas Kopf – has very strong demand. One of the great things about Silas, and he’s not the only one, is that he’s not just preserving an art, he’s advancing an art, and that’s great because it’s not just fighting a rear-guard action to keep the work of, say, the 18th century doable by modern hands; it’s someone who’s taken the skills and made them relevant and contemporary, which gives them real and consequential life in today’s world”

Peter Korn – Founder and Executive Director of the Center For Furniture Craftsmanship

Here’s one of Silas Kopf’s video tutorials about his marquetry technique: