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Design in Wood: The Winners, part 1

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When I traveled to San Diego earlier this month, I had a few tasks. Some of them involved articles for upcoming issues of American Woodworker and Woodwork magazine, but my main mission was to select two pieces from the Design in Wood exhibition for "Best of Show" awards sponsored by AW and Woodwork. The "Best of Show" awards actually started out as a single award, which was a really difficult decision given the "apples and oranges" nature of the entries. There were, after all, 24 different categories ranging from furniture to turning, carving to instrument-making, marquetry to model-making. Last year the number of awards was expanded to two—Furniture and Not Furniture—which was better, but still left a lot of wildly different objects to choose from in the Not Furniture field.

First, the Furniture. There were really only four candidates, since another aspect of the awards process is that the "Best of" winners are chosen from the group of First Place selections—made by other jurors—in each of the 24 categories, and only four of those categories are furniture related: Contemporary Furniture, Traditional Furniture, Art Furniture, and Marquetry/Veneering on Furniture. Those four First Place selections were:

Contemporary: Michael Singer's "Corner Jewelry Cabinet"

Traditional: Bill Bradford's "Biedermeier Commode"

Art: Paul Henry's "Gueridon 'Lila'"

Veneering/Marquetry: Craig Thibodeau's "Oak Leaves & Acorns Cabinet"


Each of the four had much to commend, but here is how I chose.

Michael Singer's corner cabinet had a beautifully executed façade of book-matched veneer and a stately presentation. On the inside was a large array of small drawers, designed (as you might guess by the title) for lots of jewelry storage. The challenge of such a large array of drawers is that everything is simultaneously highlighted—each softened edge of every drawer, all the gaps around each drawer, all are visible at once and are "read" at once. It's tough to pull off because it is so visually graphic—get it right and the whole really "pops", but if there's lots of variation in line then the whole is really diminished. The inside of this cabinet didn't carry through the quality of the exterior.

The cabinets of Craig Thibodeau are quickly recognizable by their combination of graceful lines and engaging and elegant marquetry designs on their face. This fact is both a strength (identifiable "signature" work) and a potential liability, since each one he makes begs comparison with all the others. This piece is lovely, but I didn't feel the marquetry had either the elegance or the liveliness of some of his other efforts that had won awards in previous years. And importantly, there were stronger examples of marquetry in this show as well.

Paul Henry's gueridon (which, by the way, is a small, usually ornately carved and embellished, stand or table) was technically difficult and exceptionally well-crafted. The application of the myrtlewood burl veneer is flawless. And I found the upper part of the legs, where they join and then lift away from the body, really appealing as a form. But I felt that the effect was lost at the extremities, both at the rim and by the time the legs touched the floor, and I was left with a feeling that the piece, for all its excellence, lacked the follow-through to give it a really strong presence.

Bill Bradford's commode is not a reproduction of a traditional piece but rather in the spirit of Biedermeier, which borrowed such things as light-colored, highly figured woods (in his interpretation, spalted maple) and ebonized fluted columns from Regency furniture and applied them to fairly restrained casework. This piece manages to hold all that and the thuya burl veneer in balance, all with crisp detail. The tapered feet retain enough weight to give it a commanding stance. There are hidden panels behind the columns as well. Altogether, it had the presence I was looking for and a sustained level of execution throughout. I gave it the award.

Next up, all the rest…the Not Furniture award.