By Myles Ludwig
The vibe at the Palm Beach Fine Craft Show at the Convention Center last week was low-key and kind of cozy as befitted an unpretentious display of the handmade and personal that felt like a walk through a West Palm version of an Etsy mall.
The show and some of the proceeds from sales help support Palm Beach County Children’s Charities benefiting the Center for Creative Education, Glades Preparatory Academy and the Shuzz Fund, as do proceeds from the sale of Jane G. Weitzman’s book, Art & Sole.
There were enchantments there, in glass, in wood, in fabric and precious metals that were a pleasant departure from the blingbong, but they were no less precious. And the show-goers seemed to fit the atmosphere, casual and comfy rather than starched and stuffy.
Oh, there was plenty of cashmere — it was West Palm after all — but it was not smothering.
I enjoyed talking with Alan Daigre who has created an extensive and varied line of wood chairs of styles that combine the craftsman and the deco — with a nod to contemporary furniture master, the late Sam Maloof — in a harmonious combination. The unique seats are fashioned of wooden blocks linked together by the unusual method of construction, a rope-sheathed steel cable.
It’s all in the suspension technique, which enables the blocks that fill in the frames to accommodate any body type as effortlessly as overstuffed upholstery. I was quite content to chill in a handsome desk chair (just the right height and easy to escape) and watched several people try out a chaise lounge, rockers and dining chairs — each one as surprised as I to feel we were floating in our seats.
Daigre is a bit of chair maven. The former psychotherapist (he’s spent a lot of time in chairs, he pointed out, and watched others do the same), has studied the form as a metaphor for comfort, support and safety and reached back into early furniture history to the rope bed for inspiration.
“That’s where the expression ‘sleep tight’ comes from,” he explained, “you tighten up the rope web to fit.”
You can create your own look from any number of woods in custom combinations by going to the website www.alandaigredesigns.com for his Tennessee woodshop, but you’ll need a magnifying glass to see the info on his card, a little detail that seems to escape the current crop of graphic designers (and their teachers) who have forgotten the form-follows-function maxim that defines usability, a lesson the designer of the show’s catalogue also needs to learn.
I was glad to see fellow writer and professor Winston Aarons and his lovely wife across the way at Robert Mathews’ shoe-lined booth. Matthews and his wife Barbara are custom shoemakers based in New Hampshire and they look rock-steady on their feet. Robert is carrying on the tradition of his craft as an inheritance from his grandfather, who believed the foot is the root of good health and he will make a shoe for you that fits perfectly and looks elegant in any combination of leathers and colors.
He prefers to do the fitting personally, so gas up the jet.
“Personal relationships are 95 percent of our business,” he explained.
Before he makes your shoe, he wants to understand your foot — kind of like a psychofootherapist, I guess.
But if you can’t get up to the Granite State, he will send you out a fitting kit with precise instructions and, because each pair is handmade, molded and sewn, adjustments and rebuilding are part of the experience. I asked how they are priced and he said they start about “995.” I saw myself happily treading the earth in a pair of Matthews-made-for-Myles chukkas, until I later learned he meant “9 hundred 95.”
Thus, the jet.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it is,” he said.
I couldn’t help thinking of Donald Trump.
Fortunately, Alexander Fekete’s brilliant glass sculptures, masterpieces of the there-and-not-there captivated me. This work is really special, jazz in glass.
Each airy piece is a philosophical improvisation on the theme of permanence, creation and destruction, a shard of a memory, a message from some other time and deftly accomplished with the lightest of touches. The work by the Czech-born, Pennsylvania-based craftsman distills a form into its deconstructed essence and sets his elements free to fly in their space, held together by gossamer threads perfectly pitched on the very edge of disappearance.
He blows the glass, but, as he explained, the blown glass is but an invitation to a meditation on the material. Then, he cuts, sculpts and textures the form, accenting some with touches of iron oxide. The rust adds another dimension to the narrative of the work, an archeological layer that has earned him an Award of Excellence at the show, proudly displayed in his exhibition space.
This is some graceful and smart work and he’s got a sense of humor too. “Without rust, $7; with rust, $10,000.”
I was glad to see Susan Bradley’s fine fiber wearables at the show again and was especially taken with a brilliant red-and-gold cropped kimono which is her signature shape. New Mexico-based Juanita Girardin also does kimono cuts, but hers are of quilted cotton and silk that have a dark hint of mystery and are held closed by handmade pins of sand-blasted wood. She is a former weaver and when she rhapsodizes about the quality of a particular cloth, I can envision the warp and weft of her thought.
Finally, I stopped to talk with Robert Farrell because I was impressed with his finely drawn sterling silver sculptures of doll-house-like barns, grain silos and furniture that seemed to speak to us from America’s past and his own Wisconsin background, but with a clear and certain sophistication.
These pieces were not nostalgic in the mournful sense, but celebrated the form of loneliness and the prairies. Lovingly.