Japanese Influence Adds a Special Touch to Studio Furniture

Massachusetts woodworker John Reed Fox uses Japanese hand tools and philosophy to design and build his custom furniture.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

 

John Reed Fox's "Kusaka" sideboard is shown in walnut with bubinga. The piece is 36 inches wide and 48 inches high.

John Reed Fox is a Boston-area studio furnituremaker, teacher and philosopher, at least when it comes to furniture design and production. He has been working as a custom woodworker for roughly 20 years. In the summers, he teaches classes at the Center for Furniture Craftsmen in Rockport, ME. Fox says what began as a hobby turned into a career when he realized that his real life's ambition was to make one-of-a-kind furniture and "do it all the time."

"My career began the way it does for so many woodworkers," says Fox. "I started out doing kitchens and millwork and anything else that came my way. But I was at a Baltimore American Craft Council Show in the mid-'70s, and I looked around at the incredible furniture being shown there. What they were doing made me gasp. These were serious professionals doing serious work, and I realized you have to either do this exclusively or not at all. You can't play at it. If you want to be in this league, you have to be serious."

Fox says he returned home and stopped doing kitchens and millwork. "The theory people have is 'I will do this for a while and suddenly the custom will take off,'" Fox says. "But in reality, one is not a path to the other. You don't get the right kind of work from doing kitchens, nor do you learn the right skills or get practice at what you need to know. You even tool up differently. I understand financially why you do it; it takes the pressure off. But I made the decision and I have been doing this ever since."

Fox showcases his work at juried shows, although some pieces are shown in galleries, which generates commissions. "Basically I market through the major American woodworking shows, such as the show in Baltimore and the Philadelphia Furniture Show," he says. In the summer, he teaches a course on the use of Japanese hand tools, and this year he will introduce an advanced design class.

Fox offers his own philosophy about woodworking with a caveat. He is not undermining the work or approach of other woodworkers, just talking about how he prefers to work, he says. When asked to describe his pieces, he says, "My work is contemporary, one-of-a-kind or small multiples. I am very influenced by what people in the United States would call the 'Japanese aesthetic.' I use Japanese tools. On one level, I feel as though I have been making the same piece over and over. The biggest elements in my work are process and environment. I believe that the process becomes part of the piece. I think it shows in my work. As for environment, while I make one-of-a-kind pieces, I am working towards constructing a feeling with my designs. I am trying to influence the feeling of a space.

"The Japanese philosophy is that you pare down and go deep into one idea," he adds. "When I do slide shows of my work for class or a juried show, I use a quotation about design from the book The Unknown Craftsman, written by Soetzu Yanagi. Basically the quote is, 'When we are young, we look for what is new or old. When we are mature, we look for what is true or false.' That isn't really descriptive of my work. But if you see my work, I think it becomes descriptive."

Fox's studio, a one-man shop, is steps away from his home in Acton, MA. The place has the usual woodworking machinery you would find in a custom shop, including a Crescent 20-inch bandsaw, a 20-inch Lin Mac planer, a 16-inch Yates-American jointer, a drill press and a 10-inch Powermatic table saw. His equipment is only typical to a point, because Fox hand planes all his work and employs a variety of custom-made Japanese hand tools.

"In my shop I have the normal milling machines, but my machining area is designed to get me to the bench so that I can do the hand woodworking. Other shops are set up to get the woodworker away from the bench," Fox says.

"Essentially what I do is process-influenced. Surfaces are hand-planed rather than sanded. I think the process is very important to the touch and look and feel of a piece," he says.

"The cool thing about using hand versus machine tools is that it implies a whole different kind of shop. My shop is not as dusty or noisy as it would be if it were more traditional," he adds. "When I go to finish boards and surfaces, I take my planes and the tools are very sharp, the shop is quiet and the process becomes a very physical, rhythmic sort of dance that goes on while planing the board. There is a whole relationship to the wood that is very much like a potter to a wheel. As soon as I touch a board, I reveal more about the board; it becomes more and more clear what is going on graphically with that board. For me, sanding is the exact opposite process. I don't have that in my shop at all."

Fox teaches at the School for Furniture Craftsmanship, run by Peter Korn in Maine. "In my classes I try and teach students how to find their 'voice,'" Fox says. "When I write about my work for juried shows, I say my goal is to find my voice. Sometimes I see work and I think, anyone could have made that. Really mature work has a voice and a vocabulary. When people see my work, they know it."

Asked to describe his style of woodworking, Fox says, "My work is fairly technical and made with mortise and tenon or dovetail. I work with solid woods. I prefer working with solid wood because it has its own logic and is different.

Fox works with a lot with cherry, walnut and some maple. "I prefer the domestic woods, and that is partly theoretical," he says. "I think you should work with the woods that are around you. Cherry and walnut are also the premiere cabinet woods in the world. I like the American domestics. Historically, if you look into the reason that we got into mahogany it was because it was available in wide boards. Today it is difficult to get wide mahogany boards. The tropical and flashy woods are certainly out there and popular, but my work is not flashy. So I tend to use exotics as accent woods or for interiors."

Fox also says that he loves working with white oak, as well as with Alaskan yellow cedar, incense cedar and Douglas fir, but they are not very popular with his clients. He especially likes to use Alaskan yellow cedar when making "shoji," Japanese-style sliding doors featuring grid work and paper. "I like to use grid designs in some of my work. I like the graphic element," Fox says.

"I believe in process and the work but also process and the piece," he adds. "With my pieces, you open the cabinet and there is something different inside. It is not all revealed on the surface. It has an inside that matters, and the whole is not completely revealed just by looking at the exterior. My work is technically complete throughout. I don't believe in making a piece that on the outside has so much jazz, but you open it up to reveal KD slides and plywood. To me, that misses the point. I lay up my own solid box, no plywood. I tell students to work with a level of honesty that reveals itself throughout, whether or not anyone ever knows. Most of the people who buy my furniture probably don't know if the bottoms are solid and could care less. But on a subliminal level, I think they expect it."

Fox adds that he is likely using more traditionally Japanese woodworking methods than many of the woodworkers in Japan today. He is of Japanese heritage, but says that that has little bearing on his decision to use Japanese tools.

"I got into Japanese tools early in my career because I was working with hand planed surfaces. In 1978 and '79 I tried them out and they worked very well, even the bad ones," Fox says.

He says he likes the tools for their simplicity. "They are handmade by wonderful craftsmen in Japan. The tools have been simplified down to the most elemental level, like the plane iron and something to carry it, which is a block of wood. The planes are made of laminated steel backed with wrought iron. The manufacturers change the crystalline structure by reforging them and adding carbon. I like using them because the results you get are very subtle. If you want to plane something 0.001 of an inch, Japanese planes can do it. A lot of what I teach revolves around the use of planes."

Fox has a wide range of Japanese tools, including 15 hand planes, and each one gives a different result. "One plane is very good for American hardwoods. Another is very good if you are working with a wood like Alaskan yellow cedar with clear, straight grains," he says. "Hand tools have stayed important in Japan over time and have evolved. Saws and chisels are custom- and hand-made. The chisels are similar to those found here, but Japanese saws are very different -- they are pull- rather than push-driven."

His finishes also are simple, "dictated by the piece," he says. Typical finishes are oil or a light shellac.

While Fox does not disclose his annual sales figures, he says that the price for a simple piece starts at $2,000 and goes up from there, depending on the design and materials used. A bureau would typically be priced at $7,900, he says.

One of Fox's signature pieces, a cherry bureau with sliding panels and drawers, features East Indian rosewood handles. The top is made of two solid pieces of cherry and curves up at the sides. "I did that by marking out the tops with a bandsaw and reducing slowly to get the shape I wanted," Fox says. "Someone else could get the same effect in about 30 minutes using a CNC router. But for me, the top is cut on the bandsaw and then I spoke shave the curve and plane it until I get the look I want."

 

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