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Award-winning furniture-maker finds fit, freedom in school of art | Nebraska Today | #schoolsaftey


Joseph Holmes is very much the dovetail joint he casually references in conversation: timeless throwback, angular, utilitarian and urbane in equal measure, built-to-purpose but in search of a fit. Eschewer of nails and bolts and screws, purveyor of connection via chisel and wood.

He crafts his dovetails by hand, in the tradition of a furniture-making movement that arose more than a century ago and an ocean away. Those joints represent the intersection not just of wood but art and craft, artist and artisan, a liminal space familiar to Holmes and the small batch of small-batch woodworkers still plying their trade in the United States today.

It’s a measure-twice space, margin of error and profit often small, so that even someone born to it, as Holmes was, might wonder about the wisdom of working in it, about the likelihood of earning a livelihood from it, about the possibility of pursuing it on one’s terms.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t love it,” he said of furniture-making. “I just wasn’t sure if it was a career.”

But for now, for the past five years, Holmes has found his fit in managing the Art Fabrication Space at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, of becoming the go-to of how-to for all things woodworking in the School of Art, Art History and Design. With security and routine have come leeway and freeway: to expend dozens of hours conceiving and constructing single pieces of furniture in an age of mass production, to conjure new approaches to an age-old craft, to stretch the bounds of sustainability.

“I know the visual arts can be a tough thing to get into, and sometimes, after school, it’s, ‘What can you do with it?’ But, boy, it’s a great atmosphere for creativity. I can’t talk enough about how great UNL is, particularly.

“People maybe don’t realize it, when you’re talking with prospective grad students on a tour, or someone’s thinking about working here. It’s like, ‘No, you don’t understand.’

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Alan Peters died in October 2009, not long after Holmes resolved to make whatever living he could of a woodworking style that Peters had mastered, preserved and later taught to Holmes’ father. A Lincoln native, his father had looked up Peters in the 1970s, by which point the latter was cementing a reputation as the finest living furniture-maker in all of Britain. Though too old for a formal apprenticeship, his father quickly accepted an offer to train in Peters’ studio overseas, where handiwork still reigned.

As one of the “last living connections” to the Arts and Crafts movement that England birthed in the mid-1800s, Peters prized smoothness in form and in function. A drawer pushed in, he thought, should slide nigh-frictionless and, once flush with its millimeter-perfect, airtight home, nudge its fellow drawers out — just a faint billowing to acknowledge the arrival of their comrade, and salute the craftsmanship of their maker, before settling back to sleep.

“So, working-class,” Holmes said, “but very fine work.”

Before long, his father would begin writing for and later editing Fine Woodworking, among the first magazines of its kind in the United States. The job would take him to Connecticut, where Joseph was born. About a decade later, the family moved to Lincoln. It was there that his father brainstormed a writing project on green woodworking, which involved pliable, freshly cut timber workable by hand in lieu of saw. That made it, in his estimation, an ideal way of introducing kids to woodworking. Joseph and his brothers became the “guinea pigs” and, eventually, the subjects of their father’s articles on the practice.

Throughout much of Joseph’s childhood, the Holmes home would play host to apprentices looking to learn the craft of old-school woodworking. Nature and nurture, it seemed, were conspiring to put him on his father’s path. But he worried about whether woodworking could offer him the stability he sought. So he decided to study economics at Nebraska U, ultimately earning his bachelor’s in it.

Even as he did, though, Holmes continued working on the fringes of the woodworking space. He was framing houses and mudding walls for a local architect and builder. He was lending his furniture-making sensibilities and skills to a friend who owned an interior design company in the Haymarket. He was, clearly, nowhere near finished with where he’d started.

“If I grew up with my father being a stockbroker or a potter, I’d probably feel different about that,” he said. “But … I can’t be wholly romantic about it: In the end, I think, really, we do all this stuff for ourselves. As much as we want to kid ourselves, we have this urge to build and create and push — in the same way that, I don’t know, you climb a mountain or get into a submarine. You have this urge to just do something, try something, that puts something out into the world.

“I realized, well, this is what I know, and it’s what I’m good at,” he said, settling on: “‘I’m gonna give it a shot.’”

Approaching his mid-20s, Joseph decided to formally apprentice with his father, who had established a woodworking shop at Turbine Flats in Lincoln. After four years, he and some fellow apprentices struck out on their own, taking gigs in other local shops, eventually migrating to Kansas City for a stint at an architecture and design firm. With the aid of multiple mentors, he was proving himself wrong: He was building a career, one stick of furniture at a time, dressers and tables and chairs.

Still: If his hands were full, his mind was left grasping.

“You’re always doing commissioned stuff for other people,” he said. “You don’t really have a vision. The making of money is always first. So I always intended to really try to figure out a way to explore my own designs.”

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Holmes would figure it out in 2018, when he took on the mantle of running Nebraska’s Art Fabrication Space: a whitewash-bricked, pipe-ceilinged, square-pillared den of saws, sanders, vises, jointers, laser-cutters, CNC machines and 3D printers in the basement of Richards Hall.

There, from 8 to 5, sometimes 6 or 7, he began donning enough hats to keep a haberdasher busy for a lifetime. He was responsible for keeping the space supplied and functioning. He was overseeing safety training and assisting foundational classes for every student who passed through the space — which, as it happened, meant nearly every first-year student in the School of Art, Art History and Design. After teaching the basics of various tools, machines and techniques, Holmes might help students majoring in ceramics or sculpture learn to build pedestals, or those in painting and drawing make canvasses, or those in photography construct frames. One semester, he helped students assemble a box, destroy it, then reassemble it as a sculpture.

Roughly 75% of the school’s students, Holmes estimates, will find their way to the Art Fabrication Space in any given semester. Before asking them to build their first project, he’ll often focus on building confidence.

“I think the only students who aren’t (down here) are people who have a real aversion, which I get,” he said. “I think people are really intimidated. And that’s the biggest part of my job, is showing them, hey, we’re not gonna let you do stuff that’s not safe.”

At the same time, Holmes has a healthy respect for anyone with a healthy fear of a blade.

“I feel like there’s a need to be afraid,” he said. “The people who’ve freaked me out or scared me are never the ones who are scared (themselves); it’s the ones who are too confident. Because I’ve spent eight-hour days where I’m just at the table saw, and it’s still frightening.”

For as busy as those days were, Holmes was finding his energy stores replenished by the faculty, staff and students surrounding him. The more art schools and institutions he visited, the more he came to appreciate the relative lack of ego and hierarchy at his own. When it came time to confront the junk-filled, bat guano-covered attic of Richards Hall, the school’s director, Francisco Souto, headed up the clean-up.

“I legitimately like everyone I work with, without exception,” he said. “I consider them not only really good colleagues, but friends. There’s not in-fighting. It’s crazy! It’s this really rare thing where we have just good, supportive vibes here.”

He remembers being “absolutely floored” by the hum and thrum of several dozen faculty, staff and graduate students moving through the Art Fabrication Space, working on passion projects well into the weeknights, showing up early on Saturday mornings. With a steady income and schedule granting him the freedom to actually follow through on his own designs for the first time, Holmes launched himself headlong into a three-year period of unprecedented creativity and productivity, his sketchbooks brimming with ideas that jostled for a place on his workbench.

“It’s not exhausting in the same way, because you’re fueling your own thing, and people are incredibly supportive,” he said. “It’s like you’re bouncing off each other. That was really the thing for me; I didn’t know this type of thing existed. It made me regret not seeking it out sooner.”

*******

Holmes devoted his newfound energy to the unconventional. He mostly avoided oak, walnut and other hardwoods in favor of reclaimed cedar, pine and redwood — squishier, fragile woods that could be crushed and ruined by all but the sharpest blades, the leftovers of summers spent building decks and fences in his teens and 20s. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he set out to puncture the limits of reclamation, crafting a piece from scrap wood, then using the scrap from that piece to craft another, then another, until virtually nothing remained.

The approach culminated in a collapsible table — a removable, snowboard-shaped tabletop with W-configured legs designed to fold up accordion-style — that Holmes constructed from reclaimed cedar and some suede he previously used in helping build a pipe organ. Rather than rely on standard hinges for the legs, he innovated, threading suede straps around a series of wooden pins and through the legs themselves. In 2021, the International Society of Furniture Designers would reward the piece as best of show at Innovation + Design, a juried competition in North Carolina, and bestow it with a Green Leaf Award for sustainable design. The same year, Holmes received the society’s Maker/Designer Award, given to top builders from small studios. A year later, he was among 46 designers from 13 countries and a range of fields invited to present his work at the Manhattan-based Launch Pad show, part of the weeklong NYCxDesign festival.

The shows and exhibitions have served the purpose Holmes hoped they would: connecting him with fellow builders of custom, avant-garde but still functional furniture. Yet they’ve also laid bare just how relatively sparse that community now is. Whereas a furniture-making conference might draw a few dozen single-piece builders, Holmes said, a ceramics conference can pull in a few thousand ceramists. He’s seen how furniture-making has seemingly drifted to the “outskirts of art and design,” without a home — part of the art school at one institution, part of the architecture college at another. Some have come to view small-scale woodworking more as a trade, akin to construction or carpentry, than as its own craft.

Some of those issues, he thinks, might stem from a lack of infrastructure, a failure to maintain the momentum of creative booms that echoed through the ’70s and ’90s. Woodworking’s stubborn reputation as the hobbyist domain of older, white, middle-class men probably hasn’t helped, either.

“While we still have great leaps and bounds to make in diversity, one of the cool things is that some of the best people making studio furniture were Asian women,” he said. “So while we still need to work on that, we can point to these people and say, ‘They’ve been doing it.’”

Holmes plans to continue seeking and rebuilding the community wherever he can, at Nebraska and beyond. He’s intent on finding contemporaries who, like him, want to nudge the craft forward via dialogue and daring. Considering that he’s working primarily by hand, with more or less the same resources as those who once shaped the Arts and Crafts movement, he figures he can use all the help he can get.

“You’re working with materials and forms and tools that have been around for 200 years,” he said, laughing, “so pushing the envelope can be hard, right?”

Still, he said, that’s just part of the challenge, the fun, and helps ground the experience of woodworking. So, too, does a reality that might bother some, but that, as the problems of permanence become more apparent, sits just fine with Holmes.

“I kind of enjoy the fact that this will eventually return to nothing,” he said of his furniture. “It’s like ‘Ozymandias’: It’ll sink back into the sand. If you can deal with that, it gives you this acceptance of temporality, that things will disappear.

“I like that it’s not forever, in the way that a plastic Gatorade bottle now is going to outlast everything I will make. I don’t know. There’s this kind of comfort in learning that and accepting that.”



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