Geneva Anderson digs into art

Sandra Ericson, creator, Center for Pattern Design, talks about Balenciaga, the de Young exhibition and her “Balenciaga in Depth” seminar this weekend at CCA

Balenciaga's puffy and voluminous evening gown in turquoise silk gauze, summer 1958, epitomizes his ability to sculpt audaciously with fabric. While very modern in its feel, the dress echoes the abstracted influence of a gown depicted in a Goya portrait. Fabric swatch is attached in lower right. Archival House photograph.

In the course of researching the de Young Museum’s amazing Balenciaga and Spain exhibition, I had questions about the precise techniques that made Cristóbal Balenciaga the consummate designer and master sculptor in textiles that he was.   I turned to Sandra Ericson for answers.  Sandra taught fashion design, pattern design, and textile courses at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) for 31 years.  In 2006, after retiring, she established the Center for Pattern Design  (CFPD) in her hometown of St. Helena, CA, as a way to focus on the people in the fashion industry who actually cut the cloth.  At CFPD, Ericson teaches advanced courses in cutting, draping, pattern design and construction and also takes these courses on the road.  She is the turn-to resource for a lot of fashion insiders and museum curators and is a respected authority on French designer Madeleine Vionnet who pioneered draping on the bias, the bias cut and ruled haute couture in the 1930’s, designing sensual gowns for Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo that did marvelous things for their bodies.  What a pleasure to have Sandra explain Balenciaga with an insider’s detail to attention. 

Geneva Anderson:  Does “pattern designer” accurately capture what you do and what your center emphasizes?  

Sandra Ericson: I am a pattern designer and after 31 years of teaching at City College, I established the Center for Pattern Design  in 2006 as a way to bring the focus back to those persons who actually cut the cloth, an important part of the fashion industry.   Before the recession, which brought back a return to value, the fashion industry and the discipline of fashion got very theatrical and celebrity-driven

Francisco de Goya, The Marquessa de Pontejos, c. 1786, Andrew W. Mellon collection. Image: National Gallery of Art.

and concentrated on the designer as the single figure in the fashion company.  Often, the designer did not cut his own work and it really became a situation where the credit did not go to the craft people who did it.  Primary among those craft people are the people who actually understand fabric, the body and who can interpret design and cut a two-dimensional pattern that looks amazing in three dimensions.  I wanted to focus on people who could do that and this requires a special skill set. 

This requires spatial visualization so that you can imagine what something lying flat on the table in an odd shape will look like in three dimensions.  You have to have a good grasp of all the textile characteristics so you know what will happen when you hang the fabric and gravity and body motion come into play. You also need a good sense of anatomy and how the body moves and what makes clothes functional, not just decorative.  When you look around the world for people who can do really that well, there are few.  Balenciaga is one of the most important from the past who we can look to.  When something like the Balenciaga and Spain exhibition comes along, I get excited because I want people to understand what made his clothes terrific–it was his ability to cut and his meticulous attention to detail and construction and, finally, his eye—discerning  how the overall effect is going to been seen and thought about and how it accentuates the wearer.

Geneva Anderson:  Balenciaga is known for the balloon skirt, the baby doll, the sack dress, the 7/8 length bracelet sleeve, his masterful manipulation of the waist, and he’s been called the “king of dissymmetry.”   Explain these.

Balenciaga's dramatic wedding dress of white silk-satin and silk gazar, summer, 1968, shown on the eve of the Paris student riots, is austere in its simplicity. It is meticulously crafted with very few carefully placed seams that run along the bias. The headpiece repeats the lines of a nun's stiff veil and reflects the ever present influence of the church on Balenciaga. Image: courtesy Balenciaga Archive.

Sandra Ericson: All of those are related to a singular skill—the ability to sculpt.  His medium was textiles and he was particularly famous for using textiles that were sculptural in nature, especially silk gazar, a heavy silk with a very springy quality.  He also worked with silk “zagar” but it’s very rare and you can’t find it these days.  When I do the Balenciaga draping class, I will look for something comparable to the gazar for us to work with.   Because we will be draping on the half-scale dress form, which is 36 inches high and all the measurement are exactly half of a size ten person, I will be able to go out and find something that will have the qualities that Balenciaga’s fabrics had.  A very heavy satin, duchess satin, (made from silk fibers) is an example—it’s stiffer, fuller, heavier, and has a lot more body than full silk has.  In his coats, he used fabrics that might have been double woven, fabrics that could retain their dimensions even though they were folded or manipulated or gathered.  

Balenciaga was a person who inspired a lot of designers who came after him in the architectural mode–André Courrèges, Ronaldus Shamask.  In the mid-1970’s I actually took a class in architectural design and one of the presenters,  interestingly, enough was a guy named Salvatore, who was Balenciaga’s right hand man and he gave our group several patterns that belonged to Balenciaga but were not out there in circulation.  I kept those and when I do my class, I will be bringing those in. 

I’ve also made several of the pieces myself that he made famous.  He was strong, very architectural but careful –he had a way of doing a coat so that he set the collar on the neckline back a little bit so that if you were a lady who was no longer standing up too straight, you looked as if you had perfect posture in the coat. 

The voluminous silhouette of Balenciaga's "chou" wrap, from winter 1968, is entirely dependent on the stiffness of silk gazar, while the evening dress is done in a more fluid black silk crepe. Photo: Balenciaga Archives, Paris.

I’ve made that coat several times and will be bringing one in.  He had a way of working with a woman’s body so that whatever was a perceived negative about her figure disappeared and you focused on the most wonderful parts.  In the 1950’s you have to remember that people with money were not necessarily young.  Ladies might have thick waists or necks, but the wrist is the last to go.  The 7/8 length (or bracelet) sleeve made the wrist look delicate and drew attention there.  He  also lowered the waist in the back so you had a beautiful curve in the back.

Geneva Anderson:  In terms of construction, these ideas are incorporated right as the fabric as being cut? 

Sandra Ericson:  His clothes were created either for the runway model or specific clients, so he knew what needed to be done on a body by body basis.  In terms of the general construction of the pieces, he was ever committed to cutting the cloth in the way that women would be exhibited in the best possible way, cutting off a line just before a beautiful physical curve on the body would take the eye into unflattering proportions. Kind of design by restraint!  Likewise, he would suggest or replace a shape rather than define it as it was on a particular person – again bearing in mind that his clothes were created either for the runway model or specific clients whose proportions he knew.

A lot of his high fashion clothes though were reproduced in one way or another for the mass market and became ready to wear.  I used to send my students down to the Sunset Market in the Sunset district in the City when I teaching over there because the Balenciaga coat would still be going up and down the aisles pushing the grocery cart. It was such  a popular style coat with a small stand-up folded over collar, straight in the back and the sleeves were usually cut in one and looked sort of molded and stopped short of your wrists.  Sometimes, it had fur on the collar.  

Several of Balenciaga's designs contain overt allusions to the matador’s costume—cape, bolero, the bolero’s edging of borlones (pom pom tassels), medias (stockings) and headgear. Legendary Spanish matador Luis Miguel Dominguín (1926-1996) was friendly with Picasso, had a romance with Eva Gardner and was written about by Ernest Hemingway. Here, he wears an ornate bolero with traditional embroidery and sports an anadido or plaited pigtail worn until retirement from the ring and then ceremoniously cut-off. Photo 1960.

Geneva Anderson:  Who was buying and wearing Balenciaga back in the day?

Sandra Ericson: Socialites. The celebrities in that period were mainly people who had social stature and there were film and theatrical people as well.  It was the Babe Paley era, debutants, wives of important men.  They went to Paris for their fittings.  In the Bay Area, they would have had fittings at I Magnin.  When the whole architectural trend waned, and things went to the tight denim of the 1970’s, his influence and that way of working faded and he closed his house in 1968 and he died way too young in 1972.  A lot of designers from that era and this is what happened to Madeleine Vionnet too–  they are exquisite, perfect, in what they do — but they are so finely attuned to a certain way of working that is very difficult to follow fashion.  A lot of them feel philosophically committed to the aesthetic they have been enthralled by and when that no longer is the fashion it is very difficult to change that philosophy and that’s what happened to Vionnet.  Balenciaga was also a very private person, so once he had done it and he saw the way the world was moving in the 1960’s, a lot of factors contributed to the closing of the house.



Balenciaga's cocktail hat in ivory silk satin, 1953, is a whimsical reference to the añadido or tiny braided pigtail that a matador wears until his retirement. Originally, the bullfighter's own hair was used but the pigtail later became a separate element, a castañeta, that is attached to a flat fabric-covered disc and is placed beneath the montera. Photo: John Rawlings, 1953

Geneva Anderson:  How strong were Basque and Spanish influences on him?

Balenciaga’s winter 1946 bolero in burgundy silk velvet and jet and passementerie embroidery by Bataille deonstrates his engagement with historical styles and with the influence of bullfighting. Collection of Hamish Bowles. Photo by Kenny Komer.

Sandra Ericson: He was from Spain and he, of course, was living in a Catholic country. In those days, before Vatican II which ushered in a new era for the Church, Catholicism was very old-fashioned, formal, and rigid.  The Church vestments were very sculptural, things were done in platinum, and there was an air of solemnity about everything.  There’s the sense of a very heavy structure laid over the religion and the dress code and that a strong influence on Balenciaga, living in a strongly Catholic society.  Fashion designers become translators of their era: they are masters of the zeitgeist who interpret everything that’s going on in an aesthetic way.  And because fashion is for human beings, it becomes almost a complete mirror of the society a designer is living in.

A lot of the pieces in Balenciaga and Spain are definitely ecclesiastical or nationalistic without reservation — a strong indicator of his identity with his culture certainly.  There are two other factors too–one, a presentation of the idea that women could be members of the clergy, or bullfighters, or run a country as royalty.  None of this was even remotely possible in general for women.  The second thing is that it shows he was not beyond co-opting a design concept and using it for his own — maybe evidence of his business pressures. Familiar ideas sell.

Balenciaga’s cocktail dress of rose peau de soie and black lace, winter 1948, suggests a modernized version of the lace dress worn by Dona Tadea Arias in Goya’s 1973-4 portrait at the Prado. It also reflects his conservatism in his expression of femininity which was not highly sexualized. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mrs. C. H. Russell. Photo by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

Geneva Anderson:  What is the significance of the re-emergence of the House of Balenciaga under the ownership of Gucci and the design influence of Nicholas Ghesquière, who is supposed to be like Balenciaga because he is a self-taught designer.  He’s known for hip interpretations of Balenciaga classics, such as the semi-fitted jacket and the sack dress and is worn by celebrities like Madonna and Sinéad O’Connor.   How do you see transitions like this?

Sandra Ericson:  Anytime somebody buys a house that had a very strong leader, designer and a strong aesthetic, they are doing it primarily for business reasons.   It’s not as if anyone is going to resurrect Balenciaga or copy him and the person who is coming to fill those shoes is going to be who he is in his own time.  He or she can’t be anything else because everybody can only be who they are in their own time.  What the house is hoping is that the brand, the name, will carry enough social cache that it will allow them to be financially successful in a completely different time.  It’s kind of akin to hitchhiking on a name–if it works, that’s great but it’s very difficult for a new designer to come in and interpret another person’s work that is that personal.  So far, they’ve had three designers come to house of Vionnet and it hasn’t clicked.  If the person is good in his own interpretation of his own time, then they’ve got something to work with.  If the talent is short, then that won’t happen because staking it on Balenciaga’s name isn’t enough.

Geneva Anderson:  Tell me more about the “Balenciaga in Depth” event you’ve organized.

Sandra Ericson:  I’m doing a 3 day series of events and it all starts on Friday May 20 with a morning tour of the Balenciaga and Spain exhibition with someone who worked on the exhibition and this followed by an elegant box lunch.  In the evening, there will be a reception at CCA followed by a slide presentation explaining more of the history and chronology of Balenciaga. I will talk about the design issues, pattern, fabric, and construction pattern and an overview.  On Saturday and Sunday, at CCA, there will be a master class in draping where we will do two Balenciaga classics.  We each work on our own dress forms and there is room for 15 people

Balenciaga's cocktail dress of fuchsia silk shantung and black lace with black silk satin ribbons, summer 1966, illustrates his understanding of women as feminine, properly sexy, sugary--bows, ribbon, lace--and fabrics that are about femininity. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Eleanor Christensen de Guigne Collection (Mrs. Christian de Guigne III), gift of Ronna and Eric Hoffman. Photo by Joe McDonald/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

in the class.  Each person will work with a half-scale dress form, which is 36 inches high, and all the measurements are exactly half of a size ten person. I am certainly not planning on duplicating the talent of Balenciaga but I want people to understand how he worked, how to cut cloth the way in a similar way and how to work with similar cloth so that they can begin to embrace fashion design as a more sculptural activity, as a form of art.

We each work on our own dress forms and there is room for 15 people in the class.  Each person will have a half-scale dress form

Center for Pattern Design Details: for further information, contact Sandra Ericson, Director, Center for Pattern Design, St. Helena, California 94574, 707-967-0852

Balenciaga and Spain Details: The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.  Admission to Balenciaga and Spain is $25 adults and free for members and children 5 and under.  There is a $5 discount for purchasing tickets in advance.  For a complete listing of the numerous special events associated with the exhibition visit its webpage Balenciaga and Spain.

ARThound’s previous coverage of Balenciaga:

What is Balenciaga really all about? St. Helena pattern designer Sandra Ericson is offering a chance to cut, fit and sew two Balenciaga masterpieces this weekend at San Francisco’s CCA (May 17, 2011)

 Smart marketing: the de Young Museum’s foray into pay-per-view–hook ‘em by streaming a sold-out Balenciaga Symposium and later they will visit (March 23, 2011)

 Bouquets to Art 2011 launches Monday with a Spanish theme to celebrate Balenciaga–at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through March 19, 2011  (March 13, 2011)

May 21, 2011 Posted by | de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is Balenciaga really all about? St. Helena pattern designer Sandra Ericson is offering a chance to cut, fit and sew two Balenciaga masterpieces this weekend at San Francisco’s CCA

Sandra Ericson, founder and director, Center for Pattern Design, St. Helena, will teach a seminar this weekend at CCA where participants will each make a half-scale replica of Balenciaga's iconic red coat in taffeta, just like the original.

Has the de Young Museum’s sumptuous Balenciaga and Spain exhibition which runs through July 4, 2011 left you hungering for more detailed information about how Cristóbal Balenciaga actually crafted his exquisite dresses and coats?  For a fabulous indulgence in the core of Balenciaga’s talents, Sandra Ericson, the delightful and very knowledgeable founder of St. Helena’s Center for Pattern Design  has organized four special events, taking place this weekend (May 20-22, 2011) at California College of the Arts that will illuminate the way Balenciaga designed, cut and worked with fabric.  Ericson has 31 years of teaching experience in pattern design and is a respected authority on 1930’s French designer Madeleine Vionnet who pioneered draping on the bias.  If you heard the exhibition’s curator Hamish Bowles interviewed by Michael Krasny on KQED’s forum, on March 22, 2011, (click here) you’ll recall there wasn’t much discussion of the actual techniques Balenciaga used. Ericson has organized the activities so that they build from an informative private walk-through and lecture on Friday to hands-on cutting and draping courses on the weekend.  

Private tour: Balenciaga and Spain at the De Young Museum, May 20, 10 – 11 AM.   A private tour of Balenciaga and Spain at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, guided by a knowledgeable docent and Sandra Ericson. This tour will emphasize the fabrics, cut and construction of the pieces shown.  Afterward, the group will meet for a no-host lunch and a Q & A with Sandra on the patio of the Museum Cafe.

Lecture:  Balenciaga’s Cut and Construction, May 20, 7 – 9 PM.  ($45) Sandra Ericson gives a visual presentation and exploration of how Balenciaga actually worked.  The focus will be on identifying the fabrics (with samples to touch), the cutting and construction techniques for his sculptural masterpieces and the design theory behind the genius of Cristobal Balenciaga. 

Balenciaga's iconic paletot and scarf in putty-colored broadcloth from his Winter 1950 collection. Photographed by Irving Penn for American Vogue. Paletot: A loose outer jacket, cloak, coat

Draping Class:  The Red Coat, May 21, 2011, 9 AM – 5 PM ($159 or $259 for both)  This class will focus upon the Red Coat and will be draped half-scale in taffeta as the original was in full scale.  Half-scale dress forms (with arms) are supplied as is all student fabric.  Class is from 9 AM to 5 PM with breaks and lunch on your own.  You will need to bring basic sewing supplies for this class. 

Details will be provided to all attendees.  Limited to a total of 15 students. (8 students for a single day and 7 students taking both days.)   Experience level: beginning to intermediate.  The designs are not highly fitted nor do they have multiple pieces or unusual fabric effects; they are, however, dramatic and require some fabric familiarity and some sewing experience to understand assembly.  Sandra tries to bring each student along based upon the student’s own starting point, often grouping people together at similar levels for extra instruction during the class.

Draping Class:  The Pleated Paletot May 22, 2011, 9 AM – 5 PM ($159 or $259 for both) This event will focus upon the Paletot jacket, said to be created for Marlene Dietrich, and will be draped half-scale in crepe just as the original was in full scale. Half-scale dress forms (with arms) are supplied as is all student fabric.  Class is from 9 AM to 5 PM with breaks and lunch on your own.  You will need to bring basic sewing supplies for this class. 

Register and buy tickets here (Each event is ticketed separately; the lecture and the classes will be held at California College of the Arts, , 111 8th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107)       

Details CFPD:  for further information, contact Sandra Ericson, Director, Center for Pattern Design, St. Helena, California 94574, 707-967-0852.

Details: Balenciaga and Spain:  Balenciaga and Spain ends July 4, 2011.  The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.   Admission to Balenciaga and Spain is $25 adults and free for members and children 5 and under.  There is a $5 discount for purchasing tickets in advance. 

ARThound’s other coverage of Balenciaga:

 Sandra Ericson, creator, Center for Pattern Design, talks about Balenciaga, the de Young exhibition and her “Balenciaga in Depth” seminar this weekend (May 21, 2011)

 Smart marketing: the de Young Museum’s foray into pay-per-view–hook ‘em by streaming a sold-out Balenciaga Symposium and later they will visit (March 23, 2011)

 Bouquets to Art 2011 launches Monday with a Spanish theme to celebrate Balenciaga–at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through March 19, 2011  (March 13, 2011)

May 17, 2011 Posted by | de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Use Me” CCA’s furniture design student show opens this Friday with some very sleek works

Every May, the very talented graduating students in the Furniture Program at California College of the Arts , San Francisco, have an exhibition showcasing their talent as they head out to find their way in the world.  Those of us who were lucky enough to attend “Family Tree” at the Petaluma Arts Center in March got a preview of the considerable talent coming out of CCA and its excellent furniture design program.  Works by five graduating students from the program will be on view at Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco from May 6 through May 20, 2011.  The featured artists are Janette Banner, Carly Borman, Michele Marti, Lukas Nickerson, and Andrew Perkins.  You may recall Michele Marti’s “Victorian Spread” and “Curious Sofa,” both eclectic re-workings of Victorian pieces, and Andrew Perkins “Alumination,” an elegant round maple table inlaid with striations of aluminum that were on view in Petaluma.  Now, you will have a chance to see even more of their cutting-edge works in a variety of styles, materials and intents.  The show is curated by Donald Fortescu, former chair of CCA’s Furniture Program, who along with  Russell Baldon, Barbara Holmes, and Ashley Eriksmoen  also had works in the “Family Tree” exhibition.  The opening reception is this Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco and the public is warmly invited.   Almost all of the works are for sale.

Michele Marti's "Curious Sofa" is a gorgeous spoof on Victorian morays as well as furniture design. Two people sitting on this plushly upholstered seat are forced to touch knees, a very un-Victorian thing to do. Photo: courtesy Michele Marti

About CCA’s Furniture Program: CCA’s Furniture Program focuses on the fertile intersection of the disciplines of furniture design, industrial design, sculpture, architecture, and fashion. The program emphasizes making skills (woodworking, metalworking, upholstery, and industrial fabrication), hand and computer-based drawing, and a theoretical investigation of furniture as both object and cultural agent.  Courses are taught in furniture design at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and the curriculum is interdisciplinary.

Students develop a conceptually sophisticated and professional body of work suitable for small-scale production runs or gallery exhibition. Students execute projects both individually and in small groups, often with Architecture, Industrial Design, and Interior Design students, which prepares them to collaborate with designers, manufacturers, and contractors in their professional lives.

In "Alumination," on view at the Petaluma Arts Center in March 2011, CCA student Andrew Perkins painstakingly layered aluminum and maple and then cut and sanded to achieve exquisite patterning in his table. Perkins will participate in CCA's "Use Me" exhibition at the Mina Dresden Gallery opening on May 6, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

ARThound’s coverage of CCA student and faculty artists:

 Please sit…CCA star student Michele Marti talks about rejuvinating Victorian chairs by spreading their legs and getting very naughty… “Family Tree” at Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011

“Family Tree” Petaluma Art Center’s Exceptional Fine Woodworking Show through March 13, 2011

 Details:  “Use Me” is at Mina Dresden Gallery | 312 Valencia Street | San Francisco.

Opening reception: Friday, May 6, 2011, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Closing reception: May 20, 2011, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Gallery hours: Thurs., Fri., & Sat.: 1–7 p.m. (and by appointment (415) 863-8312).  Free.   For more information: Donald Fortescue,

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Please sit…CCA star student Michele Marti talks about rejuvinating Victorian chairs by spreading their legs and getting very naughty… “Family Tree” at Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011

Michele Marti's "Curious Sofa" is a gorgeous spoof on Victorian morays as well as furniture design. Two people sitting on this plushly upholstered seat are forced to touch knees, a very un-Victorian thing to do. Photo: courtesy Michele Marti

I was so impressed with the great design in the student component of Family Tree, the woodworking show at the Petaluma Art Center, that I followed-up with Michele Marti whose rebuilt Victorian chairs stand out with their distinctive shapes, sumptuous fabric and sensual vibe.  It is rumored that the prudish Victorians were so uptight that they didn’t even use the word “leg” because it was too risqué, so Marti’s interest in giving these staid chairs a new life and a rebellious new voice was all the more intriguing.   Marti, 25, is from South Florida and is in her final year in the Furniture Program at California College of the Arts (CCA).  Two of her pieces are in the community gallery of the Petaluma Art Center through Sunday, March 13, 2011.

 What inspired you to revisit the Victorian era with these innovative repurposing projects you undertake?

 Michele Marti: I have always loved Victorian as well as Rococo style furniture but haven’t had the opportunity to work with the style until my senior year here at CCA.  My CCA thesis explores sensuality and sexuality in and around furniture.  Since Victorian and Rococo furniture are inherently stylized with masculinity and femininity, they are what inspired me most, and I wanted to really dive into the world of regeneration.  Since I have begun, I have become so attached to the pieces of furniture that I am rejuvenating that every scratch, dent, and drilled hole tells me a story of what these pieces have endured throughout their lives.  Because of this, the chairs become more and more like people and therefore I feel like I have to give them the opportunity to experience a new life of sensuality and sexuality.  Furniture is a cradle for the body and this interaction between the body and furniture is central to my interest and intentions when sculpting ideations for a new work.

The Victorian furniture pieces Michele Marti works with have seen a lot history---she rebuilds them and then painstakingly re-upholsters them and now these chairs sing a different tune. The Curious Sofa is on display at the Petaluma Arts Center through March, 13, 2011. Photo: Michele Marti.

 Tell us more about the two pieces that are in Family Tree at the Petaluma Arts Center.

Michele Marti: All of the pieces that I have made and am making have to do with my personal life in one way or another.  I have been out of a relationship for almost 3 years and, due to that, these works have been realized.  “Victorian Spread” was the first of the series.  By cutting the table and chair straight down the middle, I have exposed the femininity of each and consciously exposed it to the world.  This very well could be psychoanalyzed and be viewed as a way of exposing myself, my sexual frustrations, my vagina and all, to the world.

“The Curious Sofa” is quite a curious sofa.   As the reconstruction of the chairs went along and with some hilarious “how do you… ?” testing, it was soon discovered that this was a serious chair meant for one thing, some serious flirting.   In the end “The Curious Sofa” was tufted with its original greenish gold buttons and reupholstered in a charcoal grey velvet fabric in order to remain gender neutral and sensuous to the touch.  There is this really incredible thing that happens between two people when sitting in this curious sofa and that is the touching that can barely be avoided between their knees.  It’s a kind of uncomfortable,yet unexpected sensuous flirting that occurs and provokes your insides to want more. 

What do enjoy about upholstery and what goes into your decision to select a specific look or fabric? 
Michele Marti:  “The Curious Sofa” was my first major upholstery project and I have fallen in love with the process.  I taught myself how to upholster, with tips here and there from Ashley Eriksmoen (also in Family Tree and a CCC instructor).  I begin by taking very detailed photographs as I deconstruct the pieces before they are rejuvenated and use these for reference when I come up with my new design.  It is a very labor intensive process that I had overlooked for years until I started upholstering myself.  There were times in September of last year where I couldn’t even grab the knob of a door because my hands hurt so much.  Though it is painful in the beginning, it is so satisfying to be able to be with a piece from beginning to end and see it though all of the steps and processes.   

Michele Marti's Victorian Spread has a very naughty idea behind it--she cut a Victorian chair and table right down the middle, exposing the feminity of each, and consciously revealed it to the world. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What are you working on right now? 

Michele Marti: Currently, I am working on a similar piece to “The Curious Sofa” except this one is more gender based.  Man, woman sitting side by side with the arm of the masculine chair around the back of the feminine chair.  It will also be an upholstered piece and can be seen May 7th at our CCA exhibition at the Mina Dresden Gallery San Francisco.  I think it is going to be called “Lovers.”  The feminine chair is turned inward towards the masculine chair which then forces the female sitter to put her leg(s) on the lap or over the knee of the male sitter.  

(read more about Michele Marti and Family Tree in ARThound March 4, 2011

Details: The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, at East Washington Street, in central Petaluma,  94952.  Gallery hours: Thursday- Monday, noon to 4 pm.  Phone: (707) 762-5600 or

March 13, 1-4pm, Closing Party & Film Preview:  Come view the new documentary film, Woodsmith/The Life and Times of Arthur Espenet Carpenter and celebrate the closing of Family Tree, the wonderful exhibition of Northern Californian fine wood craft.

March 10, 2011 Posted by | Petaluma Arts Council | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Family Tree” Petaluma Art Center’s Exceptional Fine Woodworking Show through March 13, 2011

Barbara Holmes' site specific installation from re-purposed building lath is the focal point of "Family Tree," the fine woodworking exhibition at the Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

In the past two years, the Petaluma Arts Center has delivered several well-curated and immensely popular shows.  “Family Tree,” the center’s latest exhibition which runs through March 13, may be its best yet.  The show explores the lineage of fine woodworking in California from 1945 onward and is one of its most ambitious shows to date, bringing a number of woodworking masterpieces into the small center along with a bevy of artist demonstrations and talks.  If your conception of woodworking runs to bowls, tables and chairs, the show offers plenty of fine examples of these but it will also update you with some of wood’s latest trends. It also makes a compelling case for elevating fine woodworking into museums as a vibrant form of conceptual craft.

“Family Tree” is curated by Kathleen Hanna and presents the works of 25 artists, ranging from pioneers and mid-career artists to new entrants whose work has been influential in the CA contemporary fine woodworking movement.   Along side of this show, in the center’s community gallery, stands the innovative work of several students from the Furniture Program at California College of the Arts  who are rising stars in fine woodworking. 

Kathleen Hanna curator of "Family Tree" at the Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011. Hanna is an independent curator who has worked with several of San Francisco's leading craft museums. Photo: Geneva Anderson

“Since WWII, the focus of the art world has shifted radically from the New York to the West Coast in the area of fine craft and I wanted to point to the history of what has happened here since WWII,” explained Kathleen Hanna, an independent curator specializing in 20th century furniture and decorative objects who has worked for San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design and Museum of Craft and Folk Art .  Hanna, a Petaluma resident since 1983, also has a personal connection to fine woodworking through her father, Arthur W. Hanna, a San Francisco boat builder who took up woodworking and furniture design after he came home from WWII.   “This is a very small space, so I wanted to work just with wood and trace the lineage back to a very small group of pioneers in wood and fine craft and show how subsequent makers have expanded the dialogue by painting, manipulating and emphasizing wood’s sculptural aspects as well as show some woodworking tools that are being locally made.”

Early Masters:   Material Worship

Much in line with modernist principals of clean lines, truth to materials and simplicity, early woodworkers revered the wood itself for its own inherent beauty and didn’t paint it or cover up its beautiful grain.  Art Espenet Carpenter’s (1920-2006) “Double Music Stand” is just one of the masterpieces on display from pioneering California wood artists. 

Art Espenet Carpenter's iconic "Double Music Stand," in rosewood, is one the masterpieces of wood art on display in "Family Tree."

Legendary for his sleek and distinctive furniture, Carpenter, who had just returned from military service was so inspired by a Good Design exhibition in 1946 at MOMA in New York that he bought a lathe and took up woodworking.  He then moved to California, where later he exuberantly embraced furniture design.   He taught at San Francisco State and became so popular that over 130 woodworkers apprenticed under him in his Bolinas studio. 

His double music stand, fashioned from rosewood, is finely inlaid with metal and exhibits elegant refined curves that show influence of Alexander Calder, Charles and Ray Eames, and Robert Maillart , a Swiss engineer and bridge builder whose startling and original spans influenced 20th century artists of all kinds.  The form of this music stand so appealed to Carpenter that he worked with it throughout his life, modifying it and creating many examples.  

Carpenter was also a founding member of the influential Baulines Craft Guild, formed in the early 1970’s, which brought skilled artisans together to further their techniques and artistic dialogue.  This led to the formation of Dovetail Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco providing a market for their works.

J.B.Blunk’s “Chair” 1978, 36” x 40” x 40,” was carved from a massive block of redwood with a chainsaw. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Blunk was well-known for his redwood furniture and wood installations which were unprecedented in their size and degree of abstraction. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Sculptor J.B. Blunk (1926-2002) , whose proud and massive carved redwood chair(1978) is also on display, had a strong influence on wood artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Using a chainsaw, Blunk created such iconic works as “The Planet” (1969) which graces the entrance of Oakland Museum of California’s Natural Science Gallery (closed for construction until 2012) and is made entirely of one ring of redwood burl thirteen feet in diameter. 

Like many early woodworkers, Blunk took up woodworking after military service.  After serving in the army in Korea, Blunk was discharged to Japan where he met sculptor Isamu Noguchi and delved into Japan’s rich ceramic tradition, apprenticing with legendary potters Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959) and Bizen style master Toyo Keneshige (1896–1967).  After returning to the U.S., Blunk built his own home and studio near in Inverness and remained true to an aesthetic process that sought to release the inherent beauty in the material he worked with.  His legacy continues posthumously with a residency program through his Inverness studio.

Several extraordinary wooden bowls by revered wood artist Bob Stocksdale (1914-2003), a long-time East Bay resident, attest to his influence on many important contemporary wood artists.  Mesmerizing in their elegant simplicity, they encapsulate the bowl’s transition from a previously crude farm-style implement to a beautiful and functional

Bob Stocksdale’s lathe-turned vessels fashioned from exotic timbers, like this 1979 bowl from Ebony, exquisitely showcase each piece of wood’s unique grain and beauty..

aesthetic object.  Stocksdale’s small thin lathe-turned macadamia nut bowl, barely 3  inches in diameter, is a perfect harmony of graceful form and material, as is his larger Magnolia tree bowl.  These bowls were once available in limited supply at Gump’s and reasonably affordable as beautiful utilitarian objects.  Now, they are highly collectible and fetch thousands. 

Stocksdale’s love for exotic timbers, his care in selecting just the right piece of wood, and his gifted use of simple tools to explore the inherent beauty of wood grain were trademarks that gained him celebrity status.   Like most artists, he did not arrive at this spontaneously.  He was influenced heavily by James Prestini (1908-1993), an engineer turned artist who started to lathe turn wooden bowls in the 1930’s as art objects—bowls so thin they appeared to have qualities similar to glass or ceramics.  Prestini’s new way of looking at woodturning, with his emphasis on the design and shape of the object, influenced an entire generation, especially young Stocksdale, who first encountered him in Berkeley. 

Berkeley artist Merryll Saylan was one of the early female entrants to wood art and is noted for her polychrome finishes. “Tower, Keep and Besamim Büchse” (2005) are three turned towers she created referencing her husband’s experience on life support.

Second Generation:  Women, Color, Form, Experimentation

Looking back at the sexual politics of the mid-century and the immediate post WWII environment, where woodworking and handicrafts were forms of rehabilitation, and the explosion of power tools that became readily available and affordable, it’s easy to see why woodworking was initially a man’s activity. Berkeley artist Merryll Saylan, was one of the early women in the field, emerging as a leader in the use of color and texture in her lathe turned work.  She is part of the second generation of California artists who really went beyond worshipping wood for its inherent qualities and began to experiment with color, finishes and sculptural embellishment.  This generation of artists introduced a new round of individual expression to woodworking and began to elevate wood to the realm of conceptual craft. 

“Tower, Keep, and Besamim and Büchse”(2005)  are three turned wooden towers forming a powerful installation that incorporates the actual nitroglycerin bottles used by Saylan’s husband when he was on life support.  Aside from its highly personal nature, Besamim and Büchse (Jewish spice box) are a conceptual reinterpretation of Jewish ritual.  The towers have an opaque hard finish that Saylan has created with polychrome “milk paint” which she makes by adding colorants to caseine (processed from the curd of soured milk).  Milk paint is water soluble when wet but it becomes virtually intractable when dry and forms a very stable and attractive protective finish—an apt metaphor for what it must have taken to gain recognition in a predominantly male field.

Griff Oakie, from Santa Rosa, began working with wood in the early 1970’s and initially rebelled against color and the trend for painting wood that emerged in the 1980’s.  In “The Hand of the Maker,” for fun, Oakie put a very expensive bright red lacquer on a bench he’d made, completely covering the beautiful figurative aspect of the wood, and embellished it with a carved wooden hand left unpainted.

Ashley Jameson Eriksmoen’s “Fledge” 2006 is a table set based on the artist’s observations about how various young animals huddle near their parents’ legs. Constructed from various woods, acrylic and milk paints, casters, 36”x45”x14” and 24”x3-“x11.” photo: courtesy Ashley Eriksmoen

Gary Knox Bennett (born 1934)v has attained legendary status in the field of furniture and is well-known for his subversive humor.  In the 1960’s he created lines of roach clips along with his lucrative large-scale furniture and he also started a metal-plating company and has since imbued his wood furniture with decorative metal.  Hanna selected one of his satiny redwood tables for “Family Tree” and encourages viewers to browse through any of the 10 artist statements he prepared for the show.      

Ashley Eriksmoen’s  “Fledge” is a very gestural duo and amongst the most imaginative pieces on display —a solid wood parson’s table and end table set– highly organic in form and suggestive of a bird wing.  “Fledge” is based on Eriksmoen’s observations of various young animals (including humans) as they huddle near their parents’ legs.  “A gosling will find shelter under the mother goose’s wing as it peers at the world, just as dogs lean into their guardian’s shins when feeling shy,” writes Eriksmoen.  “In ‘Fledge,’ the parent table takes a protective stance as the young table leans out, contemplating leaving the nest on a solo flight while still needing the parent.”  Each “feather” of the table is an independent segment, shaped and fitted curve to curve.  The legs have lap joints in the “knees.”  Casters on the hind feet allow these winged creatures to have faster takeoffs and smooth

Russell Baldon’s table “Bad Digital” is a hallucinogenic exploration the possibilities of digital furniture design. Baldon is chairman of the Furniture Department at CCA and encourages his students to embrace technology. Photo: Geneva Anderson

landings, and to be moved easily with one hand.  Eriksmoen, who teaches at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, has travelled the world studying ancient techniques which she applies in conjunction with state of the art design practices taught at CCA.  The result is a thoroughly refreshing body of contemporary work  imbued with life, movement, whimsy, and stunning craftsmanship.

Highly creative approaches to woodworking are being nurtured in CCA’s Furniture Program and instructors Russell Baldon, Donald Fortescue and Barbara Holmes also figure prominently in “Family Tree.”   Russell Baldon’s “Bad Digital” is a digitally-designed and executed table that resembles a Victor Vasarely painting in 3-D.  Baldon, current chairman of CCA’s Furniture Program, intentionally designs his work so that it straddles the line between furniture and art, science and art, and between function and nonfunction.   

Donald Fortescue's "Pike" (2001) were painstakingly formed by gluing rings of plywood together and turning and hand-shaping it to form a smooth minimalistic tower. In 2001, Fortescue became the first artist to win a design award from SFMOMA. Photo: courtesy Donald Fortescue

Australian born Donald Fortescue, previous chairman of CCA’s Furniture Program, was one of the first artists to receive the Experimental Design Award from SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 2001.  “Pike” (2000) are two impeccably made sculptural vessels that comment on the potential of non-rectilinear processes now common in design applications of all types.  Each was made by gluing innumerable rings of birch plywood together, then lathe-turning and painstakingly hand-finishing it into a single smooth layered form.  These layers, like sedimentary strata, stand as a perfect commentary on art’s cycle.  In the long run, almost everything in America that starts out at the pinnacle as a coveted art/design object in galleries or design stores cycles downward until it reaches Target and then ascends in large consumer markets.    

Barbara Holmes, a fine woodworker and CCA instructor from Oakland, has created the site specific “Tacoma” from reclaimed redwood lathe specifically for the Petaluma Arts Center.   This lyrical, spiraling 12 foot long line of lathe unfolds like a melody across the gallery wall.  The technique of stacking slats, nailing them and creating spirals is recent and springs from a residency Holmes did at the dump where she discovered how much lathe was a discarded by-product of demolition.  The repurposing of wood and wood objects has become particularly popular in Northern, CA, because of our strong interest in sustainability and eco-consciousness.  Wood artists like Holmes are exploring the material in new ways and creating pieces with a strong conceptual element behind them.

Sparks and shavings flew as Jerry Kermode demonstrated turning techniques to a packed house at the Petaluma Arts Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 In late January, Jerry Kermode, a full time wood turner from Sebastopol, gave one of the center’s most action-packed artist demos ever on problem solving for wood turners.  “I love the lathe because it’s really the only tool in the shop where you are the blade,”  Kermode told a packed house of wood enthusiasts.  Kermode teaches wood techniques out of his home studio and is featured in Sunset’s The Ultimate Garage: Getting Organized, Outfitting Your Garage, Creative Use of Space.  

Like many artists, Kermode studies ancient techniques and finds solutions for problems that are a blend of old and new.  While living in Hawaii, he encountered the cherished calabash (bowl) culture of the Islands and discovered that old calabash bowls were often repaired with wooden inserts, or kepa.  Kermode began experimenting with biscuit joiners used in cabinetry to hold together included or fragile wood while turning it and refined this into a signature technique of stitching (bowl repair).  Kermode, collaborates with his wife and business partner, Deborah Kermode, who finishes the bowls he has carved, and the couple has a number of natural edge of bowls in “Family Tree.” 

David Keller’s dovetail jigs, revered in wood circles, are on display at the Petaluma Art Center’s “Family Tree” through March 13, 2011. Keller worked for Art Carpenter in the early 1970’s who demanded that all casework be dovetailed, a task that was painstakingly done by hand. Together Art and Dave recognized a need for a jig that could precision dovetails and Dave subsequently designed it, along with the first flush-trim router bit . His model 3600 jig that he designed long ago is still a best seller and his bit has revolutionized tool work.

Tools of the Trade

“All these makers love tools” says Hanna, “whether it’s a bandsaw or a new industrial design machine.  Over the past 25 years, there have been major changes in the tools associated with achieving sculptural processes, in most cases designed by makers to meet a specific design need.”  

Dave Keller, of Petaluma, who apprenticed and then worked with Art Carpenter in the early 1970’s, refined Carpenter’s technique for uniform dovetail joinery into the Keller dovetail system in 1976.  Hanna has created a display of three of Keller’s aluminum templates and examples of different ways that dovetails are used. 

In "Alumination," Andrew Perkins painstakingly layered aluminum and maple and then cut and sanded to achieve exquisite patterning in his table. Photo: Geneva Anderson

John de Marchi is a Petaluma sculptor and machinist/welder renowned for his finely-designed hand tools for woodworking.  De Marchi fabricates new tools from scratch out of the finest steel available and also elegantly refurbishes old tools.

Rising Stars

The community gallery presents a snapshot of some of the latest developments in furniture design through student artists from the Wood Furniture Design Program at California College of the Arts.  These rising stars were asked to respond to various design problems posed by their instructors and you’ll see cutting-edge works in a variety of style, materials and intents.

Andrew Perkins’ stunning table “Alumination” is a clever use of aluminum, a very flexible material, which has been layered with maple wood and then cut and sanded to expose elegant metal patterning whose exposure increases as the table leg tapers downward.  Perkins is a 2010 CCA student recipient of the Ronald and Anita Wornick Award for exceptional talent in furniture design.

Noah Brezel’s “percival” (2009) is a functional seat with 12 legs that looks a lot like a spider.  Brezel took cherry edgebanding and glued it and bent it over a curve to create some highly complex intersections.  Brezel is interested in creating functional furniture with a perceived frailty and uses traditional hand-craftsmanship along with 3D computer modeling and laser cutting. 

Noah Brezel’s “percival” (2009) is a functional seat with 12 legs fashioned from cherry edgebanding and cherry veneer, 32’ x 41’ x 17’. Brezel has attempted to bridge the gap between craft and design and strives for clean lines. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Michele Marti deconstructs Victorian furniture and then reconstructs it for her own purposes.   “The Curious Sofa” has been formed by joining two Victorian chairs together to form a single sofa that forces two people sitting on the chair together to rub knees, a very un-Victorian thing to do.  “Victorian’s Spread” similarly co-joins two chairs and indelicately references America’s weight gain.  Marti and student colleague Brezel led a chair- making workshop at SFMOMA last year as part of its 75th anniversary celebration.   

Wood’s Rising Stature:

In the contemporary craft world, wood is still a little bit of an underdog that has yet to be discovered in the big way that glass or ceramics have been in craft collecting  and  museum circles, explains Julie Muniz, Associate Curator of Crafts and Decor, Oakland Museum of CA.  “Today’s wood craftsmen are really exploring the material in new ways and pushing the boundaries beyond the vessel and chair and into some very interesting installation pieces with some sort of commentary and conceptual element behind it.  All this speaks very well for wood’s repositioning as a vibrant conceptual craft form.”

Michele Marti's "Curious Sofa" is a gorgeous spoof on Victorian morays as well as furniture design. Two people sitting on this plushly upholstered seat are forced to touch knees, a very un-Victorian thing to do. Photo: courtesy Michele Marti

Muniz has worked closely with Ron and Anita Wornick of Healdsburg and San Francisco, whose wood collection was the basis of the Oakland Museum of CA’s 1997 show  “Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection.” Having amassed one of the most important conceptual craft collections in the country, and enthusiastically nurtured and supported wood artists through purchases, endowments, and fellowships, the Wornicks are now pushing to get wood its long due recognition in the country’s leading museums.  “Wood will only be elevated to the level of fine art when the best of the work gets into fine arts museums and gets the exposure and recognition it deserves to stand beside other things that are more readily accepted as fine art,” said Ron Wornick.

In 2007, the Wornicks bequeathed 250 pieces from their conceptual craft collection to Boston Fine Arts Museum, including the 120 works in the MFA’s 2007 exhibition “Shy Boy, She Devil and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft.”  In 2009, they gave several wood pieces to the Oakland Museum of CA’s wood collection.  Earlier this year, they gave 100 pieces to Racine Art Museum (RAM) in Wisconsin in conjunction with its “Knock Wood” exhibition celebrating wood’s entrance to RAM’s permanent collection.  Their collection includes pieces by many of the master artists in “Family Tree.”

Ron and Anita Wornick attended “Family Tree’s” opening and were impressed.  “Shows like this one here in Petaluma are critical in raising public awareness about how far wood has come,” said Wornick.  “I ended up spending a lot time there.  Normally an exhibition is a little more horizontal in terms of a certain time frame or artist, but this one went all the way from Gary Knox Bennett, who is as old as tree and one of the originals, to Barbara Holmes and Chris Loomis (who are mid-career) and these three represent a 40 to 50 year time span of making in this language.  There was real discernment in the selection of pieces too.  And not only did it have a range of artists and works but there were also some inexperienced collectors there too and it was fun to see all of this unfold.”

Artist Talk:  Saturday, March 5, 2011,  2-4 pm  Ashley Eriksmoen: From Vikings to Lasers: One Woodworker’s Journey Seeking Appropriate Technologies for Creative Work

To construct complex, asymmetrical, organic forms, sometimes the best technology involves 21st century lasers, and sometimes it requires hand methods used by 9th century Vikings.  An understanding of both can bring the best possible solution in Eriksmoen’s sculptural furniture work.  Ashley Jameson Eriksmoen has exhibited at galleries and museums nationwide including the Fuller Museum and Pritam and Eames, and is the recipient of numerous awards and grants including the Norwegian Marshall Fund.  She has taught woodworking and design courses and workshops at several schools, including College of the Redwoods and California College of Art (and Craft).  Eriksmoen currently creates in her woodshop in Oakland.  Fee: $5 suggested donation.

Recommended Reading:

Woodturning in North America Since 1930 (Yale University Press, 2003) complete history of woodturning

The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2009)

Made in Oakland: The Furniture of Gary Knox Bennett (American Craft Museum, now Museum of Arts & Design, 2001)

Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection (Oakland Musuem of CA, 1996 available at the museum store at the Oakland Museum of CA and online.)

Details: The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, at East Washington Street, in central Petaluma,  94952.  Gallery hours: Thursday- Monday, noon to 4 pm.  Phone: (707) 762-5600 or

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