Garry Knox Bennett (GKB) has been a woodworker for 35-40 years. He has work in permanent collections including the Smithsonian, Oakland Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and many more. But he doesn’t like the term woodworker. In fact, I’ve known Garry for over a decade now, and he calls people like me a “Woody Woodpecker.” I assume this is an endearing term for us “woodies,” because despite his ominous size and gruff exterior, he has always greeted me with kindness and a lighthearted joke or two. Garry prefers the term “furniture maker,” because he hasn’t sold his soul to wood.
When entering the gigantic beautiful doors of the workshop, it’s clear that this is a unique and cool joint. There are tools inside the shop for manipulation of an array of materials. Garry’s interest lies in aesthetic sensibilities more than showing off what nature has already done.
GKB uses paint, metal, glass, plastic, and/or whatever is needed for the job. He uses wood primarily because it’s fast and easy to work in large forms. Before getting into furniture making, Garry had a metal plating business. I think his expertise in metal gives him a leg up on others. One of the first things we learn in making things is material manipulation, and Garry has mastered at least a few mediums. He isn’t restricted.
Along with understanding structural limitations of material, makers should learn about art. “Without being indoctrinated into art theories and principles, how can people make anything and call it art?” Garry is a firm believer that we need to have shops in schools and teach people how to make things using their hands along with teaching what works (i.e., color theory).
However, GKB expressed a strong concern for the changing of society’s interests. He believes it’s next to impossible to make a living making furniture because of cultural expectations. He has an extremely valid point, in that many people don’t care about handcrafted one-of- a-kind furniture. He said it seems as though there will be a resurgence in another 20-30 years of collectors and galleries.
I believe it’s happening already, though. Where I live in Indianapolis, galleries are popping up all over the place. People want well-made furnishings that they can see and touch before buying. Garry and I both believe that education about and real-life access to crafted goods are vital to keeping the handmade economy going.
As far as making these days, Garry is making some lamps from time to time and painting. He isn’t making a lot because he said he is collecting his own work. The market for selling has gone ‘BONK.’ “I’m a lucky [s-o-b], though; I’ve got my niche, work in galleries and museums, a wife, kids, and I’ve done a lot of drugs,” Garry explained.
Garry and his wife, Sylvia, live in a lovely home above the shop in Jack London Square in Oakland. It’s an exquisite, gallery-like space that has furniture and art from the likes of Judy McKie, Wendy Maruyama, and many more. Garry is an icon in the Studio Furniture movement that stems from the idea of making completely speculative furniture. It is definitely not an easy road to make a living off of furniture of your own device, considering solely your own stipulations. Hats off to Garry!