It doesn't take long to figure out that when Bob Ingram is talking about woodworking, he's really talking about life and philosophy. Bob is the owner of Collaborative Furniture in Philadelphia and cofounder of the Philadelphia Furniture and Furnishings Show, and much of his work is a reflection of his outlook on life. "The actual act of living should be artful," says Bob, and he and his wife, Kathy Halton, are striving to incorporate artful living into every aspect of their lives. In Bob's case, that philosophical approach to living and working has lead to furniture that is appreciated by people who share his love for artistic and playful design.
That shouldn't be a big surprise, since he builds a lot of furniture for his own use. While a lot of professional woodworkers suffer from the "shoemaker's children" syndrome, Bob committed himself early to improving his own life through his art. "I decided years ago that ... I wanted to have a quality of life. So I asked myself 'What can I give myself that people are paying up the nose for? My own work!'" Bob concluded. So he and Kathy have dozens of his pieces in their house and many of his clients are people who share his philosophy about art and life and work.
A Different Kind of Artistic Integrity
How he designs and builds his furniture is also dictated by his view of life. While he wants his art to look good ? and he gets help with that from his wife ? and have structural integrity, he also wants his furniture to be approachable. By that, he means he doesn't want to make pieces that are so expensive that the average person can't afford it. Consequently, while a high-end furniture maker might insist on mortise and tenons for every joint, Bob designs a lot of his furniture around reinforced plate joints. Or, for example, if he's doing cabinet work, he'll use European hinges rather than inlaid butt hinges because they are faster, they look good and they are structurally sound.
His pragmatic attitude extends to his artistic sensibility. He likes working on commissions, for example, because they "keep me honest to my clientele base, as opposed to my own artistic needs." And he would also like to see a bit more of that kind of honesty among artists. He's loudly critical of the woodworkers/artists being turned out by universities and academia. "They're not teaching practitioners of a decorative art form," he declares, "they are teaching people to be esoteric, self-absorbed, art-oriented dabblers who better get a teaching job like they [the professors] have."
Bob suggests that too many woodworkers being "turned" out of these universities are taught to never compromise their art or their avante garde use of materials. He says, "OK, fine. Then what kind of person is going to buy this? Do you politically relate to that kind of lifestyle? Do they empathize with you as a person?" asks Bob.
In most cases, he says, the gallery crowd isn't really Bob's cup of tea. He cares a lot about who is going to buy his work. If only the very wealthy can afford it, he says, "that to me was a bigger compromise: to sacrifice my politics for my artistic ego."
A Careful Collaboration
Because both Bob and Kathy are trying to live an artful life, they often collaborate on projects. Kathy is a painter and print maker. Back in 1983, Bob made a large desk with leather inlaid panels. But the panels were too dark when he was done, so he asked for Kathy's expertise in painting to lighten them up a bit. She rescued the piece. Then a few years later, after they had spent several months teaching in Australia, they had an opportunity to do a show together featuring the art and woodworking they had encountered during their visit.
Now Bob taps into Kathy's expertise on a regular basis in terms of designing furniture. He keeps an inventory of ideas, forms and textures that she likes and tries to incorporate some of them when he develops a new piece of furniture. Then they go over the design together to determine what will work and what will not. Three weeks later, he's usually got a piece of furniture he can show her. Sometimes she likes it, and sometimes she doesn't. He, in turn, helps her with her painting when shegets stuck.
Saved By Shop Class
When Bob was growing up, he had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), though they didn't call it that back then. That produced the usual problems in school until he got to seventh grade and had his first mechanical drawing class. He finally found something he could get an "A" in and he whizzed through the course. He had great instincts about drawing and he could finish drawings quickly with great accuracy. All of a sudden, he was fast and smart, and he loved it.
The next year, he enrolled in the woodworking class and, again, flew through it. He was done with five projects before most students had finished their first. He said to himself "this is for me. I can think on my feet. I can be instinctual. I can use my heart, my mind and my hands ? and my instincts. School was all about you mind. It had nothing to do with your hands and your heart and your instincts."
His high school didn't have any shop courses and he felt stifled. He had a friend whose father had recently passed away, leaving behind a workshop that the boys began to investigate. He still has the first sliding dovetail he ever cut and says, "I was as happy then as I've ever been."
His career took him through the regular gamut of carpentry and cabinet making, and he finally wound up building furniture on a contract basis for Ethan Allen. That, he says, was one of his favorite jobs. He developed a method of woodworking that almost became a dance. He would start with a cart full of parts and would consciously pick up the piece with one hand, make the cut, and stack it with the other hand. The repetition of these actions helped him focus his mind on doing each task efficiently and quickly. He later learned that a guy in Tasmania had developed a similar method for actors called the Alexander technique. Training the actors in deliberate, repetitive motions helped free their minds and allow them to get into their role more effectively. It's also been developed as a form of physical therapy, says Bob.
He got so good at this that he could immediately tell when something was wrong - like a piece of birch mixed in with the maple or a board that was too wet ? and stop the process. Like much of his life's philosophy, his furniture making became a method for "moving through space with the greatest of ease and with the greatest amount of grace and the least amount of stress," says Bob.