Recycling is good for the planet, so here's an interview I managed to score with Chris Schwarz last year. He's been insanely productive ever since, so head on over to the Lost Art Press blog for some up-to-date news.
F – How did you start out making furniture?
C – It wasn’t really free will. My parents were hippies and they bought us a farm in the middle of nowhere. We built all our own stuff – our own house and a lot of the furniture in our house. We were in the Deep South so it was very hot, we didn’t have air-conditioning, we didn’t have plumbing. Those were our weekends, making things for the farm.
I went to college to become a writer, hoping to get away from all that, but then as soon as I graduated I just went right back into it. I started taking night classes making furniture at the local university here, that was back in the early ‘90s. That’s all I’ve thought about, or done, or considered doing, for almost thirty years.
I started out as a journalist, so for a few years I was a daily newspaper writer – covering murders, train wrecks, trials – it was all very interesting but at night I was at home, building furniture. About 1996, I was trying to figure out which way I was going to go with my life, and I got a job with Popular Woodworking magazine as an editor so was able to do both for a long time – which was really amazing, I didn’t think that could be possible. So, I’ve always gotten to do a little bit of both; that’s good because it’s really the only thing I’m good at.
F – Tell me about founding Lost Art Press, what inspired that?
C – I’d been at Popular Woodworking for many years, on the corporate side for so long and thought I knew enough to do something on my own. I have a business partner, John Hoffman, who’s also a woodworker and we were drinking too much beer one night and we started talking about it. Within about six months we’d filed the papers to become a corporation – that was eleven years ago. We thought that the reason there were no good woodworking books being made was because it wasn’t good for the authors. Corporate publishers really screw over authors like you just won’t believe, I’ve been on both sides of the equation – as the screwer and the screwee. We thought we could figure out a model where we could build a company without screwing authors. That would allow us to go after people like Christian Becksvoort, Peter Follansbee, Peter Galbert – all these fascinating woodworkers who had no desire to do a book because there was nothing in it for them. That was the core idea behind Lost Art Press, and has stayed the same. All our authors get the same contract, we split our profits 50/50 with them – in corporate publishing you usually get 7-10% – so it’s a good deal. The way we manage it is we keep costs really low – we don’t have employees, we don’t have a corporate jet or even a photocopier – we’re just two guys, and we hire out our friends to do all the design work and the editing so it also supports a network of other independent people.
F – You publish historical texts as well as present day writers – bringing the knowledge of current woodworkers to the general public and unearthing these tomes that I certainly wouldn’t have come across…I’m always impressed by your ability to find these fairly obscure woodworking texts from the pre-Victorian era!
C – That was another thing that drove us – there were so many early books out there, and so much knowledge that needed to be brought forward to the present day. I think that John and I, and everyone I knew in handwork, were struggling trying to teach ourselves things when really all the answers were written down or at least there were breadcrumbs to those answers.
So it was launching into getting Charles Hayward republished, for 20thcentury guys he’s one of the best writers on handwork, and then going backwards even more with Roubo, that was a ten year project, and then Moxon – the first chronicler of woodworking. Those were the foundations – giving us a starting point just a little higher than what we started with in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when people were just making it up as they went along.
F – How can independent makers survive without relying solely on rich clients? Is that something you’ve found to be a problem?
C – I think it depends, it depends on your business. I know a lot of woodworkers and we talk about business all the time. I’ve been completely independent for six years now, but I’ve done commission work for the last sixteen or seventeen. If your business is catering to the ultra-rich you can probably do that, and do that alone. There are people who build furniture for sheiks and princes and dotcom millionaires, and that’s one way to do it. My path, and the only one I can speak to well, is that I try to have a balance of things so that I can keep my work priced at a point where I can always do what I want to do and can always say no to whatever I want to say no to. People get very excited when they can actually have something made by someone else and have a say in how it comes to life. The way I do that is by diversifying – I write, I edit, we sell whatever we need to sell and take on freelance jobs.
The one thing that’s ensured success as much as diversification is living someplace that is dirt-fricking-cheap. I live in the Midwest, which we call flyover country. It’s really nice but it’s not where a tourist would ever think to go. We can raise a family here, my wife and I are both writers so we make horrible money, but in the Midwest you can do that. I think that’s really important, keeping your debt low, keep your expectations low, and living somewhere that’s inexpensive.
F – What’s your home like?
C – I’m in my storefront today, we’re kind of between homes at the moment. The storefront is an 1895 bar, by the time we got it it was a fighting lesbian bar, it was totally purple and glittery.
F – Do you still get old clients knocking on the door at 2am asking for a drink?
C – We used to for about three years, they’ve stopped coming around. We do get a lot of weird characters here but it’s fine, it’s fun. We’re fixing up this place so my workshop is on the ground floor and then my wife and I will live upstairs, as soon as we get the upstairs looking less like a bachelor pad. What’s my home like? It’s filled with my furniture, very little in there is store bought, but my wife bemoans that like almost everything in our house it’s prototypes – so it’s the crap, the chairs that don’t look quite right or I wasn’t happy with. I’m not going to keep anything I can sell!
F – Do you ever still head to IKEA?
C – I won’t go to IKEA, not even for the meatballs. I hate the place. But…one year we got our tax return and we decided to give the kids $500 to get some furniture. I said “look, you can buy antiques, you can even hire me, I’ll build you what you want and I’ll give you a good price”. The buggers just went right to IKEA and bought everything they wanted. It was shameful, I’ve never felt such shame…
That was five years ago, all that stuff has been destroyed just from normal use. It just falls apart, it has a half-life. So now they’re coming to me for scraps. One of my daughters has just graduated college and is trying to raid our house for furniture as all her IKEA stuff is in pieces.
F – What furniture projects are you currently working on?
C – I’m finishing up this week two large tool chests for customers, one in Texas and one in California. That’s an unusual part of my business – I build a lot of tool chests and I build a lot of workbenches for woodworkers – which sounds like crazy at first, but a lot of these guys are people who don’t have the time – they’re nearing retirement and want to get set up or they just don’t think they’ll ever have the time to get these things so they hire me. Which I’m perfectly willing to do now – I kind of resisted it for a while. So I’ve got those two going out and then I’ve got 12/13 commissions lined up for the rest of this year. A lot of them are on the campaign furniture side – I have a couple of clients who are really into campaign furniture so I’ll be building a lot of campaign chests and Roorkee chairs and lots of collapsible stuff – but stuff that doesn’t collapse unintentionally.
F – Where next for Lost Art Press?
Specifically, what’s coming out very soon is Joshua Klein’s book on a very interesting guy named Jonathan Fisher who was an 18thCentury renaissance man. We have a this absolutely complete portrait of a woodworker and his life – he documented everything, and we have his furniture and his objects. So it’s a look at 18thcentury craft through the eyes of that person, with very little interpretation. That’s a really cool book.
We’re almost sending to press John Brown’s “Welsh Stick Chairs” which we finally got the rights to republish. That was one of the most influential books in my life, and I’ve been chasing the rights to that for many years, so we’re putting out a really nice edition of that. Hopefully that will inspire a whole new generation of people, because Brown was as influential as Krenov or Sam Maloof or any of the other big woodworkers.
More generally, we’re trying to decide if we should get more into video, we’ve done a couple of streaming videos. I don’t really like video, which I probably shouldn’t admit, but it’s not how I’ve learned. I’ve learned through reading and then doing. Other people are very visual learners, I’m not a very visual learner. Luckily my partner, John Hoffman, that’s how he learns so he’s more in charge of the video aspect. I don’t know if we’ll be doing more of that, that seems to be the way the world is going…but I just love books. I love the permanence of them. They can be made to a very high standard.
F – Videos seem very ephemeral. Books have a period of their own, they’re timeless.
C – I totally agree, and I hope that there are enough customers around to keep me doing this. That’s our fear, that people will say “screw books”. But we’ll just keep making books, that’s what I do. I’ll just keep doing it and if I have to make them one at a time, I’ll make them one at a time.
I’ll keep buying them – looks like I’m going to need a bigger shelf…
Many thanks to Chris and all at Lost Art Press – available from Classic Hand Tools in the UK and Europe.