Book report: ‘Joinery, Joists and Gender’ by Deirdre Visser

I’m calling this a book report rather than a review, because I don’t have the gumption right now to write a proper formal review. So please forgive the relatively casual nature of what follows.

I love this book, which was recently published by Routledge. (I’m linking to the sales page at Amazon because the publisher’s ordering system has proven problematic. I am still waiting for the copy I ordered pre-publication.) The historical overview of women in woodworking is fascinating, including consideration of women picking up where men left off in wartime, and a wonderfully insightful discussion of the role played by the D.I.Y. movement in drawing women in. Earlier sections of the history include lots of information gleaned from research by Suzanne Ellison right here at Lost Art Press, a wonderful tribute to Ellison herself and to the Lost Art Press blog for publishing it. The international dimension is also noteworthy, though the book is overwhelmingly grounded in North America.

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My favorite aspect of the book is the intellectual perspective that Deirde Visser brings to the subject, which she treats with welcome nuance. Many pages of my copy are covered with laudatory notes. I greatly appreciate that Visser and her colleague in the project early on, Laura Mays, saw fit to include not just art and studio furniture makers, but builders of custom work who happily refer to their workspaces as shops, and builders of buildings (albeit to a lesser extent).

The book is refreshingly free from top-down, supercilious attitude. Rather, its embrace of a diverse cross section of makers and making reflects beautifully on Visser herself. Kudos in particular to her and to the legendary Wendy Maruyana for including such gems as, “With characteristically self-effacing humor, Maruyama opened our conversation stating, ‘I’m not a great woodworker.’ She is talking about technique: ‘Making a perfect joint doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s quite a struggle, actually. So I frustrate myself because you always measure yourself up with other woodworkers and think ‘Oh fuck.’ In fact, Maruyama is perfectly capable of exemplary technique.” If you really want to invite people into a field, this is one way to do it.

It takes a strong spine to admit to imperfection in furniture making, and this in its own right is a welcome bit of iconoclasm. Furniture is made to be used, not just admired. In most cases the perfection of joinery or the attention given to finishing the back of a dresser or the underside of a table has far more to do with the maker’s conceit, or playing into widespread expectations of “quality” in the luxury furniture market (barf), than with actual durability or ability to serve the purpose for which a piece is made, which also has a bearing on who will be able to afford it. This, too, is for the underdog to point out, and women in this field have traditionally been underdogs.

I can’t imagine having to choose which makers to feature in such a project and am honestly baffled and gobsmacked to have found myself included. It’s a real honor. The sheer diversity of featured makers is admirable. So many others deserve to be included in a work of this kind, but as someone who has edited essay collections and copy edited Marc Adams’s “The Difference Makers,” I understand the need to make really tough decisions. That said, if there is one person whose absence is conspicuous in the discussion of particular women who have championed the cause of inviting women in and giving those women already in woodworking the visibility they deserve, it’s Megan Fitzpatrick, in particular during the years she worked as editor at Popular Woodworking; Megan has gone out on many a fragile limb, risking her own livelihood and fielding many an indignant comment from people who still don’t see the need to shine a light on members of specific underrepresented groups. Fitzpatrick would have fit perfectly into the part of the book that discusses efforts others have made in giving women woodworkers the recognition they’re due.

While this is by no means a formal review, I hope it’s clearly an appreciation and a strong recommendation. Thank you Deirdre Visser, Laura Mays and Phoebe Kuo, for conceiving this work. Looking back over the years in which I have been aware of this project, and the conversations I had early on about publishers with Mays, I recognize the massive investment of time and energy this book represents. I love it. What a joy!

– Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think,” “Shop Tails” and “Making Things Work.”


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