Well Being: Crafting a good life with your own hands

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: May 05, 2014

Peter Korn grew up in Mount Airy and Rydal and was educated at Germantown Friends School and the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in history. His father, a Philadelphia lawyer, was expecting his son to follow a conventional career path by becoming a lawyer, too, or a doctor, professor, or stockbroker.

Instead, Korn went to Nantucket and got a job as a carpenter. His father may have been dismayed that his son was working with his hands, but Korn loved it.

"From the start, there was a mind/body wholeness to carpentry that put it way ahead of what I imagined office work to be," Korn writes in his new book, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman.

Contrary to his father's fear that manual labor would be insufficiently stimulating, Korn was surprised by how mentally engaging carpentry was and by how much problem-solving it involved.

In 1974, after working as a carpenter for two years, Korn decided to build a cradle for friends expecting their first child. He spent three days working on it in an unheated barn. The experience was an epiphany that turned Korn into a furniture-maker.

For 12 years, he designed and built furniture himself, toiling for part of that time in a workshop he fashioned in an old mill in Manayunk. He also taught furniture design at Drexel University as an adjunct professor.

Today, Korn, 62, is executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a nonprofit woodworking and design school he founded in Rockport, Maine. Although he has written several how-to books, his new work is different. Part memoir, part philosophical exploration, part apologia for the soul-satisfying virtues of craft, it traces Korn's evolution as carpenter, furniture-maker, teacher, and school administrator, while arguing the case for the good life that's possible through creative endeavor. It's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for those who work in wood, though its principles apply to all creative undertakings.

"It would be difficult to overemphasize the degree to which the materiality of craft in particular, and creative work in general, are effective sources of fulfillment, meaning, and identity," Korn writes. "We think with materials and objects at least as much as we think with words, perhaps far more. They are conduits through which we construct our selves and our world."

The popularity of Korn's school has convinced him that there's a fundamental human craving to create in tangible ways. We were designed to do more than labor over abstractions in a cubicle all day.

"People are hungry for a sense of fulfillment and meaning that they aren't finding through money, fame, consumption, and leisure," Korn said when we spoke by phone. "I see that hunger all the time; that's what brings students to Maine. They believe that by learning to make physical things with their own hands, they're going to bring more meaning and fulfillment to their lives."

Korn draws an interesting distinction between satisfaction and fulfillment. Satisfaction is the pleasing feeling of accomplishment one experiences after completing a project. But like happiness, it tends to be fleeting.

"Fulfillment comes through having an idea and doing the hard work of bringing that idea into the world in a way that matters. It occurs not when we're done making what we're making. It's being in the trenches, in the mud and muck, struggling with it. If you come into my shop when I'm in the middle of a project and ask me if I'm happy, the question wouldn't compute. It's irrelevant, because I'm so fully engaged with what I'm doing."

Korn believes the yearning for the materiality of craft is more pronounced today.

"As daily life becomes more virtual, we're losing touch with an essential part of our humanity, the part that relates to the physical world and has the ability to transform it," Korn said. "It's that tactile, creative side of ourselves, and it can take place in the kitchen, the garage, or an artist's studio. It doesn't have to take place in a woodworking shop."

Craft is a holistic endeavor that involves the heart, head, and hand and implies the pursuit of perfection or, failing that, quality. Korn once described his goal as a furniture-maker as making things that display simplicity, integrity, and grace. He now realizes that by learning a craft, he cultivated those very qualities in himself.

"When you create, you give the world something that hasn't existed before," Korn said. "In the process, you are going to be changed. By transforming the materials at hand, you transform yourself as well and discover more about who you are and who you can be."

Peter Korn will talk about his book at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Van Pelt Auditorium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The event is free. No museum admission is necessary. But to visit other parts of the museum that day, you are asked to "pay what you wish." www.philamuseum.org

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact

Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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