Arthur Espenet Carpenter was born in New York City in 1920. He earned a B.A. in Economics and English from Dartmouth in 1942, then entered the Navy for four years, “giving me plenty of time to think of whether I wanted to end up in Wall Street or in my father’s business, or whatever.” After World War II he worked in the Oriental art importing business and decided he wanted to be “a part of the making, the production business. I wanted a physical job, some kind that would allow me to express myself creatively.” So, just to see if he could do it, he moved to San Francisco, bought a lathe and with no idea of becoming a craftsman—rather to make things, sell them, and be independent—he began making wooden bowls and other treen ware.
In a few years his bowls were being sold at select stores across the county and when his work was chosen for the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design Exhibits in 1950, Carpenter discovered the world of crafts and craftsmen. Continuing to produce wooden bowls he slowly taught himself the necessary skills and acquired machinery for making furniture—wooden forms with greater creative possibilities.
By the mid-50s Carpenter found himself with a thriving custom furniture buisness with six employees and no time to build any pieces himself. “I was becoming just what I was running away from … the business man, waiting on customers, doing the selling, and telling the employees what to do.”
To restore what he considered a lost balance, he moved his family to Bolinas, California where, after a lean first year, customers began coming to his rural location. Not knowing in the beginning that it would take eight years to finish, Carpenter decided to build a house. With an architect’s plan for a basic guide “so I’d know what beams would hold up what,” and with wood from an old barn on the hilltop property he slowly built a unique circular house near his shop.
Under the name “Espenet” he accepts church and library commissions but feels his shop is better scaled to special orders from individuals. Eleven months of the year he works with his three workmen producing furniture, saving the twelfth month for a rest period, a time to work out new designs. A half-dozen of these new designs may be put in his showroom for customers to see.
Much of his work is one-of-a-kind pieces. Some customers simply designate what they need and give him freedom to proceed as he likes, others ask for a sketch or model first. Many come to his showroom for the first time, to order perhaps a dining room table, return in a year for eight chairs to go with it, and later for other pieces, “so, in time I find that once I sell something to a customer, I’m selling to the same customer for the next five, six years.”
A primitive directiness and strength characterizes Carpenter’s furniture, and seeing no point in “making ivory balls within ivory balls,” he tries to find the most economic use of time and material.
“My whole thing has been utility. If it isn’t comfortable and if it doesn’t last and if it doesn’t function, it’s no good. Furniture to me is something the body touches.” He makes a direct appeal to the senses by providing smooth, rounded surfaces for the hand, comfort for the body, contrasting and richly grained woods for the eye, and by using unfinished Japanese oak in cabinets because of that wood’s pleasant odor, something for the nose.
With no thought of giving up his established furniture business, Arthur Carpenter is looking toward teaching as a way to develop another facet of his woodworking, noting with amusement that teaching is “usually the way, as a matter of fact, that most craftsmen subsidize themselves … so I’m sort of doing it backwards.” Because of his own early struggle to find a vocation he has strong opinions about education. Carpenter belives his life as a craftsman enables him to use every facet of skill and knowledge he possesses. To him, “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a good education and still be a carpenter or a bricklayer if you want … and be satisfied in that area. … The better education you have, I think, the better you can do it.”
Woodenworks: Furniture Objects by Five Contemporary Craftsmen. (St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Museum of Art with the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1972)
Arthur Espenet Carpenter was a self-taught furniture artist who believed that his pieces should be useful as well as beautiful. “There’s no need for us to make a chair that you can’t sit in,” he once said. Carpenter studied to become an accountant, but after seeing a show of modern design in New York, he moved to California, bought a lathe, and produced works that were quickly accepted into important exhibitions. He was a founder of the Baulines Craft Guild, which was established in 1972 to provide apprentices with opportunities to work with established craftspeople.