Oct 14, 2013
07:00 AM
Arts & Entertainment

Litchfield Hills Furniture Designer, With Music Stand in MoMA's Collection, Channels the Sublime

Litchfield Hills Furniture Designer, With Music Stand in MoMA's Collection, Channels the Sublime

Kathryn Boughton/Litchfield County Times

John Everett Scofield.


When asked how he responds to the question, “What do you do?” from a stranger, John Everett Scofield said he takes a simple approach: “Well, I’m a designer.”

If prompted, he’ll disclose that he’s a furniture designer and if further prodded he’ll describe his work as “kind of on the modern side—it’s on the weird modern side.”

“You kind of take it slow—you don’t dress it up but say enough to make the other person feel comfortable and maybe get more interested,” he said during a recent interview at the home in rural Sharon, Conn., he shares with his wife, Bartley Johnstone, owner of B. Johnstone clothing store in Kent, and their 4-year-old daughter, Everette, known as “Evie.” Mr. Scofield’s son, Jackson, attends college.

It might, therefore, be awhile before Mr. Scofield reveals that a music stand he created is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

The music stand is a piece he designed as a favor to a fellow student while attending Rochester Institute of Technology four decades ago, and it firmly positioned him in his career.

Mr. Scofield, a Connecticut native, grew up in Greenwich. He started learning about wood—how to choose it, prepare it, work it, and how to use the tools—from a Harvard-trained architect he knew in his teens, who also nudged him to go to college and pursue studies in fine craftsmanship. He ended up at RIT’s School for American Craftsmen. Afterward, under a Lewis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, he apprenticed for a year with Wendell Castle, a noted American furniture artist who is said to have established the art furniture movement, and then was a studio assistant for three years to Robert Motherwell, a member of the New York School of artists, which include Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Folding Music Stand, which is included in MoMA’s permanent design collection, predates Mr. Scofield’s tenure in their studios, however.

“It was not a class assignment and not even my idea to create something like that,” Mr. Scofield said.

As he recounted the experience, “When I was 21, at RIT, a young woman in the metals program asked if I would like to trade something. She said she needed a music stand to give as a gift to a relative and asked me what I wanted in return. I said I didn’t need anything, but I got some wood and started fooling around with some designs and then it got more intense. I interviewed people going to Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester about what they thought was the best height for violinists. I blew off a whole week of classes, just focusing on the design.

“I figured it would never work with four legs, too block like—but on three legs, it seemed more like a person, more anthropomorphic,” he continued. “But three straight legs didn’t work either at first. I had a library on steam bending, and that changed everything—two straight legs and one curved one.”

In exchange for the music stand, he received a belt buckle from his fellow student, and, intimating a good trade, he noted that her instructors included Hans Christiansen, a former goldsmith to the king of Denmark.

“I did one for her and made five extras for myself,” he said of the music stand, recalling that he sold a few and put the rest away, until 10 years later, in 1982, when he pulled one out to enter into the second annual Progressive Architecture International Conceptual Furniture Competition.

Folding Music Stand was unanimously chosen as the winner from the 755 entries from more than 20 countries in the competition, which was adjudicated by Emilio Ambasz, Kenneth Frampton, David Gebhard, Hans Hollein and Coy Howard.

According to the information the designer provided from a May 1982 issue of Progressive Architecture, Mr. Howard said, “I think this is just a superb piece. It’s very lean and elegant and lyrical,” and Mr. Frampton said, “I agree it is a terribly beautiful thing, terribly slender, very graceful. It has such a balletic quality to it with that curved leg.”

By 1986, the 3 lb., 14 oz. lacquered white oak and steel “Folding Music Stand (1971)” was included in MoMA’s permanent design collection, and oak remains the wood of choice for many of Mr. Scofield’s furniture pieces, including what he said is “the newest and coolest furniture piece I have ever made”—“Thalassia,” his sea grass-inspired coat rack, which was recently delivered to a client.


He described his process of creation on his website, noting that he likes  to make several designs, called “cartoons,” trying the acrylic paintings on paper first. A mock-up comes next, full-sized in the case of the coat rack.

For “Thalassia,” undulating “blades” of oak, rooted in a metal floor pan, form the coat rack and boot tray.

Though stationary, both the music stand and the coat rack convey a sense of lightness, and movement.

Mr. Scofield said he likes “to explore shape and mass.”

Mr. Scofield’s “Equestrian” bench, crafted from Honduran mahogany, is at the opposite end of the weight spectrum. The zoomorphic form has considerable heft yet in its coloration and finish it appears skin soft.

In his formal description of the piece, which he created in 1987 and which has been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Scofield noted that he had learned “a ‘stacking’ technique in which the grains are aligned from dozens of pre-cut mahogany boards” to create the bench, which he then carved, sanded and finished, after using black chalk to delineate some of the bench’s musculature.

Mr. Scofield acknowledged that it’s “serendipity” that a piece he designed as a student contributed so much in establishing his professional reputation.

“In some ways, designers are like idiot savants,” he said. “They don’t live in the present, but in some other world. When their things hit the sidewalk, that’s where they live.”

“I like to make things, and I’m always looking for a clue for something thing I could make,” he said.

Mr. Scoville said that about 70 of his music stands have been sold to date, and while the price today for one would be $5,000, he said he would like to see more of them in use.

“I’d like to sell it for $49, in plastic, so when they go out in the world it has a second life. It’s the rest of the world that gives it value,” he said.

Mr. Scofield is currently working on furniture designs he would like to see mass-market produced, including a chair. He said he was thinking about “two groups, indoor and outdoor—to be done in plastic, powder-coated steel and aluminum.”

Over the course of more than four decades dedicated to elegant and intelligent design, Mr. Scofield has amassed a portfolio of architectural design, both residential and commercial, and art work, including sculpture.

“I like the process of exploration,” he said, “and of solving problems. I like to figure out how to make something work, and do it beautifully.”

In the case of the coat rack, he solved problems through a number of trials; with large furniture pieces, he creates maquettes, or small-scale models, which have attracted collectors’ interest as well.

Making small-scale models is both time efficient and cost effective, he said. “And it’s fun to be able to hold the model in your hand,” he added.

Curve continues to be an important element in Mr. Scofield’s work, whether it’s the design of an outdoor wall or a table.

“When we see contemporary designers using biomophic curves, it is fashionable these days to say that the inspiration came surely from the modernist European sculptors Brancusi, Moore or Arp. Personally, I have always preferred British sculptor Barbara Hepworth in this department. She was often more bold with her shapes than the men. And certainly elegant,” he said on his website (http://johneverettscofield.blogspot.com). “And more confident,” he told this writer.

Not the curve but interplay of bands of color are being explored in a series of acrylic paintings Mr. Scofield has recently been creating. He said he is working with the new Miller Yezerski gallery in Boston (Ellen Miller and Howard Yezerski).

When it was mentioned that some seem to have a Navajo-like quality, Ms. Scofield shared that he spent some time on a Navajo reservation in the 1980s and the Navajo words “with beauty before me, behind me, below me, all around me” continue to resonate with him as he works in his quiet, light-filled workshop.

“I can’t get caught up in post-structural craziness,” he said. “We all need guidelines, so we can make our choices.”

Mr. Scofield said that he is guided, too, by the rigor that was applied to assessment of work during his student days.

“If you went to RIT then, they didn’t care how good something looked, but it had to be better than anything ever before,” he said. “If you had both, you had done something special.”

To find out more about the designer’s process and projects, including how he tackled the task of making a chicken coop, visit his website.

This story is from the autumn issue of Passport magazine, a publication of The Litchfield County Times.


Litchfield Hills Furniture Designer, With Music Stand in MoMA's Collection, Channels the Sublime

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