Oct 14, 2013
07:00 AMArts & Entertainment
Litchfield Hills Furniture Designer, With Music Stand in MoMA's Collection, Channels the Sublime
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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.