The following are notes and thoughts penned to celebrate 2020/2021 Award of Distinction recipient, Kristina Madsen.
2020 Award of Distinction Committee letter to The Furniture Society Board of Directors
January 5, 2020
Dear Furniture Society Board,
It has been a joy and an honor to have served on this year’s jury for the Furniture Society’s Award of Distinction. We had many deserving candidates for the award who we feel have made significant contributions to the field in different ways. Throughout our deliberation process, we reflected on how our selection may “strengthen the fabric of the Furniture Society community” overall, considering how our selection adds value to the award program by diversifying the present roster of award recipients while also recognizing an invaluable member of the Furniture Society.
We have selected Kristina Madsen as our top choice. Kristina is truly an exceptional furniture maker who has made a significant impact on the field through her unique way of combining classic European cabinet-making techniques with traditional Fijian carving to produce furniture that truly embodies her own style. She first studied under English furniture maker David Powell in Massachusetts and later in the 1980s, she began incorporating Fijian carving techniques that she learned from Fiji carver Makiti Koto, during a Fulbright-sponsored apprenticeship. Over the years, she has demonstrated a remarkable dedication to her craft by forging her own path through her independent practice. Her work can be found in many public and private collections and she has influenced other makers. After caring for her mother for many years, she has now gone back to her woodworking practice full-time.
This year, she received three nominations – She is noted by her nominators for her fine craftsmanship and “meticulous sense of detail.” One of her nominators noted that she often devotes half a year or more to a single work, taking great care of every detail of her designs.
Her piece included in the recent Making a Seat at the Table: Women Transform Woodworking, curated by Laura Mays and Deirdre Visser is truly exceptional and stand out piece within the exhibition. We feel it is important to recognize a female maker in the field whose unique aesthetic demonstrates how one can take two very traditional techniques, that arguably are hard to master, and still make something that is very much recognized by her peers as unmatched and very much her own. In his nomination letter, Tom Loeser calls her a “national treasure,” which we certainly agree!
- Andy Buck, Kathryn Hall, and Craig Nutt
I met Kristina Madsen in the summer of 1994. I had just graduated with my MFA from RISD in Furniture Design and I was about to start my residency at Anderson Ranch Art Center. Kristina’s class was only 5 days long but impacted my work for the rest of my career. The technique she learned and adopted in Fiji resonated with my aesthetic. I had been trained as an illustrator and the possibility to “draw” with intaglio carving presented a look that was different from the pack. I took this technique and ran with it. I’m not sure what my 20 year career making furniture would have looked like had it not been for Kristina. I am forever grateful for her kindness, guidance and expertise
Beth McLaughlin / The Fuller Museum
Kristina Madsen’s masterful Window Seat holds a special place in my heart. Not only does Kristina hail from Western Massachusetts (like me!), but the work represents an important part of Fuller Craft Museum’s history. It was commissioned in 1984 with funds provided by the New Works Grant from the Massachusetts Council on Arts and Humanities, a program that ultimately led to the museum’s decision to change its mission to contemporary craft. Ever since, Window Seat has been one of the most treasured objects in our collection.
Its inclusion in the 2020 exhibition From Where I Sit: Permanent Collection Seating renewed my deep admiration for Kristina and her practice. Her exquisite attention to detail, masterful carving, and veneration of decorative arts traditions are just a few reasons why The Furniture Society’s Award of Distinction is so well deserved. Congratulations, Kristina!
Tom Loeser, 2019 Award of Distinction recipient
A long time ago (early 1980’s?) on a trip with some other woodworkers to the East Hampton Mass. area to visit woodshops, I saw a project in process on Kristina’s bench before I ever met Kristina. There was something very distinctive about the parts on her bench. This was before she had travelled to Fiji and her work at that point was very much in the European style of her training, but there was an order, directness and refinement to each of the various still dis-assembled parts that exuded a presence and calmness. As I’ve been lucky enough to see Kristina’s work evolve and expand over many decades, I still see those same qualities in all of her work.
An element that I admire in Kristina’s work is the meditative aspect of the repetitive actions that are a part of her carving process. It looks like a very appealing way to do woodworking, with elegant chips accumulating as she carves and a surface that grows more and more layered and complex until the pattern and the surface looks not so simple anymore. Each individual cutting action and mark seems logical and possible, but when the individual marks all come together, there is a coherence and an incredibly sophisticated design vision.
Kristina’s pieces possess an overwhelming and rewarding quality and creativity. Her work combines a very high level traditional English cabinetmaking education with her own interpretation of Fijian carving. There is simply nobody else in the world making anything like what comes out of Kristina’s studio.
She also keeps experimenting and broadening the scope of her investigation. The combination of hand carving with layers of marquetry patterns that she cuts through to expose the underneath layers is mind-bogglingly sophisticated and generates delicious and tactile surfaces.
I think Kristina has not received the recognition she deserves and is sometimes a bit “below the radar” because her working process is so intensive and she produces work at a measured pace and then it often goes straight to a collector. Also she is a quiet and modest person and not a self-promoter, choosing instead to let her work do the talking.
I have hosted her twice as a visiting artist, and when she gives her talk and pulls out her technical samples, students are somewhat speechless and can’t believe what they are seeing. It takes her careful explanations before they realize the full incredibleness of what they are looking at.
She has studied a traditional set of Fijian carving skills and learned it inside out and then taken it to new places and resolutions that are honorific of the source, but also insanely creative and original.
Tyra Hanson / Director/The Gallery at Somes Sound
Over the years, I admired Kristina Madsen and her many accomplishments as a carver and furniture maker; my official meeting of Kristina was in 2015 when The Gallery at Somes Sound hosted a show with Pritam & Eames, featuring a body of work by furniture makers influencing the studio furniture movement in the 1960’s.
Madsen’s piece created exclusively for the show, which continues to be available for viewing at The Gallery, is an exquisite swing leg table made of bubinga, ebony and gesso. The bubinga, with its incredible warm hues of caramel and dark chocolate colors, enhance the detailed carving around the edge of the table which is referred to as freehand intaglio carving, a technique Kristina learned from Fijian master carver Makiti Koto. This continuous carved design around the top edge of the table is enhanced with ebony inlay along with an application of gesso in the more delicate portions of the pattern. The swing legs at the base is a perfect example of Kristina’s engineering capabilities, with its ease of movement, swinging the legs out to support the leaves on both sides of the table. Both the legs and “gate” are also made of bubinga in keeping with the flow and continuity of design. This piece is a great example of Kristina’s love for designing and building furniture, reflecting graceful lines and elegant proportions, bringing surfaces to life with decorative pattern and texture.
My congratulations to Kristina Madsen for this Award of Distinction in 2020 – 2021 awarded by the Furniture Society. It is an honor to have met Kristina and to display the swing leg table at The Gallery at Somes Sound.
Pritam & Eames / Johnson
For the better part of three decades Kristina Madsen’s exhibitions at Pritam & Eames gave us one of the most rewarding working relationships and friendships of our gallery years. Hers was a journey from simple, clean forms to the awesome perfection and complexity of gem-like patterns she creates in her shallow relief carving. The journey began with the legacy of the craftsman’s way as taught by British master craftsman, David Powell (founder, Leeds Design Workshop, Easthampton, MA) with whom Kristina trained from 1975 to 1979. Powell, himself, was a student of the great 20th-century English pathfinder, Edward Barnsley. Part of the transfusion of this legacy continued when Powell bequeathed the hand tools he acquired from Barnsley to Kristina.
Kristina’s command of shallow relief carving came about when she spent a year in Fiji as a Fulbright grantee studying under Fijian master carver Makiti Koto in 1991 – 92. There, she assimilated the discipline of shallow relief carving, 1/16” to 1/32”-inch deep, and learned the Fijian language as well. Koto has said, “that when he goes, the Fijian government will come looking for Kristina.”
Underlying this individuating background is the strength of commitment to whatever is undertaken. A visit to her home in western Massachusetts takes you to her wood fired Chambers cook stove. As a center of warmth and home cooking, the delicious meals she makes are often based on produce, either fresh or preserved, harvested from her plots. Kristina’s manner is quiet, her resolve is her bedrock, and the work that emerges from her workshop takes its place in the continuum of great furniture.
It’s our pleasure to share these thoughts about Kristina with The Furniture Society community and to applaud FS’s recognition of her achievements with the 2020 – 2021 Award of Distinction, an honor she richly deserves.
- Bebe and Warren Johnson
I’ve been thinking more about why Kristina’s profile changed so much over the decades, and it’s almost like she’s being re-discovered. I think it is mostly the shifting position of Studio Furniture — many makers expressed a kind of sadness and disappointment at the realization that only the very wealthy could afford their labor, and have been seeking ways to make work more accessible to a wider swathe. Which often means makes things more quickly, to make them more cheaply. I think it’s possible that possibly we will see, or even are seeing in pandemic and home activities (bread baking etc), a separation of labor from cost, or, put another way, of the labor of craft having a non-monetary payback. Kristina’s work emanates an aura of deep concentration, skill, immersion, even obsessiveness that is evidence of flow, meditation, even escape from the world around. Time actually isn’t money, as it turns out: it’s all kinds of things.
I don’t think I will ever forget the day I got to spend with you at your home and studio out in Western Mass. From driving up the road amidst that perfect late January snow that had fallen the night before, to stew and oatmeal cookies in the warm embrace of your kitchen table, to talking about the history of — and your hopes for — your practice through the afternoon, it was a delicious and perfect day. There were so many pleasures, and perhaps my most profound take away relates to the integrity of your creative practice, the integral relationship between the life you’ve made and your work, and the poetic relationship between the laundry hanging on the line outside on a crisp January day, and the steady, demanding, beautifully rendered carving you do.
Thank you for sharing that time with me.
Kristina is such a deserving honoree for a Furniture Society award. Her work is exceptional and so is she. Kristina has always faced her projects with a steady independence, taking on both ambitious commissions and speculative works of a scale and complexity that would have thwarted many, but not Kristina. Throughout the many decades I have known her, her work has continued to develop aesthetically and technically to the point where I stand in awe when experiencing her pieces. And what’s also truly wonderful is her generous nature, her dedication and camaraderie, and her wonderful, lyrical laugh.
I extend my joyful congratulations.
Edward S. Cooke, Jr. / Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts / Director of Undergraduate Studies/Department of the History of Art / Yale University
Kristina Madsen’s transition from descendant of the Cotswold-based Gimson-Barnsley tradition to adoptee of the Moana Oceania-based carving tradition may at first seem odd and unexpected, but it makes total sense on several levels: skilled and creative use of hand tools, open-ended exploration of the foundations of one’s training, and commitment to the practice of quiet woodworking. The commonality has been present throughout the 35 years I have known Kristina. When she received a Fulbright to travel to Fiji to study with Makiti Koto in 1991, she wrote me a serious of insightful letters from Fiji in which she described how long she had to sit on her bum watching the men carve, how neither men nor women quite understood what she was doing, and how Makiti quietly welcomed her into his family, creating the space and opportunity to immerse herself in the local culture and learn the techniques and patterns of the Indigenous carving tradition. David Powell and Makiti, halfway around the globe from each other, both recognized Kristina’s commitment, patience, and understanding of the long term goals of woodworking. One senses this serenity in a visit to her studio, seeing the Powell tool chest and watching Kristina sit on the floor and deftly experiment with carving patterns. There is a peaceful simplicity that characterizes this rural pursuit, yet the work is strong and powerful. Kristina is not a self-promoter and has not taught scores of other makers, but her kind and generous spirit and intricate work has attracted the respect of all who have come into contact with her. It is so fitting that she receive the Furniture Society’s Award of Distinction for a lifetime of impact and inspiration.
Andy Buck / RIT / 2020 AoD Juror
Long before I was able to meet Kristina Madsen, I admired her work through images and show announcements. At first read, I absolutely loved the sense of proportion in her furniture and exquisite craftsmanship, always perfectly balanced and pleasing to the eye, created with precision and care. And then the carving….wow, amazing!
After admiring her work for years, I finally had a chance to meet Kristina and hear about the incredible journey she took to Fiji where she learned the carving which so beautifully adorns her work. To witness the labor intensive process of carving and the concentration and precision this takes, this is truly mind blowing. I have to say, it is a privilege to meet someone you admire very much, and find that behind the curtain is also a wonderful human being too. Beyond her talent, Kristina is a charming and intelligent person, who is humble, fun, and a dog sled enthusiast! Very cool.
Dear Kristina — It was an absolute pleasure to work with you on my jewelry cabinet. Every time I pass by, and especially every time I open one of the extraordinary doors, and then a drawer, which makes such a smooth and sleek contrast, I am forcefully reminded of the absolute beauty of craft. You took such extraordinary care with every single detail: the wood carving, of course, but also the fabrics lining the drawers, the thoughtful placement of the drawers, how gorgeously everything operates. Some drawers are taller. You had to have carefully considered what a cabinet needs to do and be. Such a perfect work of functional art came about because you imagined the beauty, considered the necessities, and always worked to fulfill your vision in the finest way, taking no shortcuts, all of which led you to create this splendid cabinet. I am always grateful. Thank you,
Kathryn Hall / Houston Center for Contemporary Craft / 2020 AoD Juror
Kristina’s surface patterns are a delight for the eye. I find myself getting lost in the meticulous and complex details of her carved surfaces. Inspired by botany and Oceanic wood carving amongst other influences, her designs build upon a rich history of pattern while maintaining a timeless relevance. It is an honor to recognize Kristina for her contributions to the field.
Wendy Maruyama / Past Chair of the AoD Committee
I am beyond thrilled that Kristina Madsen is receiving this honor – having known her for over 30 years now, and I will always remember our long conversations about life in relation to being women, and navigating one’s paths. Kristina is always the one in our tribe that set the highest bar for woodworking standards and brought a powerful level of femininity into studio furniture.
Craig Nutt / 2020 AoD Juror
I first encountered Kristina Madsen’s work in person in a national furniture invitational exhibition in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1985. I still remember the piece, a delicate, yet solid bench with ends resembling chair backs. The seat was grooved or beaded with inlaid with white wood lines that seemed to ripple. I asked to look under the bench, and the beautiful, workmanlike chamfering of each unseen edge left a lasting impression.
Kristina’s work has a quiet delicacy that I am tempted to ascribe to her gender, but I think that would be selling her short. Her work is defined by her strong, personal artistic vision – and by the formidable skills to make that vision seamless. I admire her work, her dedication to her vision, and congratulate her on this long-overdue honor.
Michael P. Moore / Michael Moore Fine Woodworking
This chair was in the 2007 show at the FS conference in Victoria B.C.
I was challenging myself to learn how to chip carve and immersed myself in this project. (30 days start to finish and 21 days of carving)
It was an homage to the chair Kristina made which is now in the Smithsonian. (it is not an exact copy given that I only had a couple of photos to work from)
I wanted to see how differently people reacted once they found out that the design was not original.