Arthur Espenet Carpenter was a self-taught woodworker who, through necessity and trial, created the West Coast style of sculptural furniture that has influenced so many craftsmen down the line.
Art started turning out wood bowls in San Francisco, on Mission Street, soon after World War II with his monthly G.I. Bill money, promising himself he would spend the rest of his life doing work he enjoyed. In 1957 he moved his wood shop to Bolinas, and then took about six years to build a home for his family. Photos of his handbuilt house above the Bolinas lagoon ran in the December 9, 1966 issue of LIFE (that’s his son Tripp in the photo by Fred Lyon on our Maker page) and in 1972 he was included in “Woodenworks,” the genre-defining show at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, along with George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, Wharton Esherick, and Wendell Castle.
The Smithsonian, managed to make it to the Espenet studio in time for an oral history interview in 2001, when Art revealed this nugget: “That’s the standard question: where do you get your design ideas? I don’t have the faintest idea where I get my design ideas. You get them from everywhere. You can get it from looking at old furniture, which I seldom do, because I don’t like it. And I skipped most of the centuries between us and the Egyptians. I’ll stick to the Egyptians, and the Greeks did pretty well, but hardly any furniture in between.” And we shall stick beside you, Art, preferably in a chair of your design.
Art passed on in 2006 and his son Tripp now runs the shop, turning out editions of his dad’s famous “Wishbone Chair” and other designs, and also running an apprentice program.
At Gravel & Gold, we are honored to have two pieces of incredible work from the Carpenters, both father and son. Papa Espenet made the 12 foot long oak bookshelf along our wall as a newspaper and magazine rack on commission from the Mill Valley Public Library. The shelves were originally two-sided, with slots where a newspaper could be hung from a pole. It was removed several years ago in the course of a renovation, and Tripp had it sitting out under a carport and slated for the sledgehammer when we came upon it and asked if we could give it fix it up and give it another life.
And then Tripp crafted the grand table that runs down the center of the shop. It features two slabs of black walnut atop a pedestal base of black locust. The design is based on one Espenet came up with years ago, but our favorite touch—somewhat of a woodworker’s pun—is Tripp’s alone. Each of the slabs features a different sort of butterfly joint—one is what you generally picture as butterfly joinery, rather in the shape of a bow tie, and the other is an inlay of a butterfly, as in the shape of the insect. We’ve been assured by Tripp that it is a table to use and scratch up and abuse, thick enough for a lifetime of sanding and refinishing, and we intend to take him for his word.