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Arthur Espenet Carpenter (American, 1920-2006)
Arthur Carpenter (January 20, 1920 - June 1, 2006), known professionally as Espenet, was an American furniture designer whose simple, elegant furniture influenced an entire generation of craftsmen and woodworkers. His pieces appear in the collection of the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. His most famous piece was the “wishbone” chair, which he replicated several hundred times throughout the course of his career. Because of their aesthetic and functional quality, these chairs have become rare and sought after commodities in the art and design world.
Arthur Carpenter was born in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to the forests of Oregon after his parents’ divorce early in his childhood. He eventually returned to the East Coast, attending college at Dartmouth as an economics major. It was during this time that Carpenter became inspired by pottery and architecture, specifically the bowls of James Prestini and the bridges of Robert Maillart.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he vowed to never work another job he didn’t love. He took the money he made from the GI Bill to start his own woodworking workshop near San Francisco. Carpenter never limited his inspiration, taking ideas from everywhere, especially the other crafts he saw at street fairs in San Francisco. His simple wood bowls became popular after the Museum of Modern Art displayed them during their Good Design Exhibit of 1950. It was good money, but it left Carpenter feeling artistically unfulfilled. “I was becoming just what I was running away from,” he said. “The businessman, waiting on customers, doing the selling, and telling the employees what to do."
Carpenter then moved to Bolinas, just outside of San Francisco, and downsized. After a few lean years, his business picked up again. During this time, using an architect’s plan as a simple guide and repurposed barn wood, he created a circular house for himself. It has since become an iconic landmark in Bolinas. This house is entirely representative of Carpenter’s aesthetic, a simple and utilitarian design that doesn’t sacrifice its aesthetic elegance.
During the sixties, Carpenter’s business boomed once again, with commissioned work for the Mill Valley Library and the Council Chamber of San Francisco occupying his time. It was during this period that he designed the “wishbone” chair, which would become his trademark piece. Made of thin, strong walnut, rounded and smoothed for maximum comfort and support, it was the culmination of a long design process.
Arthur Carpenter continued to make furniture through the rest of the 20th century. In 2001, he received The Furniture Society’s Award of Distinction. It was the perfect end to a career that proved art doesn’t need to be attention-grabbing or dramatic to be profound. The reason a Carpenter piece is so timeless today is because of its utility, thoughtfulness, and simple beauty.
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