A 1991 Visit with Tage Frid

by Jack Warner

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. - The morning breeze has a pleasant bite and the maples are wearing their brilliant fall coats in this land of long history and low stone fences. In a neat two-story house near Ten Rod Road, America's most influential woodworker is enjoying the autumn of life - although if it were not for his vast store of rich memories and a tendency to work only five or six hours a day, Tage Frid would seem in the midst of eternal springtime.

The retired professor emeritus of furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design, teacher of many prominent woodworkers around the country and author of the best, and best-selling, books on woodworking, is 75 this year [1991].

When Casey Stengel was 75, a reporter asked him how it felt to be manager of the Mets. "Most people my age are dead," observed that great man. Tage Frid, the Casey Stengel of furniture design, marked his 75th year with a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. "I promised not to make any pornography," he says.

What he will do is what he has always done, pursue the ideas that come to him as naturally as breathing and pass them on to the world. Tage Frid is a born teacher; he was called to it as surely as a preacher to the pulpit and he will never quit.

I may as well admit before we go any further that I love this man and his invincibly elegant wife, Emma. As far as I can see. Emma has no faults at all. The worst I've seen in Tage is a penchant for embarrassing Emma occasionally with a salty story and a steadfast refusal to suffer fools, especially arrogant ones; the latter has gotten him into trouble occasionally.

Tage - it's pronounced Tay, as in hay - was born in Copenhagen. "I was not what you call an outstanding student," he recalls. His father was a silversmith and ran a candy store. By the time he was 13, his parents suggested he enter into an apprenticeship with a cabinetmaker. Tage - who recalls no mystic childhood compulsion to work wood - agreed, for want of anything better to do.

The first couple of years of the five-year apprenticeship were loathsome, he recalls - 10-hour days, six days a week, with night school added to that. But gradually it became more congenial, and when the apprenticeship was finished, he had a thorough understanding of wood as a material and the methods of making furniture.

"I didn't learn much about designing, though," so after years of woodworking jobs here and there in Denmark he worked his way through the Vedins School and the School of Interior Design in Copenhagen, graduating in 1944 shortly after the Nazi occupation ended.

He decided to move to Iceland, and at his going away party in Copenhagen he met Emma Jacobsen, one of 13 children of a Jutland farmer; they were married not long after he moved.


The couple had not been long in Iceland, Tage recalls, when Aileen Webb, founder of the American Crafts Council, invited his silversmith friend Jack Prip to come to the United States and teach at the new School for American Craftsmen at Alfred, N.Y. She told Prip she'd also like to invite a woodworker, and asked him to recommend one. He recommended Tage, and they arrived in this country in 1948.

Tage's favorite story concerns his cool reception at Alfred, his dismay at the ineptness rampant in the woodworking department, and his growing realization that when his contract was over, all he was going to get was a ticket back to Denmark.

"I decided I might as well make some money, so one morning before the students went to class I asked a couple of them to help me get a mahogany plank out of the stock room. While they were in class that morning, I built a little table. When they came back to the shop, they looked at the table and said 'Is that the mahogany we helped you with this morning? You did that in one morning?' After that I got some respect."

Tage moved with the school when it was shifted to the Rochester Institute of Technology, and in 1962 he went to the Rhode Island School of Design to head its department of woodworking and furniture design until his retirement five years ago.

His contribution to woodworking in America over 47 years of teaching is incalculable. His own students are everywhere, in studios and teaching in universities; his books have sold a quarter of a million copies and have been translated into German. In his definitive book Contemporary American Woodworkers, Michael A. Stone wrote that "Without a doubt, Frid represents the single greatest influence on American woodworking education today."

A Look Around the Frid Home

Tage's home is a museum of his own making. The modern, cedar-sided house where the great woodworker and his wife, Emma, live sits well back from the street, secluded by tall stands of trees from their neighbors.

Inside, there are five pieces of furniture Tage didn't make: two sofas, an antique desk, an antique crib, and a round, lathe-turned stool a student made. Everything else came from the shop of the great Dane - even the kitchen cabinets and the bathroom medicine cabinets.

Walking through the house, a visitor has constant shocks of recognition. Most of these pieces appeared in the final book of Tage's trilogy - Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking: Book 3: Furnituremaking.* Some were also featured in the pages of Fine Woodworking magazine; many have appeared in other books and versions of some are in museums.

In the living room is the famous jointless rocking chair; aluminum sandwiched between walnut and bolted together, with a seat and back of nylon parachute cord. It is remarkably comfortable.

Behind the rocking chair is the wonderful, catlike grandmother clock, all swooping
concavities except for the door, which is worked into a demure pot belly. Tage always claims he was the model for that.

There's the ebonized black coffee table into which are laid free-form stoneware tiles by the Frids' friend, the late ceramist Frans Wildenhain.

In the dining room is the great walnut trestle table, surrounded by the final version of the dining chairs first made for the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and later refined for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

On one wall is perhaps Tage's greatest design - the ineffably elegant pedestal sideboard. More than any other piece I know, it displays the thematic echoes at the heart of his design theory. The triangular shape of the pedestal is reflected in the triangle of the case, and repeated like fading notes of music in the raised segments of every surface, and in the dovetails that bind them.

On the other side of the room is the free-form coffee table with the cracks filled with rose metal. In a corner is the oval, tambour-doored liquor cabinet. In the breakfast area off the kitchen sits the walnut-veneered, round pull-out pedestal table. Around it are a set of chairs which sit on four turned legs arranged in a square, with the swooping, laminated piece that is the back and arms skewed so that there are two legs on either side, one leg in the front and one in the back. The upholstered seat is neither square nor round, but the extended oval of a guinea egg. You can sit sideways in one of these chairs with firm back support, or slouch down in it until you're almost horizontal without running out of seat.

"I made 12 backs for it before I got it right," Tage said. Typically, after he had the design worked out to his satisfaction, he made these four chairs and then moved on to new problems.

In the living room is the imposing mahogany cabinet on a stand and the lamptable featured in a recent Fine Woodworking issue. In upstairs guest rooms one can find one of the reversible beds - they can be stacked to make bunk beds - and drawing
table desks designed for dormitories at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a chest of drawers made for a Fine Woodworking feature not yet printed. There is also the stand-up writing desk on which much of the Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking trilogy was written.

Throughout the house are examples in three sizes of what has become Tage's signature piece - the three-legged stool inspired by an afternoon sitting on a fence rail at a horse auction.

Probably the greatest disservice the world does to Tage is to consider him a woodworker; a cutter of great dovetails and sawyer of straight lines. That's like calling Leonardo da Vinci a hell of a draftsman.

Tage is a deeply innovative designer of furniture, passionately committed to instilling that innovation in others. The hundreds of young men and women who passed through his hands at the Rhode Island School of Design did not pay $20,000 a semester to learn how to cut good dovetails. They went into the world, the good ones did, with a fundamental grasp of how to design furniture that looks good, feels good and works properly - and minds trained to question, probe, and constantly wonder "what if..."

His Workshop

Tage Frid's workshop is a 10-minute drive from his house, past harvested fields a-honk with Canada geese on their way south and long, flat prairies of the turf farms.

It's a big room in a long, low building that houses two other wood shops, one of them very large and busy, an upholsterer, a machinist and a weaver. Outside the window by Tage's bench a small waterfall mutters.

He has some veneering projects in mind, and he's going to use some of his NEA grant to buy a vacuum press. Most of what he does here is still at the service of his greatest calling - teaching, through his articles in Fine Woodworking magazine. He does little work for sale.

A suggestion that there must surely be high-end furniture factories such as Knoll that would be delighted to pay handsomely for some of his designs is met with a shrug of indifference.

Tage has never, except in the hardest of times, pursued money. He and Emma live comfortably on his pension from the Rhode Island School of Design, his salary as contributing editor to Fine Woodworking and the royalties from his landmark Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking trilogy published by The Taunton Press.

After the success of these books, Tage proposed a fourth; it would have consisted of simple projects for part-time woodworkers, hobbyists, "people working in their basements."

But Tage says the editor of The Taunton Press's book division at that time turned it down because "it would lower me" to cater to hobbyists without elaborate equipment or top-notch skills. The fact is that Tage is anything but elitist; to him it's the results that count, not the method of achieving them, and the only thing that would demean him would be warmed-over projects without interest or good taste.

His byline has begun appearing more frequently in Fine Woodworking; he once again graced the cover of that august publication this summer and he's working on a series of relatively simple but tasty projects for the part-time hobbyist.

He and Emma live quietly. Tage was laid low a few years ago by Lyme disease, a terrible thing even for a young man. He has fought back from it remarkably well. Emma has a problem with one of her legs, but that doesn't even slow her down. This slender, indomitable woman gets around untiringly in public with no more than a cane and even manages without that in the house. She runs the house, and Tage's business affairs, with the vigor and grace of a woman half her age.

"Emma and I work together," Tage says. "She takes care of all the business, writing the letters, keeping the books. We're a team." He will not travel without her.

Tage, a gourmet cook in his own right, rises first each day and makes breakfast. Each evening - Emma usually cooks then - they eat by candlelight at the walnut trestle table in the dining room, or go to a favorite restaurant nearby, where the waiters know them by name and the same table is always ready for them.

Tage, an accomplished sailor, likes to drive over to the harbor at Wickford to watch the boats and the fishermen. He used to buy lobsters from one particular captain, but they worked out a deal the captain liked better - Tage usually brings a six-pack of beer to the dock now and trades it for the crustaceans.

Often they drive to Newport, 20 minutes away if it isn't rush hour, to visit their daughter Ann, her husband and their newest grandson. Ann is beginning to work at the lathe, much to Tage's delight.

Their son, Peter, his wife and two boys live in Alaska, where he runs a wide network of public television stations. Tage and Emma spend a considerable amount of each year traveling - to workshops and seminars Tage gives (they'll be in Atlanta for the eighth consecutive year in late March 1991), to Alaska, and to St. Croix, the once-Danish jewel of the West Indies, where they always spend Christmas.

Sitting on the deck behind his house, listening to the stream that runs behind it tumble over the rocks, Tage looks back on a remarkable life and says "I've been very lucky."

"Oh, sure, I'm good at what I do. But I was, so many times, in the right place at the right time."

He chuckles, sips his gin and tonic, and leans forward with that familiar, impish grin.

"You know how people say if they had their life to live over, they'd do this and that different," he says. "I'll tell you, I wouldn't do a damn thing different. I've had a wonderful life."


CLICK HERE to see the book/DVD set: Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking



This article first appeared in the winter 1991 issue of Highland's Wood News magazine.

Tage Frid, born on May 30, 1915 in Copenhagen, Denmark, passed away on May 6, 2004 in Newport, RI.


 
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