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
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 .
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
Tage - it's pronounced
, 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
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
, Michael A. Stone wrote that "Without a doubt, Frid
represents the single greatest influence on American woodworking
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 -
Frid Teaches Woodworking: Book 3: Furnituremaking
.* Some were
also featured in the pages of
have appeared in other books and versions of some are in
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
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
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
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
"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
In the living room is the imposing mahogany cabinet
on a stand and the lamptable featured in a recent
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
feature not yet printed. There is also the stand-up
writing desk on which much of the
Tage Frid Teaches
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
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..."
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
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
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
and the royalties from his landmark
Tage Frid Teaches
trilogy published by The Taunton
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
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
; 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
CLICK HERE to purchase
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.