Professor Lin Tong-Yang - Fate to Fruition (Part 1)


2009-12-14
In an age and society abuzz with pragmatism and superficiality, woodworking in the traditional sense seems to have suffered immensely. Most of what is seen in Taiwan consists of overly nailed cheap wood slapped over with veneer. To meet a man whose life has been dedicated to forestry and traditional woodworking is a rare opportunity indeed, yet wfd had the honor to visit such a man, Professor Lin Tong-yang. He welcomed us to his home, to his showroom, and to his center for the study of traditional woodworking called the HDG Foundation, which is located down the hill from the infamous HDG Bibliotheca. The day literally flew by as we marveled at Lin's collection of literature and classical furniture. This is the first of a two part article which will be continued in the next issue of wfd. Predestined for Wood ************************** When Professor Lin completed his 24 year career lecturing on furniture design at the National Taipei University of Technology, he endeavored to share his passion for wood with society on a larger scale. On December 12, 2004 he established the HDG Bibliotheca where more than 1000 volumes of literary treasures are available for free to anyone who wants to study them. Soon after came the establishment of the HDG learning center where students of fine woodworking explore hands-on, an art that Lin has spent his humble life resurrecting. The location of HDG is actually the very same tiny tea farming village of Jiabao where he was born, where most children are lucky to finish basic education before heading back to the farms. "My birth has pre-determined my profession," he said. After he graduated from the Department of Forestry at National Chung Hsing University, government grants afforded him the chance to go abroad and study furniture manufacturing and management at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh, known as the “world capital of carpentry and furniture”. Later he returned to earn his doctoral degree. Wood is his passion, his past, and his fate. "I felt that I was very lucky and blessed. If it were not taxpayers' money, a son of tea farmer could never have had the opportunity to go abroad to study and have come this far," he said, adding "I feel that I always owe the people of Taiwan something, and I want to pay them back." After a life long journey of study and service, coming full circle back to Jiabao with the establishment of HDG exemplifies how Professor Lin's destiny with wood was predetermined. The Showroom ***************** Our focus this month however, is Professor Lin's showroom which, can also be equated to a museum of fine furniture. Lin is the first collector in Taiwan to amass a showroom of Danish PP Mobler furniture, and eventually the makers asked him if he would become their agent in Taiwan. All chairs are classics, reproduced with CNC technology to a point, but the remaining craftsmanship is always done by hand which "requires very high skill levels", says Lin. Only 200 pieces of each are produced per year, maximum. The contour of each edge is painstakingly shaved to the most ergonomic and aesthetic degree, with extremely subtle frills, if any at all. Many chairs incorporate seating with leather, paper chord, rope and rattan. On most pieces the thru tenons don't have slotted in wedges, which are meant to expand the end grain within the mortise, because craftsmen who use this method, he comments, "lack a degree of precision." We spent hours in the show room, just marveling at the details. Each time one examines a piece, there's always a new surprise one hadn't picked up on before. First Professor Lin brought our attention to "The Chair", designed in 1949 by Hans Wegner, which was sat on by Nixon and Kennedy during their TV debate in 1950. One cabinet maker in Wegner's workshop worked there over 50 years before he retired in 2004, and received a medal from the Queen or Denmark for his outstanding woodwork. The Ming style chair was also designed in 1943 by Wegner, again in 45 and 89. Lin indicated that Danish chair design was heavily influenced by China. Next was the Spanish Chair with a beautifully worked leather seat designed in 1958, which incorporates precision spline joints. Particularly impressive is the Peacock Chair, the only piece in the showroom incorporating wedges in the through tenons where they meet the seat, to ensure rigidity over decades of use. Just to give an idea of what these pieces cost, the Peacock chair goes for 820,000 Yen or, around $10,000 US dollars each. That's with no finish. Including the finish add nearly 10 percent to the price. Also, there is The Valet Chair, designed for bachelors. The back consists of five pieces of wood shaped to hang a suit jacket on and it includes an inconspicuous compartment under the seat for personal items. A Bar Bench of slat construction proved to be very comfortable. Hanging on the wall were chairs which double as art pieces used by the Shakers from England... They would fold up the chairs when not in use and hang them on walls, which is quite common in Pennsylvania. One chair we mistakenly thought to be designed for obese people is in fact built for Zen meditation. Another chair shaped like the letter U was comprised of fine hardwood laminates. One stands it on one end and sits. The chair flexes dramatically and self adjusts according to the user's weight. It stows away nicely when not in use. Beyond the chairs we saw table tops laminated with multiple planks with joints that are invisible to even the trained eye. One dressing table set of Toog and Mahogany comprises matching curves in the stool, table and mirror frame. There is a Rosewood credenza with a downward curve relieved surface that must be 3 inches thick of solid wood. It has butt joined doors with dovetail slats which reinforce the joints while allowing the wood to grow and contract with the seasons without losing their flatness. Between the doors lies a round faces cylindrical drawer on wooden slides that opens perfectly smooth and closes exactly center with even gaps surrounding it. He asked us how we estimated it to be and we guessed 60 kg. Wrong. You would need a bodybuilder to move it, but he wouldn't be able to bench press the piece. Stunning. On our way out we noticed another chair which has an under structure made of a single length of wood 1.6 meters long. It is called "The Slow Chair", designed in the 1940's,50's and again in 2000, and is famous for its comfort. Very elegant. We asked how they achieved such dramatic and precise bends. Steam? Compression? Vacuum? Heat? Laminations? Amonia or alkali? Internal microwave treatment? ... No to all of these commonly used methods. The method used he said is called "cold bending" where basically, water and form jigs are used to bend only very high quality wood with no shake in the grain. Cold bending is typically used for gentle curves of chair backs or with thin laminated strips clamped into a form. How these craftsmen used cold bending on a 1 1/2" diameter pole to achieve a series of tight radii still remains a mystery. Environmental Finishing *************************** Highly environmentally conscious, Professor Lin is also a man of high education and practical taste. He says, "Why not put in the extra time and money to build something that will last centuries? Trees take centuries to grow, so what is made of them should last the same time. In the long run it is worth it, and it is much better for the environment." His reasoning even stretches over to the finish of choice employed by his students... Soap". Although lacquer and oil finishing is common, the end result is a barrier between the wood and the rest of the world. The Scandinavians are big aficionados of "soap finishing". The effect is a non-sheen, slightly rough matte finish to the touch. Surprisingly simple, they take natural soap flakes and warm water to make a waxy substance to seal the wood. Once applied and dry to the touch, a final fine sanding is all it takes to complete the process. No wax is needed. The result really brings out the natural texture and beauty of the grain, instead of forever sealing it away from human existence. Many say that the wood feels and looks exactly as it did before the treatment. "You can even use laundry detergent," he says, "and no chemicals are released into the atmosphere." Humbled by Humility ************************ A visit to Professor Lin Tong-yang's showroom of PP Mobler furniture was a humbling experience for wfd. For most skilled woodworkers we think it would be as well. The art of working wood involves so many realms of expertise to master, and the more one does this, the more one discovers all the more there is to learn. Inspired greatly by renowned craftsmen from the west, Sam Maloof, Hans Wegner and James Krenov are a few examples of the masters Lin adores. Like the German silviculturist Heinrich Cotta, Lin considers himself to be a son of the forest. In reference to the pragmatism and superficiality rampant in today's society he says, "I have a dream that one day, my compatriots shall not parade their material wealth as a symbol of social status but, rather, they will show their taste through the kind of furniture they possess." It was Professor Lin's fate to fall in love with wood, and his lifetime of dedication has brought his dream to fruition.
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