Reinventing Work: Modernist Wood and Skilled Trade, 1940-1970


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


History of Art and Architecture


In the mid-twentieth-century United States, some modernist sculptors and designers embedded their practices in the professions of carpentry and furniture making. In small workshops, these makers cut, chiseled, gouged, assembled, sanded, and finished a myriad of abstract forms. Modernist woodworkers engaged cutting edge visual vocabularies in the making of functional objects. But when they participated in the established woodworking trades, they made themselves vulnerable to class distinctions that might have marked their works as merely manual had they not also been forward thinking in how they conceived their artisanry. This project investigates how modernist woodworkers navigated the intersections of avant-garde art, applied design, and skilled trade. By examining the careers of Mary Gregory, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, and J. B. Blunk through the lens of skilled trade, it demonstrates that by reframing the physical labor they performed, modernist woodworkers subverted class distinctions and reinvented work.