Today I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting the shop of Gary Weeks in Wimberly, TX. Gary has been making furniture for the majority of his life and has perfected the rocking chair like only a few others have.
I began the visit with a shop tour from his son Austin, who learned woodworking growing up in his father’s shop (and mentions in passing that he took a workshop long ago with the one and only Sam Maloof).
Austin is warm and forthcoming and has clearly spent a good deal of time thinking about the greater impact of what he is doing through this work. I asked Austin how Gary decided on a rocking chair, of all things, to be his number one production item. Chairs are hard, and chairs that move are even harder. Austin explained that they love that the chair has emotional value. A rocking chair is a piece of furniture that witnesses your life. You hold your babies in a rocking chair; you sit in that same chair when you’re older, reminiscing about times past; your children sit in that same chair when you’re gone. He also spoke of the way it interacts with the human form. It contains you. Austin pointed out that the rocking chair actually doesn’t have any moving parts. The only moving part is you.
This struck a chord with me. Part of my interest in making a rocking chair is exactly this, that it speaks to human agency. There is a relationship to it as an object that requires an acknowledgement of use as one uses it, and this knowledge of use actually shifts as you experience sitting. The shift occurs somewhere between the moment of deciding to rock, recognizing that it feels good, and the action becoming unconscious. One begins to move the thing without thinking about it overtly. How and when does this shift take place? Do we experience this same shift with other furniture and objects? Martin Heidegger speaks of the “conspicuousness” of a tool when it breaks, but doesn’t recognize the conspicuousness of the object when it functions just as it should, nor does he explain how an object might begin as conspicuous and shift to becoming inconspicuous all within just a few minutes.
When my tour was over and I had asked a thousand questions I sat on the stoop of the shop overlooking a thicket of cedar trees with Gary. He has a quiet ferocity about him that makes you focus on him when he’s speaking. Gary began as a builder and custom furniture maker before venturing into the small-batch production he does now. Before he designed his iconic rocking chair he had built just one set of dining chairs and a presider’s chair for a church. He began his journey by following an article in Fine Woodworking titled “How to Build a Chair” and made a horribly uncomfortable piece of furniture. At that point he built what he calls “The Fitting Booth,” an adjustable contraption in the shop they use to test and adjust the angles of the backrest, seat height, etc. He built his first set of fixtures, and the rest was history, more or less. Gary says he sees the process in his head, walks through it step by step. It took him seven years from perfecting the rocking chair to building a profitable business, and much of this time was spent refining his process in order to make the pieces as efficiently as possible, which he has managed to do with great success.
Some craftsmen keep their cards extremely close to their chests, and some value the free sharing of knowledge. Gary is one of the latter and I am a lucky beneficiary. Because he has this way of being open about his process, I asked him if he feels he is often in touch with other furniture makers and part of a dialogue. While he immediately said no and that he wishes he was better about it, Gary personally knew every local artisan I mentioned and spoke of mills he works with and the family he has built within his shop. This work creates a network greater and deeper than most often realize, and Gary Weeks is fully entangled in the profoundest of ways.