Book review: Joinery, Joists and Gender

Comments Comments


Joinery, Joists and Gender: A History of Woodworking for the 21st Century by Deirdre Visser is the first publication of its kind to survey the long and rich histories of women and gender non-conforming persons who work in wood.

Written for craft practitioners, design students, and readers interested in the intersections of gender and labor history—with 200 full-colour images, both historical and contemporary—this book provides an accessible and insightful entry into the histories, practices, and lived experiences of women and nonbinary makers in woodworking.

In the first half the author presents a woodworking history primarily in Europe and the United States that highlights the practical and philosophical issues that have marked women’s participation in the field. Research focuses on a diverse range of practitioners from Lady Yun to Adina White.

This is followed by sixteen in-depth profiles of contemporary woodworkers, all of whom identify fine woodworking as their principal vocation. Through studio visits, interviews, and photographs of space and process, the book uncovers the varied practices and contributions these diverse artisans make to the understanding of wood as a medium to engage spatial, material, aesthetic, and even existential challenges.


British women carpenters near front, 1917, Bain News. (Author's collection).

Beautifully illustrated profiles include Wendy Maruyama, one of the first women to earn an MFA in woodworking in the US; Sarah Marriage, founder of Baltimore’s A Workshop of Our Own, a woodshop and educational space specifically for women and gender non-conforming makers; Yuri Kobayashi, whose sublime work blurs boundaries between the worlds of art and craft, sculpture, and furniture; and Folayemi Wilson, whose work draws equally on African American history and Afrofuturism to explore and illuminate the ways that furniture and wood traditions shape social relations.

‘I love this book,' writes US woodworker and author Nancy Hiller who is also one of the book’s profiled makers. In her Instagram post she continues: ‘The historical review of women in woodworking is fascinating, including consideration of women picking up where men left off in wartime and a wonderful discussion of the role played by the D. I.Y. movement in drawing women in. Earlier sections of the history include lots of information gleaned from research by Suzanne Ellison at Lost Art Press, a wonderful tribute to Ellison herself and to the Lost Art Press blog for publishing it; really, this component gave me a whole new appreciation for both. The international dimension is also noteworthy, though the book is overwhelmingly grounded in North America.

‘My favorite aspect of the book is the intellectual perspective that Visser brings to the subject, which she treats with welcome nuance. Many pages of my copy are covered with appreciative notes. I greatly appreciate that Visser and her colleague in the project early on, Laura Mays, saw fit to include not just art- and studio-furniture makers, but builders of custom work who happily refer to their workspaces as shops, and builders of buildings (to a lesser extent). I find the book refreshingly free from top-down, supercilious attitude. Rather, its embrace of a diverse cross section of makers and making reflects beautifully on Visser herself. Kudos in particular to Visser and to the legendary Wendy Maruyama for including such gems as “With characteristically self-effacing humor, Maruyama opened our conversation stating, ‘I’m not a great woodworker.’ She is talking about technique: ‘Making a perfect joint doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s quite a struggle, actually. So I frustrate myself because you always measure yourself up with other woodworkers and think ‘Oh fuck.’ In fact, Maruyama is perfectly capable of exemplary technique.” If you really want to invite people into a field, this is one way to do it.
‘It takes a strong spine to admit to imperfection in this field, and this in its own right is a welcome bit of iconoclasm. Furniture is made to be used, not just admired. In most cases the perfection of joinery or the attention given to finishing the back of a dresser or the underside of a table has far more to do with the maker’s conceit or playing into widespread expectations of “quality” in the luxury furniture market (barf) than with actual durability or ability to serve the purpose for which a piece is made, which also has a bearing on who will be able to afford it. This, too, is for the underdog to point out, and women in this field have traditionally been underdogs.

‘I can’t imagine having to choose which makers to feature in such a project and am honestly baffled and gobsmacked to have found myself included. It’s a real honour. The diversity of featured makers is great. This is by no means a review, but it’s certainly an appreciation and a strong recommendation.’
Cover and images reproduced here with permission of the author.

Joinery, Joists and Gender: A History of Woodworking for the 21st Century
Author: Deirdre Visser
ISBN: 9780367363413
Published March 16, 2022
Publisher: Routledge

Paperback and E-Book editions
Pages: 368

A web search on the title will bring up several online booksellers.

comments powered by Disqus