Rick Knopke: Through a Contemporary Lens

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Rick Knopke, Take Five AV Cabinet with wave patterned marquetry in two cuts of walnut and Carpathian elm.

Interview: Linda Nathan
Images: Robert Frith

Rick Knopke is an accomplished furniture designer maker whose work transposes the art of marquetry into a modern vernacular. Linda Nathan asked Rick about sustaining a career in woodworking, about mastering skills, and about applying new technology to traditional processes.

During your 45 years producing high end cabinetry and furniture you say you’ve had no press or media exposure to speak of, and in fact have never sought any. You’ve also stayed out of the network, so to speak. Why have you chosen to keep what some might say was a low profile?

During the first thirty or so years I was responding to the needs of the market, making stuff that people needed rather than wanted. I found work in what is now called an organic way – personal connection and referrals from previous clients – so the need for other types of exposure was not there. Self-promotion is a minefield, and with the work I have been doing lately, which would benefit from greater exposure, I have preferred to proceed without the help of the media. I not only like but need to work in a long interrupted stream; experience has shown me that that is the only way I can accomplish what I want to do. Building a profile requires time and effort, and I have not made that effort. This is largely because I am at the end of my working life, there is no tomorrow.


Fish Cabinet, shades of black and grey depict an underwater scene.

Furniture making is a notoriously difficult realm to make a decent living in. How did you manage to establish your clientele and create a sustainable career? What are your guiding principles in this regard?

I came to Western Australia in late 1979. Within two years I had joined forces with two other people, one a salesperson and the other an administrator, both of whom wanted to enter the industry I was already familiar with. Together we rapidly built a sound business, first in shopfitting and then shortly after in office fitting. The State economy at that time was very robust and there was, we found, an endless supply of low-hanging fruit.

This situation was an anomaly, if you weren’t here at the time you would find it hard to believe. Incredibly, these conditions were replicated during the mining boom a decade or so later, so I fell on my feet there. Currently, our local economy is less distorted, but I conduct and sustain business as I always have; the guiding principles include having a strong personal relationship with the client, having a flawless product and creating an interesting, positive experience around the transaction. This last point is value adding which requires little actual effort, but pays a large dividend. I learned early on that a smile, direct eye contact and a firm handshake go a long way.


Above: Detail of Lizard Sideboard in ebonised poplar, silky oak and silver ash

You started your career in the traditional manner as an apprentice but gave that away after a couple of weeks. Why was that and how did you then acquire skills and gain employment in the industry?

I dropped out of tertiary study, so I was already a lot older than the typical apprentice. I was also an independent type with well-formed ideas of what constituted a reasonable proposition. Without exaggeration, the man charged with training me knew nothing despite how well he had talked at my initial interview with him. The plan for me was not going to include anything meaningful.

I immediately quit and went to work for another local cabinetmaker who wanted reliable steady employees but could not offer an apprenticeship. I’d been fooling around in my garage for years as a kid and managed to learn all or most of what there was to learn within a year or so, since they were working at a fairly rudimentary level.

The proprietor wanted me to run his business, with six employees, while he went to England for a holiday, so I had his confidence. More to the point, his confidence gave me confidence, but I didn’t think I was ready to do as he asked I quit, got in my old beat-up car and drove to Melbourne, which was like going to another planet without leaving Earth. I’d never been there and knew no one; I was being entirely impulsive. It was the first of many cliffs I was to throw myself off. I applied for and got a job with an exhibition display firm, kept my eyes open and my mouth shut and learned fast. Six months later I went to work for a shopfitter specialising in upmarket retail and I was away. I was never asked for my qualifications nor judged by any measure other than performance on the job, and I made a point of fitting in socially as anyone would do.


Noone Cabinet (detail) in furmed eucalypt and stained beech

You mentioned that learning skills was ‘a process of self-examination’ and that ‘your commitment is tested at every turn’. Can you expand on that? What would you say were the most important things to observe when attempting to develop skills or achieve mastery?

When anyone is starting out they’re coming up against a lot of things all at the very same time. First, you’re learning how to work. I don’t mean the specifics of your craft, I mean you’re learning how to apply the energy and time you have in an ordered, disciplined way. You have to get this right, because you’re going to have to sustain your effort.

Second, you need motivation. While in Melbourne during the 70s and unsure of my next move, I encountered Paul J Meyer (google him) whose definition of motivation is ‘the progressive realisation of a worthwhile achievable goal’. This was a pivotal moment for me. I followed his methods, listed the pros and cons of my goals, and produced a refined list which formed a framework for me to work within. I have continued to add to and refine the list, and I have remained motivated.

Third, you have to be fearless in proceeding with your plan. Complacency is death; if you feel it coming on you need to find the deep end of a new area and throw yourself in. If you think you’ve arrived, you haven’t arrived. If you examine your needs and identify your weaknesses you’ll know what to do to rectify your shortcomings. The commitment thing? See above; if you get on top of those things, you’re committed, and getting on top of them will test you.


Malvina Cabinet, two cuts of walnut and Carpathian elm

You went out on your own in the 80s after moving from Melbourne to Perth. What was the scene like for a maker in those days?

When I arrived, the first independent furniture maker I encountered was Greg Collins, who has now been gone some time. He was doing some nice work, as was Michael Lanyon. A fairly robust local manufacturing scene was being gutted by the removal of tariffs on imports. That was decades ago.

The Australian scene has been revived by a new generation; I hope that collectively it survives long term, that the young men and women currently working in the field will have the opportunity to grow old doing what they love. I’m in a position to know that what was possible in the past is generally not possible now. The good news is that the converse is also true.


George Cabinet, walnut and Carpathian elm

When and why did your work take a new direction, most notably with the marquetry that now sets it apart?

By the early 1990s my relationship with my business partners was beginning to fail. I’d become financially secure, I had three thriving children and the impending need for at least another ten years of steady substantial income to see them through to independence. I started a new business with my wife as partner, and this vehicle has served us well.

After 15 years of further consolidation, I was ready to break out again. I travelled for a while and then spent a few months experimenting with veneer and learning about CNC programming and so on. During these few months, I had time to reflect on everything I’d done to date. I’d assimilated my experiences fully and realised that after thirty years of practice my head, hands and heart were well connected, that I had something I wanted to say, and that I wanted to say it with marquetry. As Arthur Seigneur, whose work I admire enormously would say, I wanted to look at a traditional medium through a contemporary lens.


Noone Cabinet in furmed eucalypt and stained beech

What do you say to people who challenge your use of CNC as being ‘inauthentic’?

Authentic means ‘of undisputed origin; genuine’. The work fits both descriptors. There is no way you would mistake what I’m doing for hand-cut, sand shaded marquetry, which can be lovely. What I am doing simply could not be done without CNC, period.

You’re obviously a perfectionist and pretty driven...?

Yes, I’m as driven as you can be, but I’m also very loose. I’ve worked on my mental practice all along, because you can’t get there being tight. You can only achieve your objectives by being loose and by being willing to lose it all, which you may. Everyone’s experience will be different. Ideals are just that, ideals. They are to be reached for, periodically pulled apart and re-examined in the light of current circumstance. I’ve never gone to the edge over some disappointment, although I know where the edge is.


Lowboy with marquetry in monochromatic tones

What do you mean by being loose?

Perhaps fluid would be a better word. You’ve got to simultaneously care and not care, to be right on top of detail and process without doing it with an obsessive attitude.

A concert violinist will have made millions of bow strokes before he or she makes the cut, each stroke ostensibly like the last but always with an incremental improvement in control, one stroke at a time. It is helpful to take a similar approach if you’re a maker. The endless sanding, the potentially dull repetitive steps, identify them as your bow strokes, your way up. Stay loose, enjoy it, it’s your life.

How do you feel other people regard your work?

Broadly, I don’t know. Several people whom I regard well have made positive comments on my Instagram posts. The people who buy the work clearly like it and Gallows Gallery, the West Australian gallery which represents me reports that the response from the public is positive. The sales are certainly there. Whether the arbiters of taste or informed critics regard it positively is something I’ve yet to hear.

Your marquetry designs show many influences, from prehistoric rock art through to pop art and Escher. How do you define your style and what is it you are trying to convey in your work?

I’m not sure there is a style there to define. I am myself a mid-century artefact; all the wonderful and not so wonderful stuff of the twentieth century has formed the bedrock of my life experience. I’m not a creature of the city; I was born and raised and came to early adulthood in the wilds of Far North Queensland, a truly amazing place whose influence has never left me. The natural world is something that I am very familiar and comfortable with. What I am trying to convey is the energy and vitality I feel as a result of a lifetime of shovelling lots of different types of grist into my own mill.

What would be the most valuable advice you could give other makers, both amateur and professional?

If it is not serving you or sustaining you, let it go.

Learn more about Rick Knopke at Instagram @rick_knopke 


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