Peter Korn is the founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. He is also a writer, a philosopher and, when he has the time, an enthusiastic sailor. The result is a man who engages his students on multiple levels. This blend of interests has sustained Korn through a career that has always been centered on furniture making.
Peter has a degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania, although he admits, “Being a history major has not had a strong influence on what has happened in my life”. Growing up in the 1960s, in a very liberal section of Philadelphia, he spent his young adult years rejecting the traditional lifestyle and careers a graduate of an Ivy League college might be expected to follow. “Wherever real life was, I was sure it wasn’t in college,” he recalled recently.
I first met him when he was one of my students at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. Peter credits the school with instilling him with the Quaker values of spiritual wellbeing and service to the community.
After college Korn got a job as a carpenter on Nantucket Island where he also built his first piece of furniture, a cradle. “It was like Paul on the road to Damascus,” he says, “it changed my life. There was nothing else I thought about for years but making furniture.”
Peter subsequently moved from Nantucket to Maryland to New York City to Wainscott, Long Island and then back to Philadelphia, all the while making furniture. We met by chance during his Long Island period and I discovered that, in addition to his passion for building fine furniture, he was also an avid small boat sailor. He currently owns a 1967 O’Day Outlaw fiberglass sloop, which is moored in Rockport.
Peter started teaching furniture design at Drexel University in Philadelphia where he worked from 1980 to 1986. He spent his summers running the woodworking program at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado. Over the years this morphed into a full-time job.
Korn found he enjoyed running the woodworking program and began to think of starting his own school, where the emphasis would be solely on making fine furniture. In the meantime he was growing in other ways. He published two books about woodworking and was writing a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune.
As Peter saw his peers gradually returning to more traditional lives, jobs, marriages and children, he realized he was ready to settle down. After several trips to Maine, he bought a farmhouse in Rockland. The Center for Furniture Craftmanship traces its origins to June 1993, when Peter began teaching classes in a shop behind the house. The following year he rented a larger space and the school began the first in a series of expansions.
Ten years ago, I was in sitting a barbershop in Rockland thumbing through a copy of Down East magazine when I came across an article about Peter Korn and the furniture school he had opened in Rockport. Naturally I was intrigued. When I got in touch with Peter, he invited my wife and me for a visit.
When we first saw the school in 2001, it consisted of a single building. This was followed by a capital-fund drive, which led to the construction of three new buildings. When we visited the school again in 2006, I was completely disoriented and drove past, not recognizing where we were since the school had expanded so much.
The school runs one-and two-week courses throughout the year. In addition, there are three 12-week courses, plus a nine-month comprehensive program for 15 students. As my wife and I walked around the campus, we were struck by the energy and sense of purpose in everyone we saw. Peter told us that normally about 400 students attend the school during the course of a year. In 2010, students came from 41 states and four foreign countries.
Recently, the school launched a $3.3 million endowment campaign to improve faculty compensation, fund scholarships and create a visiting-artists program. To date, they have raised over 2.4 million.
Now in its 19th year, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship has grown both physically and as a stimulating experience for its students. In response to a recent questionnaire, one student replied, “In retrospect, the twelve-week program was the best education I’ve ever received. For the first time ever, a classroom and instructor combined to help me see what it is that I actually want to do with my life.”
The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship publishes a semi-annual newsletter, which permits Peter to ruminate on a variety of topics. Not long ago, he wrote a column noting; “Six of the eleven furniture makers in our current show moved to this area as a result of their participation in our programs.” He went on to add, “The school is a catalyst and a resource for a community that is anchored in Rockport and extends around the world. The people of this community, in turn, contribute their time, talents and resources to advance the excellence of the school”.
In the last few years, Peter’s personal furniture-making and sailing have taken a back seat to his running of the school, although a paragraph in a soon to-be-published book illustrates that they remain important priorities.
One of my great pleasures in life is sailing on Penobscot Bay. Grasping a tiller transmits the action of the rudder directly to the hand, whereas a wheel is more indirect, being connected to the rudder via pulleys. The boat becomes a live thing in my hand. It is as if my senses extend throughout the boat—until water, wind, and sky are all there is. Skilled woodworking is like that. My consciousness comes to inhabit the tip of the knife and the tooth of the saw, so that I am not only in the world, but somehow of the world
Visit the school at www.woodschool.org
Harry Gratwick’s latest book Mainers in the Civil War was released this spring. For more information, visit www.harrygratwick.com.