2020 / October
Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Phil Newell
Your house is your larger body. It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless. Does not your house dream? And dreaming, leave the city for a grove or hill-top?
—“On Houses,” from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
You can get an inkling of a person’s ideas about how a home should be by looking at the environment of their residence, and its decor and furnishings. A long handmade walnut table expresses a clean, simple aesthetic, as well as the meticulous workmanship of its creator. Taiwan’s handmade furniture industry was in decline, but since the founding 14 years ago of the HDG Non-Profit Experimental Woodworking School (HDG-NEWS), the school has trained a new generation of craftsmen and craftswomen. Their skills in art and design have led to unprecedented breakthroughs for Taiwan’s furniture industry.
Woodworking’s Shaolin Temple
Some HDG-NEWS students call their school a “Shaolin Temple of woodworking.” Each time they go to the campus in Linkou, they must first climb a hill by circuitous paths until they arrive at the entrance, where branches of dense foliage seem to blot out the sky. Then they push open the door to enter the huge classroom, where various furniture works by students are on display, revealing their imaginative ideas about homes. At this school the goal of instruction is to enable the students to enjoy the pleasure of woodworking and to actualize their ideas about life.
After his retirement, school founder Lin Tong Yang organized the nearly 1000 books on furniture that he had collected over the course of his life and in 2004 opened the “Furniture Bibliothēkē, HDG” at his old home in Linkou. Two years later, a group of friends interested in studying woodworking prompted him to found HDG-NEWS. After a period of reflection and exploring options, he ultimately converted the pigpens at the old house and set up the school there.
Lin took St. Joseph Technical Senior High School in Taitung as his model, hoping to establish a master‡apprentice system with solid hands-on training in woodworking. Under the guidance of their instructors, students would produce unique works of their own creation. This differs from woodworking classes in most schools, in which all the students must produce identical assigned objects.
“The culture at HDG-NEWS is not to compel students to do things, but to let them develop their interest through personal experience, and to learn through interactions with their peers.” Lin relates that the training at St. Joseph is very rigorous; for example, they spend three months on tool sharpening alone. But HDG-NEWS is not a professional training institute, so it has reduced the tool sharpening course to four weeks. Students first study other skills, and when their learning leads to greater interest, they will take the initiative in the second semester to refine their tool sharpening abilities.
Having crossed over from orthodox university teaching to an experimental school, Lin Tong Yang sighs: “In ordinary schools woodworking classes are barely up to the mark. There is no long-term solid hands-on training, which is why in the past the craftsmanship of Taiwan students was not too good.” To encourage students to come to HDG-NEWS, Lin set up a woodworking prize. Those whose works are selected can get a full or one-half reduction in tuition.
To give more people access to woodworking education, at the end of 2019 HDG-NEWS expanded its operations to a university campus. National Taipei University provided some 1800 square meters of land on its Sanxia campus and Lin raised NT$35 million to build the “Woodworking Complex, HDG.” Underlying Lin’s efforts are the hopes that Taiwanese woodworkers can find new opportunities beyond furniture repair and restoration, and that the furniture industry will learn to treat hard-to-come-by lumber with greater respect.
Wood craftsman with a design background
Chen Ifu, founder and director of Taichung-based Lo Lat Furniture and Objects, trained for two years at HDG-NEWS. Chen studied industrial design at university, and worked designing tech products after graduation. But in his heart he yearned to work with wood. One year, while traveling in Japan, he was deeply impressed by locally manufactured chairs, which were unrivaled in both appearance and comfort by anything made in Taiwan. As a result, after returning to Taiwan he sought out an organization where he could study woodworking.
Under the guidance of HDG-NEWS instructor Sen Pingfang, Chen gradually came to understand the structure of wooden furniture, and in everyday life he began to examine the tables, chairs, and kitchen cabinets around him. Once, at his grandmother’s house, he discovered a “peacock chair,” which was structurally sound but left something to be desired in terms of weight and shape. Later, encouraged by Lin Tong Yang, Chen set his hand to improving the peacock chair and created the “hirundo chair” (“swallow chair”).
In 2013 Chen, his girlfriend Hsu Chia Yu, and several designer friends exhibited home products they had designed themselves at the Taiwan Designers’ Week expo “Omen.” The encouragement they received from expo visitors gave them the confidence to found an original furniture brand in Taiwan. Coincidentally, at the end of that year a friend of Chen’s wanted to sell his woodworking studio, and with support from Hsu, Chen took it over. The following year he resigned from his job to devote himself completely to Lo Lat Furniture and Objects.
Currently Lo Lat takes customized orders, with customers choosing which types of wood and the dimensions they want within a given set of specifications. Consumers can also visit Lo Lat’s factory in Taichung on Saturday afternoons to observe the furniture-making process and see finished products. “When buyers meet producers, bought objects have a greater meaning.” Hsu Chia Yu believes that when customers see how Lo Lat slowly crafts their furniture in a hot environment, the individual piece of furniture will be endowed with memories and feelings. And when the workers at Lo Lat see the faces of customers, they will be able to imagine the family using this piece of furniture, and will feel a sense of purpose in what they are doing, rather than simply working away like robots.
Even Wu, founder of “even studio,” won first prize in the 2010 Taiwan Craft Competition with her own design for a “cookie stool.” People were immediately attracted to the work’s unique creativity. Asked where her inspiration came from, she replies with a bashful smile, “I love to eat!”
Wu hates using wood wastefully, and is in the habit of finding the material she needs at old lumber stores. One day, while planing off the surface of some old wood, she noticed that the shavings being scattered around were like cookie crumbs, which is where she got the idea for cookie stools. In making these, she deftly incorporates defects in the old wood into the finished product, so that holes in the wood are like bite marks on a cookie; the result is natural and lively.
“My works can mostly be divided into four categories: memories from childhood, environmental protection, 3D text, and pop culture.” Wu relates that when she was in graduate school at National Taipei University of Education, her discussions with professors clarified her creative direction, and her background in art has also diversified her wood creations. Besides structure, she also emphasizes the underlying creative concept.
Thinking back on her eight years of training at HDG-NEWS, she says, “You could never completely learn everything that place has to teach.” When she graduated from university, although she had some basic knowledge of woodworking, she was still a considerable distance from attaining the skill level required to reach the goal that she outlined in applying to graduate school: founding her own wood products brand. That is why she rode her scooter to Linkou to check out HDG-NEWS. When Lin Tong Yang saw this young woman who had come so far to seek out teachers and learn new skills, he immediately admitted her to the school, to study under instructor Lin Yanzhi. And Wu didn’t let her teacher down, continually making demands on herself and holding a solo exhibition of her creations every two years.
Wu has never ceased to learn, and she currently not only accepts orders to make wood objects, but also teaches at the Woodworking Complex. She starts by guiding students to learn about wood step by step, after which they use appropriate methods to shape it into objects. “I even got the students to form a study group to discuss relevant issues.” She agrees with Lin Tong Yang’s remark that a tree requires decades to grow to become useable wood, so people should have a sense of gratitude when dealing with these “aged lives.” This is why she always plants a sapling near her studio whenever she completes a work.
On both sides of the small path leading to HDG-NEWS there are luxuriant Formosan ash trees, and it is hard to imagine that early on they were withered and on the verge of dying. Lin says with a laugh, “The vitality of these trees has been like the reputation of HDG-NEWS.” After 15 years, a new generation is bringing the energy of youth to Taiwan’s furniture industry, blending in elements of art and design to forge a new way ahead. The younger generation continues to sow the seeds of change, in hopes that in the future they will make a difference in this land.