Back in the 1960s and 1970s if you were a woodworker in Northern California, you would probably have know the name of J.B. Blunk. At the time, Blunk was crafting furniture and installations out of redwood, which were unprecedented in their size and degree of abstraction. At least ten of these are still in place. If you go to the Oakland Museum, for instance, you can’t miss his monumental work “The Planet” (1969), made entirely of one ring of redwood burl thirteen feet in diameter. Across the bay at Fort Mason, Greens Restaurant (1979) includes a three-ton curving redwood monolith which dominates a warehouse sized space.
It is hard to know where to place Blunk as a craftsman. Though he has achieved his primary success as a woodworker, he has also created an extensive body of work in clay, carved stone and cast bronze and has even made jewelry and weavings. Furthermore, he tends to blur the categories of furniture and non-functional sculpture as if they weren’t there. For Blunk, the issue of art status does not come up; he works without a conception of such a fixed category. His attitude towards such issues is reminiscent of the Japanese indifference towards distinction between art and craft.
There is no coincidence, as Blunk’s career really began in Japan. In 1949, he graduated from UCLA, where he had studied ceramics with Laura Andreson, and was almost immediately drafted into the Korean War. After two years of Army service, he managed to get himself discharged into Japan instead of returning to the United States. There he searched for the Japanese pottery he had seen while in Andreson’s classes. He was rewarded with a chance encounter at a mingei (folk craft) shop with Isamu Noguchi, the prominent sculptor. On hearing of his interests, Noguchi introduced him to the famed potter Rosanjin Kitaoji, who took on Blunk as an apprentice for several months. From there, he went on to work for eighteen months in the ceramic studio of another master, Toyo Kaneshige, in Bizen. By the time he returned to California in 1954, he was thoroughly steeped in the Japanese stoneware tradition.
Typically for Blunk, though, he struck out in new directions when he returned to America. After a few years as a potter, he moved to a small plot of private land inside a nature preserve near Inverness, California. There, he began the construction of his own house and earned a living as a carpenter. One of his major projects involved building the roof of a house for the Californian Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, whom Blunk had met through Noguchi. The project was a crucial turning point in Blunk’s carrier, as it introduced him to the appeal of working in wood. It also established a working relationship with Onslow Ford who became a lifelong friend and patron. In 1964, Blunk wanted to make him a gift, and settled on a chair. This further whetted Blunk’s taste for woodworking, this time in smaller scale and in more sculptural vein. Soon he was making furniture full-time for local clients.
From the beginning, Blunk’s approach to furniture making was relatively unconnected with established styles and techniques. Since he had no training in joinery and owned few tools, Blunk carved his furniture from oversized pieces of redwood and cypress with a chainsaw, finishing them with an angular grinder and chisel. His interest in texturing the wood, rather than polishing it to a high sheen, may have had it’s roots in the rough, complex stoneware surfaces typical of the Bizen ware Blunk made in Japan.
The rough, totemic quality of the early chairs, which would continue throughout his career, also stemmed from the Buddhist aesthetic of simple, improvisatory forms. By using the chainsaw, Blunk was able to retain the immediacy he had experienced when working in wet clay. By the late 1960′s, he developed this side of his craft, varying his use of the chainsaw so that he was able to achieve subtle texturing effects.
Japanese design was Blunk’s guide in his first major woodworking commission, a room of furniture made in 1965 for the Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin. The benches, chairs and low table he built seem to grow organically out of the walls and floor, rather then declaring themselves to be self-standing pieces. This self-effacing approach to furniture echoes the traditional homes Blunk had seen in Japan, where chairs and tables were similarly conceived as part of the architectural environment. The room is designed for living at the level of the floor, the exception being a large chair installed in one corner at Halprin’s request. The element of the ensemble attests to Blunk’s respect for the original shape of the tree. Its curving back derives directly from the exterior contour of the cypress trunk, while its fork-like legs evoke large branches or roots. Again, he left marks of the tools on the face of the wood as its chief decoration.
Through Halprin, Blunk obtained a commission for his first public work, a seating sculpture that was installed in a plaza at the University of Santa Cruz in 1968. Coincidentally, the site was flanked on one side by a building designed by the son of Wharton Esherick, the father of American studio furniture. Blunk’s contribution to the space contrasted sharply with the rather austere and minimalist plaza. The installation consisted of two pieces: a simple horizontal slab bench, and a massive sculptural seating area. Both of these elements were meant to be interactive. The bench was to function as a kind of public graffiti board, as students were invited to carve their own inscriptions and images into its top surface. The larger element was interactive in a different sense. It encouraged bodily contact by enfolding its sitters in a large, irregular cavity with myriad handholds and visual flourishes. The basic form was based on Incan stone carvings, which Blunk had seen on a recent trip to the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru.
The Santa Cruz project was a breakthrough work for Blunk, the first in a series of large-scale seating sculptures, which would become his trademark. He developed the idea in his next commission, arguably the most important of his career. The Oakland Museum contracted him to create a seating sculpture for the Natural History wing of the building. Blunk responded with a monumental work “The Planet” (1969), made from the base of a redwood tree that weighed two tons and measured thirteen feet in diameter.
Working with the help of Bruce Mitchell (now a prominent sculptor and wood turner), Blunk fashioned the piece in about two months. The finished product is an irregular, wildly textured circle, riddled with textural incident. The piece is unified by a rhythm of alternating jagged forms and restful, smooth shapes. The work has been called one of the most touched pieces of sculpture you could find, and indeed it still serves as a play space, bench and oversized toy for visitors to the museum.
With the Santa Cruz project and “The Planet”, Blunk not only crystallized his style; he was also acknowledged for his work. It was at this time that one of his monumental carved benches, “The Ark” (1969), was included in the seminal craft exhibition Objects:USA. As a part of the show, the bench toured twenty American and eight European cities from 1969 to 1972. A few years later, he would be in the 1976 California Design show organized by Eudorah Moore in Pasadena. Blunk’s public profile was at its zenith, perhaps because the wider trends in the craft world were beginning to favor his particular aesthetic. By the early 1970′s the use of the chainsaw in furniture was almost commonplace, as it was the main shaping tool used in the laminated stack technique originated by Wendell Castle. There were also prominent West Coast variants of stack-laminated furniture, particularly the work of San Diego’s Jack Hopkins and Santa Barbara’s Robin Stewart Metze, who visited Blunk and was inspired by his free-form carving. Blunk was certainly not aware of Castle or Hopkins, but organizers of Objects: USA and California Design may have seen his work as part of a shift in furniture towards large-scale abstract forms. Furniture makers were not alone in exploring the possibilities of installation, as fiber artists such as Californian Barbara Shawcroft and Canadian Ted Hallman were creating room installations at this time.
Despite these resonances with the larger crafts world, Blunk continued to work in isolation, further refining his technique and sense of composition. It was at this point that he began to experiment in earnest with joined furniture. Previously, his most successful foray into joinery had been an unfinished redwood bench and table made for wealthy collector Anna Bing Arnold in 1966. In retrospect, the bench seems remarkably ahead of its time, its bold, cartoon profiles would not be seen again until Gary Knox Bennett’s work in Oakland a decade later. The ideas of the Arnold bench were suspended while Blunk was absorbed in his sculptural projects of the late 1960′s. But he returned to joinery in 1970, picking up where he had left off. Though all of his work is premised on balanced asymmetry, one stool in this period stands out for its controlled dynamism. A single joint acts as a fulcrum for the deceptively simple composition, which plays harsh angles against rounded, organic lines. The stark profiles of the Arnold’s bench have been reduced in scale, so that they evoke the bold shapes of carved African seats.
In the late 1970′s, Blunk moved towards an increasingly nuanced sensitivity to the users body. A redwood chair, “Studio Chair” (1978) is a good example of his mature seating furniture. A central cavity forms an all encompassing womb or shell, perhaps echoing distantly a potter’s way of thinking. But by now Blunk had also learned to capitalize on the internal features of the wood itself. The material is treated with a thick, flowing plasticity, and the shifting colors of the grain are capped by the graphic punch of dark sapwood on the knob-like crest.
In his next pair of installations, “Magic Boat” and “Greens” (both 1979), Blunk demonstrated an even more acute sensitivity to the possibilities of physical interaction with his audience. “Magic Boat” was a commission for the California Orientation Center for the Blind, a site in which tactility was a particularly crucial issue. Blunk designed a cradle-like nine-foot square sitting area with a rhythmic series of round projections that beckon to the hand. “Greens” was an installation for the San Francisco vegetarian restaurant of the same name. It was a feat of engineering as well as a tour de force of woodcarving.
The vertical redwood monolith that anchors one end of the composition weighs three tons, its bottom end containing a mortised steel plate bolted to the joists that hold up the raised floor of the restaurant. The other components of the installation, an assortment of small, rounded tables and stools, were all cut from a single 22-foot diameter stump of redwood. Like his other major installations, “Magic Boat” and “Greens” encourage a feeling of community through their circular compositions and inviting shapes.
“Greens” announced a new direction for Blunk, one that became less preoccupied with furniture and more with purely formal, sculptural issues. Throughout the 1980′s, he created tall, assymetrical arches and expressive, twisting monoliths. “Mage” (1983) is typical of this period; the transformation of the material is minimal, so that the memory of the living tree remains intact in the finished piece. Most recently Blunk has been exploring the new possibilities of stone carving. In some of his most successful pieces, he combines wood and stone, playing with differences between the materials. In a recent untitled sculpture, a massive stone form balances horizontally on a wooden support. Apart from the magical floating quality of the composition, the work’s power derives from the visual rhyme between the echoing shapes of the cool, hard basalt and the warm, softly textured redwood.
Throughout his career, Blunk has been unusually integrated with his surroundings, and in many ways, his own home may be his masterpiece. Perched atop a ridge near the small town of Inverness, the house is like the man himself: rough, but with innumerable touches of sensitivity; modest in its scale, but astonishing in its depth; and detached from the hustle and bustle of modern life, but bristling with energy nonetheless. He has stayed true to an aesthetic and a value system that has little to do with the current craft world. Blunk’s work is powerful in its freedom, simplicity, and lack of preconception about what furniture should be.
Glenn Adamson, reprinted from Woodwork Magazine, October 1999
Biography from the J.B. Blunk website.