As Good as I Can

By Mark Luzio

Above, samples of Mark Luzio's craft: an elegant library (top) and a walnut secretary desk, 2007 (bottom)

The curious case of the client who was able to check every detail of my work

My town dump has a used book shed. I take a quick look after my weekly dump run. It is mostly an assortment of romance novels, self-help, and diet books. There are a few gems. I once found a large format book with excellent photographs and historical text about the canyon lands near the four corners of the American southwest. It was written by a geologist and published in 1962. He first hiked and camped in this area with his father in the 1930s. The acknowledgment page was a single sentence: “To my father who taught me not just to look but to see.” If I ever publish a book, I would add, “To my father who taught me to not just build, but build as good as I can.”

I learned my trade from reading books and working in various custom milling shops in New York City. In one shop, after about six months, I was given my first project to build all the way from drawings to the complete installation. It was a real test by the owner: could I be trusted to handle every detail of an entire paneled library room with mantel and crown molding? Shop work completed, we loaded the van and the next stop was on Fifth Avenue. In the elevator, my boss told me that the client was a writer of both novels and nonfiction. He was born in India and was blind from a childhood disease.

Before I had started work, we went over the drawings with Ved, our client, and spent about an hour checking all the details of the room. He wanted to know how I would deal with the usual problems of existing windows, doors and HVAC units. I was impressed by his questions and his clear knowledge of the interior trim and the details of the room.

The installation took about six days. Each morning Ved would be waiting with a coffee and we would spend about 30 minutes in conversation concerning the work completed on the previous day. I quickly realized that the previous evening Ved had used his fingers to touch every inch of my work. I began to really enjoy this morning coffee time. I listened with amazement to his visualization and understanding of how each detail would fit and look once the library was complete (Frank Lloyd Wright was known to emphasize to all his apprentices that you should be able to visualize all details of any de- sign in your mind’s eye before picking up the drafting pencil.) We made a few changes during the installation and Ved listened to my ideas for some details, agreeing with me that we should do miter returns in two places on the crown mold- ing and that my solution would “look” good.

Now looking back after forty years and countless projects, I realize that Ved was the one client who saw the most — including my mis- takes. I think of him sometimes when fixing some blunder in my shop, especially if it is the kind of flaw that I know the client will never “see.” 

JanVan Eyck, Man in a Red Turban – 1433

ALS I K KAN is a quote masterfully painted in Greek letters to fool the eye and appear to be carved and gilded into a frame by the 15th century Dutch painter Jan van Eyck. Over time, the painting has acquired the title “Portrait of a Man with a Red Turban.” It is thought to be a self portrait. The loose translation of the quote is “as I can.”

William Morris, the founder of the English Craftsman movement, saw the painting and wrote about it. He translated it into French: “Si Je Pius,” and it can be seen in the beautiful glass window tiles of his Red House. Gustav Stickley was an American furniture maker who began using it as his maker’s mark. Craftsman furniture is where I first saw the mark and re- searched its history. Some art historians believe that van Eyck may have faux-painted the words as a pun on his name, or an acknowledgment that any attempt at perfection will end: “ALS IK KAN.”

CODA: An idea is salvation by imagination — Frank Lloyd Wright

The studio or shop life is my church. After be- ginning my career in New York, I searched for years for a small abandoned church to repurpose as a shop. I found an 18th century tavern on a back road in a quiet corner of western Rhode Island and spent ten years restoring it. I discover- ed that Isaac Fisk, a master joiner from Newport, had purchased the rough tavern in 1780. Like me, he spent years expanding and finishing all the trim. It fell to me, “As I Can,” to restore or reproduce my version of his work.

As interesting a project as the tavern was, it didn’t provide the shop space that I craved. I finally bought a property just across the border into Connecticut and built a 2,000 square foot workspace with sixteen-foot ceilings and sky-lights. Sadly there’s no pulpit, but it does have a wood stove for heat and in which I can burn my mistakes.

I walk the sixty feet from my house with forty years of skills in my pocket, knowing that my machines, my many antique hand tools, and the current project will all be untouched since yesterday’s work concluded. I have my library of about one hundred books on the history of furniture design and architecture. I have my ideas. On a good day, I get to pick up a Spier’s rosewood infill panel plane made in Scotland almost two hundred years ago (I am the fourth owner) and finish a tapered table leg “as good as I can.”

In Henry David Thoreau’s late essay “Life Without Principle” (in Thoreau’s time the term ‘principle’ meant wealth or money) he says: “All great enterprises are self-supporting. The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam-planing mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes.”

A Spier’s Rosewood Infill Plane

Mark Luzio was born in Newark, Ohio. He moved to Brooklyn, New York after college and worked in custom furniture shops. In 1980 he started his own shop, Post Pattern. He moved to Rhode Island and continued to build custom millwork for New York City patrons. In 1990, he began a period restoration of an 18th-century Rhode Island house including building the period-correct furniture. Luzio currently lives and works in Brooklyn, Connecticut where he built a custom shop in 2000.

This article is an excerpt from Art in the Making: Essays by Artists About What They Do, published by The Fisher Press & The John Stevens Shop, 2022. This collection has been assembled by Christopher W. Benson — painter, author, and the director of The Fisher Press — and co-published with his brother Nicholas, who currently owns and runs the John Stevens Shop. 

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