A modern-day gold miner with a passion for making things
Seattle — WHEN Emmett Day got the urge to build a flute a few years ago, the impulse took him halfway around the globe to one of the world's premier flutemakers in London. Later, an unlikely turn of events placed in his hands a chunk of rare cocuswood, the ideal material for wooden flutes and clarinets. By most standards, it was an extraordinary episode. For Mr. Day, however, such ``adventures'' are the stuff of life. He's a woodworker whose range of abilities includes fine metalwork, casting and forging, leatherwork -- most of which come into play at some point in his furniture -- bronzework, and other current projects.
As a young man fresh out of school, Emmett traveled to India and Southeast Asia to study the traditional workmanship of those countries. Later, he apprenticed with a master bookbinder to learn that nearly extinct skill. Still later, he spent a year in California's Sierra Nevadas working a gold mine. (Gold, incidentally, figures in many of his creations.)
Emmett Day, you see, has a passion for making things that nearly defies comprehension. His wife, Therese, recalls the first time she was really struck by her husband's proclivities. ``We were at a friend's house and he had seen a little spinning wheel there, a parlor wheel. He came home and started working on it. Sometime later he emerged from his workshop and there it was -- an extremely elaborate, working version of the same wheel.''
That ability to see an object and understand its dimensions and workings generates much of Emmett's current work. A striking cylinder desk, made from maple, rosewood, and ebony, with detail in brass, gold, and mother of pearl, follows the graceful lines of a piece of furniture from the chateau at Fontainebleau, near Paris. He took the classic proportions and added his own simplifying touches, as well as his preference in materials. The price, as you might expect, is steep -- $12,500.
This kind of extremely individualistic craftsmanship belongs to ``a tradition not found anymore,'' according to Marjory Aronson, a Seattle consultant who advises corporations interested in purchasing works of art. In her view, it harks back to the days when aristocrats commissioned sculptors, artists, and artisans. She describes Day's work as ``quite specialized, quite rarefied.''
Evert Sodergren, a fourth-generation woodworker in the Seattle area, has followed Day's career and admits he'd ``really like to have him on my side.'' But Day's particular bent -- using ``exotic materials'' to reproduce ``pieces renowned throughout history'' -- doesn't lend itself to the day-to-day demands of a furnituremaking shop, he readily concedes. ``We find it exciting when a customer comes along who says, `Hey, we don't care about the cost, let's do something outstanding,' '' says Mr. Sodergren, and ``that's what Emmett is doing all the time.''
But it's far from a coast toward wealth and fame. The Days recall some hard times. But now, ``I have plenty to do,'' says Emmett. Therese notes, however, that they wouldn't mind a little heavier backlog of commissions.
Meanwhile, the couple is quite accustomed to living in relative austerity. Emmett has his one black suit for formal occasions. Otherwise it's well-broken-in shirts and jeans for long days (and frequently nights) in the downstairs workshop. Such economizing also frees funds for forays in search of materials. Emmett is currently contemplating a jaunt to Brazil to buy his beloved rosewood at its source. With a resigned smile, Therese explains that she long ago grew used to returning from trips with extra suitcases stuffed with antique door knobs, veneer, and other treasures.
Their home is a reconditioned neighborhood grocery store in Seattle's Green Lake district. Upstairs are living quarters for the Days and their two children, teen-aged Seth and 4-year-old Kelly. The downstairs is split between Emmett's rather spartan workshop and an adjoining space rented to a stained-glass maker.
In effect, Emmett has been working toward his present occupation since childhood. ``As a child I was never given regular toys, nothing plastic. I was given tools, wood, old broken-down machines, wrenches, screwdrivers -- materials to be manipulated in various ways.'' His parents always supported his inclination to build things and experiment, he says, even to the point of letting him have his own laboratory/workshop in a shed a safe distance away from the house where he could pursue a youthful interest in explosives.
A parent himself now, Day admits to a little amazement over that. ``I'd be frightened stiff.''
His own children show somewhat divergent interests. Seth is much more inclined toward books, plays, and writing than hammers, wood, and forges. That, however, is one side of the family heritage. Both Emmett's father and sister are professors. Little Kelly, however, seems to share her dad's affinity for making things. Smiling broadly, Emmett points out that Kelly has her own miniature workbench downstairs and often ``sits down there gluing and clamping, working right next to me.''
Therese's role, in addition to full-time mother and homemaker, is design consultant. She fondly remembers nearly ``a couple of days'' spent with Emmett staring at and rearranging the rosewood panels for the front of a cabinet. ``Some people watch the movies, we look at veneer patterns,'' she laughs.
Family life, in fact, has come to be central to Emmett's own view of himself as an artist. He has wry memories of the days when he considered himself ``a free spirit . . . a wandering artist.'' But ``I allowed that fantasy of being a wanderer to rest, and it freed up my sense of who I could really be,'' he says. ``Being married with a family is a really solid basis from which to spread my work.
``I don't like being in a vacuum,'' he adds, ``and I don't like the feeling of creating just for me.''
Along with his ongoing projects in wood and metal, Emmett is piecing together a book on the ``ten most difficult things I've done.'' Heading that list is the flute, a luxurious blending of wood and gold. A flute player himself, Emmett notes that ``everything had to be within one-thousandths of an inch.'' His quest for perfection took him, after an exhaustive search, to master flutemaker Albert Cooper in London.
Later, it was Mr. Cooper who guided Emmett to an elderly London craftsman who had that piece of cocuswood stashed away on a dusty shelf, saved there in the hopes he might someday fulfill a 40-year dream of making a flute remarkably similar to the one Emmett had in mind.
Such episodes are all part of what Emmett calls the ``very powerful adventure'' of his life as an artist and craftsman. That adventure is what he wants to share in his book. He wants it to be ``a strong tool for people who get up to the edge of something and then balk.''