PROFILE: Stewart Caskie
by arlene winkler
is like art with a discipline glued on. It’s art that has to
actually fly and land safely." Stewart Caskie
all object making, that aspect which relates to its conceptual interpretation
is art, that which relates the object to an intended purpose
is design, and the quality of its execution is craft.”
may prefer Hella Basu’s definition to Stewart Caskie’s,
but now that I’m actually in his studio, I realize that his
is the perception of that rare hybrid; a superb craftsman with an
artist’s sensibilities. His passion for detail and a high standard
of finish is easily apparent, but his sensitive approach to materials
is surprising and elegant.
began a varied and peripatetic career in Toronto, Canada, building
prototypes for an industrial design firm—a job that quickly
evolved into display work and graphic design, and later to art direction.
As a designer/art director Stewart traveled the world, working on
ad campaigns in Canada, Europe, Africa and Australia. But on his return
to the U.S. he returned to his first love, designing in three dimensions.
much of what he now shows me is contemporary, he is quick to point
out that he is equally well-versed in traditional styles and takes
a great deal of pleasure in restoring valued antiques, ranging from
classical cars and wooden boats to vintage musical instruments. “I’m
no slouch as a luthier,” he says without a trace of modesty.
“I know the language—I’ve been a musician all my
this point I hear a nasty clicking sound and I discover my ancient
tape recorder has just eaten my only tape. I open the front door and
throw it as far as I can. It’s Sunday afternoon in Weaverville
and there’s only one thing to do. Open the champagne he has
chilling and have an erudite conversation … that’s when
he lays the definition on me.
slick, I don’t agree with that for one minute.” I say
shrugs. “A design has to be resolved to the point that it functions.
Other than that —good design is art. I don’t see a distinction.”
indicates a level of manual skill—what you expect when you go
to a craftsperson to interpret your art. On the other hand, when you
look to them to create —very few are good at it. But the ones
that are—how can you say that they’re not artists? They
have that gift of form, which is frankly sculptural, as well as the
gift of making that form fit the function of their tools and the intention
of the object they are producing.”
it just me,” I interrupt, “or do craft and art get especially
mixed up in Asheville?
think it’s because of the arts and crafts movement, which goes
back to Ruskin, whose idea was that simplicity was an art in itself.
The movement that grew out of that was one where the details that
normally would have been covered with plaster or ormolu were suddenly
celebrated. A good joint was a hero. You didn’t paint it over—you
made a good miter joint—you showed it.
it was pointed out that a miter joint is inherently flawed, because
eventually the wood will move and the joint will lose its integrity—overlap
joints with protruding ends became the vogue and they became celebrated.
Which gets you to the Stickley school of thinking, and Greene &
Greene. It’s extraordinary how far back you can go and the ideas
retain their integrity. I’ve seen silverware designed in the
1850s that looks like it came out of Milan yesterday. And England,
oddly enough, produces some of the most visually innovative stuff.”
intrigued by the unlikely pairing. “England and Italy.”
the Jaguar and the Alpha Romeo. The 1949 Jaguar roadster and the Alpha’s
of the late 30s—absolute understatement—no chrome, everything
painted the same color as the body. Simple. Artful.”
is not art.”
shakes his head, shows me a pair of elegant little table lamps, so
simple the design looks almost fortuitous—totally belying the
precision of the engineering behind it.
of the things that I strive to do is make things so elementary, so
simple in their concept, that the simplicity comes across as part
of the object.
want this one,” I say, fondling the one that looks like a single
fold of aluminum.
When I showed that one to the engineer, his first response was “We
can make this much more efficiently…we take this little piece
here and put in 3 rivets…and add another piece to make them
know what you showed him.” I say, horrified. “What do
you think he saw?”
wastage or extravagance or something that could be more efficiently
laid out on a 4 x 8 sheet…he completely missed that the airplane
was designed to fly."
you speak of simplicity are you speaking of minimalism?”
elegance—I love elegance. It doesn’t have to come out
of anything high born. It’s a sense of place, of self respect.
Like a musician who doesn’t just blatt out a note, but shapes
it with the fingers, the bow, the lips. Like Duke Ellington—the
man was elegance walking.”
finish my glass, hold it out for a refill. “Elegance shmelegance,
Stewart,” I say elegantly. “It still ain’t art."
“You’re too impressed with the ability to create an original,”
he rebuts. “The ones I admire are the good forgers. Anyone who
can faithfully reproduce the brushstrokes of a Van Gogh, or a Picasso
is a master linguist. That’s what I do as a restorer, I learn
the language of a Charles Rennie Macintosh, or a Frank Lloyd Wright.”
he’s learning a historic style, he usually builds something
small, to get a hands-on feel for the forms and materials. A handsome
mahogany toolbox, for instance, was his exercise while studying the
Scottish style of 1890-1910. while another toolbox, done in the English
Arts and Crafts style has its own distinct flavor. Next he shows me
a wonderfully restored lute and a vintage Martin guitar, plays them
for me to explain the language problems.
I can’t resist asking if he knows how to speak Mozart.
refills our glasses. “Classical music reminds me of industrial
lighting design, its so stuck. It managed to make it out of Mozart,
but it hasn’t recognized anything since but Ricard Strauss—hasn’t
legitimized all the French impressionist composers from a hundred
years ago—hasn’t recognized the saxophone.” His
eyes light up. “Now that’s something elegant. One of the
most expressive things that human hands have ever formed. And if you
want to see craftsmanship to art,” he continues. “Look
no further than a saxophone."
suddenly flash on my mother the piano prodigy—her stories of
how she snuck her older brother’s sax out of his bedroom, and
played it when no one was home. I imagine her little girl hands on
the shiny brass.
“Look at the linkages,” he continues, “at the pads,
how they articulate, at the serpentine shape of it going ever larger
into this beautifully formed bell. Imagine being given a sheet of
flat brass and told to get busy. That’s craftsmanship to art.
People sing through that horn.”
I refuse to go down that path. This is an interview. I need to know
what brings a renaissance man and a master linguist to these mountains.
All the way from Sausalito.
been there for 29 years, living on the water within sight of the Golden
Gate Bridge, in a historic harbor on a historic boat. It was magical.
I could see the seals on unfoggy days. But the whole infrastructure
of the little niche I occupied was changing. They still had a foghorn,
and a search light on Alcatraz, but it was getting gentrified and
parking lotted. It was time to leave."
laughs. “After all those years on the water, this is the first
time I’ve lived where green wasn’t my enemy. Anything
green that grew on the boat had to be scraped off, expensively, once
I think I got sick of green living in England, which I did for almost
a decade. There, everything you touch, if you don’t touch it
frequently enough, will go green by itself. The entire landscape is
green, every city in the entire country except for London and Aberdeen
and York, had bloody green busses.”
“But it doesn’t get much greener than Asheville—what
were you looking for?”
“Comfort. I grew up in Ottawa, which was a very small city.
As a five year old, I used to walk around it all the time. My mother
didn’t know, since she had to work everyday, that I explored
the entire downtown on foot, extensively. So I was looking for that
kind of place. Which means a comfortable number of people, a way of
making a living, a climate that wasn’t going to kill me. The
one thing I didn’t want was to experience 30 below zero again.
And I needed a political climate I could live in. I’m a liberal.
I believe in humanity. Not too many artists go to war, you know..
Not a lot of bloodshed in the arts.
looked at Flagstaff Arizona, Boulder Colorado, Santa Fe, which has
been over-built and over-arted. I’m not looking for art. I’d
rather find a place with a grubby infrastructure that’s got
an open heart. I’d rather live in Pittsburgh than Santa Fe.
can empathize. That’s what I liked about Brooklyn. It’s
I found out that Asheville has 22 architectural offices and that clinched
it. I got in the car and came here virtually sight unseen. My apprentice
and I drove cross country with all my stuff in my car and a little
truck. Everything else got crated and shipped by freight to a warehouse
somewhere in North Carolina. Since I knew someone who lived in the
area, I pulled into the first place I saw that looked like it would
have a phone, and asked if I could use it. The woman that handed me
the phone was my first human contact here. And she remains a very
good friend. That happened in Weaverville and here I remained.
little neighborhood I live in is called Democrat. Eisenhower had the
post office moved and the signs pulled down but the locals still call
it Democrat. The minute I got here, it felt right, very simpatico.
Like an old shoe you haven’t worn for years. In this case, I
put my foot into a new shoe and my little toe immediately found a
valley. All the people here who have extended their friendship to
me are quite genuine, and I know they expect the same. We trust each
other now. They come here to jam with me, ask for advice, don’t
hesitate to offer to it—they’ve made me part of their
families. So far I have five grandchildren."
of them enter through the back door now. The older one says without
preamble, “Mamma wants to know where you are. It’s Mother’s
If it’s time to party in Democrat, it’s time for me to
leave. That’s when I notice the little one is clutching my tape
recorder. As we used to say in the days of the double feature—this
is where I came in.
Stewart Caskie, IDSA, designs environments,
lighting, product development and furnishings, at his workshop in
Weaverville, North Carolina. He can be contacted at 828-658-1611.
Industrial Design Society of America-Professional member
California Contemporary Craft Association-Master member
New York Art Directors Club-New York
Design and Art direction-London England
California Design, San Francisco, CA
Exhibits and shows:
Modernism-Santa Monica, CA
DeYoung Museum -San Francisco, CA
Frank Lloyd Wright House-Bountiful UT
Aspen Institute-Aspen CO
Calfornia Design-San Francisco CA
Cleveland Museum of Art-Cleveland OH
San Diego Museum of Art -San Diego CA
is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance.
Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the
world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her, they’re all credited
to the executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and
enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved
to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A
mother of three, a grand mother of four, and the author of three screenplays
she is dealing with her culture shock by writing a North/South novel
under her own name.