Western North Carolina Woman

Stewart Caskie holding watermelon

PROFILE: Stewart Caskie

by arlene winkler

“Design is like art with a discipline glued on. It’s art that has to actually fly and land safely." Stewart Caskie

“In 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.”
Hella Basu

I 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.

He 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.

Although 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 life.”

At 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.

“Too slick, I don’t agree with that for one minute.” I say pleasantly.

He 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.”

“And craft?”

“Craft 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.”

“Is it just me,” I interrupt, “or do craft and art get especially mixed up in Asheville?

“I 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.

“When 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.”

I’m intrigued by the unlikely pairing. “England and Italy.”

“Yes, 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.”

“Artful is not art.”

He 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.

“One 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.

“I 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 invisible.”

“I know what you showed him.” I say, horrified. “What do you think he saw?”

“Material 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."

“When you speak of simplicity are you speaking of minimalism?”

“And 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.”

I 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.”

When 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.

He 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."

I 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.”

But 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.

“I’d 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."

He 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 a year.

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.

“I 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.

I can empathize. That’s what I liked about Brooklyn. It’s gritty.

“Then 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.

“This 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."

Two 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 day.”

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


Arlene Winkler 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.

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