Woodworker Peter Superti’s Craftsmanship Leads The Design
By Jamie Larson
Craftsmanship and design, form and function, vision and execution: the successful balance of these convergent concepts is what makes the furniture of local woodworker Peter Superti so alluring. His master trick? He does it all by hand. No shortcuts.
“I have a certain philosophy,” said Superti, who lives in Hudson. “I construct decoration, I don’t decorate construction. I don’t use a computer. I’m strictly pencil and ruler. To me, a design from a computer is lifeless.”
We found him toiling away alone on a frigid morning in his humble old, woodstove-heated barn in Red Hook, New York, set to work on some excellent lengths of wood. His most famous client is the mother of performance art and part-time local Marina Abramovic. He has built a number of pieces for her including ladders with knives for rungs, beds under suspended giant crystals, and the table and chairs where she iconically sat and stared at visitors during her career retrospective, “The Artist is Present.”
Abramovic has been catching some heat lately for backing out of her long-awaited center in Hudson. Superti shrugs off the relatively lukewarm criticism. He says its been personally and artistically rewarding to spend time with the unique artist, who once flew him down to Brazil to help hand select huge crystals.
“She was looking for a fabricator,” he said, noting that the pieces he makes for her are Abramovic’s ideas and aesthetics, but that he gives input on weight and balance. “On our first phone call she said, ‘You and I will be working together for a long, long time.’ I love a challenge. It keeps the work alive and helps me look at objects in different ways.”
But the pieces he’s made, and is making, for other clients are just as captivating. His work is sturdy without feeling clunky, and the expertise of his joinery and finish are as integral to the success of a piece as any artistic flourish.
He’s currently building an entire staircase for a Manhattan loft. The handmade model in his studio is itself a work of art. He’s also working on the details in the Germantown home of Barry Hardwood, the curator of decorative arts at the Brooklyn Museum. For Hardwood, Superti is very specifically recreating decorative art elements for the home in the late 19th-century British style.
Superti grew up in Queens, the son of a printer who specialized in manual typesetting. His grandfather was also a printer who came from a long line of Italian tailors. The mix of art and trade, it seems, is in his blood.
“The whole concept of building things by hand was instilled in me at an early age,” he said. “I was always making stuff, taking things apart to see how they worked and putting them back together.”
After working as a laborer in Vermont for the first half of the ‘70s, he realized what he truly wanted to do was build furniture. He attended the Program for Artistry at Boston University and later apprenticed under British master woodworker David Powell in Vermont, who passed along a focus on hand tools from his teacher, the extremely influential Edward Barnsley.
“First I do a drawing, then a model,” Superti said. “When you can see the piece, it makes it easier for the client to understand and I’ve got it all worked out before I even start building.”
As his furniture began to get noticed, he built industry relationships in NYC and did restoration and reconstruction work on a diverse array of historically significant decorative art. His hands-on experience has left a mark on his own style, which is lovingly referential yet unmistakably original.
“My designs are influenced by centuries of history and construction,” he said. “There used to be distinct periods in design but you don’t really see that any more. But a lot of those periods can still be explored.”
A single piece by Superti can exhibit the stylistic influence of Danish modern, minimalism, arts and crafts and even Japanese design in quiet and controlled ways.
“You use the materials to create the design,” he said, noting that the crystal bed is fantastical but still a functional item. “The fineness of how a piece is constructed is part of the design. No matter what, furniture can’t be constructed poorly.”
When your designs are theoretical and made real in a computer program and the pieces are cut by machines, everything, even the most original ideas, comes out looking like Ikea, Superti explained. “It’s too perfect; it lacks warmth. It lacks that tiny bit of imperfection that the hand makes that gives the piece its soul.”
He’s so busy with commission work that he doesn’t have gallery shows, and rarely sells his work in shop, as he doesn’t really like producing the same thing over and over. As creative as his customers let him be, he says he’s looking forward to clearing a few months off the calendar to work on a half dozen new ideas for which he hasn’t had time. We can only imagine what his mind and hands will produce when truly left to their own devices.