More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Thomas Bruno (Cabinet Maker)

So many of my grandfather's pieces of furniture—we took these pieces in and they were all junked up, but the colors were gorgeous. We had a headboard my grandfather made in my dad's shop, and it was laying there next to the window with the light coming in and I nearly passed out. I had never seen such gorgeous color in my life.

We've always been very picky about the kinds of furniture we make. My father was that way; my grandfather was that way. My grandfather used to tell clients, "It's not traditional." He had a certain tradition that he worked within and that was it. He was very European. My father continued that in an implicit way. He would not make things he didn't want to make. I want to do my own designs. I was more hesitant to take on reproductions and more interested in doing my own stuff. If it was an ugly reproduction, I just wouldn't do it. In that sense I'm like my father and grandfather. If it was my design, I would try my best to make the piece work, like give them a better price and so forth. Usually my pieces were more difficult to make and I'd give them a better price, which has led to my poverty. But that's a sacrifice of art.

The reason why 18th-century furniture is so successful is because it models itself off of nature. Greek art, same thing: nature. If it is plugged in to the way God designs, then you have a much better chance than otherwise. Once you start to move God out of the picture, you are penciling out the truth.

I make things the traditional way. I maintain the standards of the 18th century. My grandfather integrated machinery into 18th-century forms with joinery and so forth. Where the machines couldn't accomplish the task properly, he wouldn't use them. He set up a vocabulary for how to use machines, and how not to. I maintained all of that.

My father always had a policy. He never wanted to do repair work because you were always repairing something that didn't merit it—that was junk, trash. We always avoided it. My father had spent his youth repairing junk and he wasn't going to do it in his adulthood. I shared his conviction on that. Here you are, a master craftsman, and you are laboring and pouring yourself over things that don't merit it: 99.9 percent of the furniture in this country is garbage. There is very little that merits the attention of a repair.

How is this important in society? It just goes to show that, when you gain a certain stature, you no longer want to see yourself or your family as blue-collar. Even though some people will view artists in a different way, furniture making, at least while he was growing up, was not viewed as an art form. It was looked at as a craft. My father perceived himself as an artist. He perceived his grandfather as an artist. . . . We are not artists because we don't have the infrastructure to maintain that. Artists are an extension of the society. An artist doesn't stand outside the community and pump ideas into the community like you pump gas. If you look at art history, where you have great artists, you have a great infrastructure to support them. When you study Renaissance art you see "the story" that has inspired all these other stupid stories. All the art historians try to copy that story.

Thomas Bruno was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.