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N.Y. artisan given Smithsonian award

Michael Puryear, who runs a one-man shop, honored with the Silver Award for his contemporary woodworking skills

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Michael Puryear won the prestigious Silver Award at the 27th annual Smithsonian Craft Show, which was held April 23-26 in Washington, D.C. Puryear, a self-taught woodworking artisan with a one-man shop in Shokan, N.Y., has been a designer/furniture maker for more than 25 years. Puryear says he believes his design skills, which emphasize interplay of simple forms and contrasts, as well as an elegant display, played a part in his selection.

“I guess I have always thought it possible to win, but because it is not something I can control I have not worried too much about it. There are so many factors that influence one’s successes. The work, of course, is important, but I think it is equally important to be a participant in the arena of furniture in general. By this, I mean engagement with people and organizations that share that interest.”

Puryear’s award selection was made by judges Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Leatrice Eagle, fine art advisor and appraiser; and artist Lou Stovall.

Puryear’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the country, including the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C. and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. His work has been published widely, most recently in “500 Chairs and 500 Tables,” published by Lark Books. His work is featured in the collections of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Rockefeller University and The Newark (N.J.) Museum.

Teaching has always been one of Puryear’s passions. He is currently an associate professor of woodwork at the State University of New York at Purchase, a member of Furniture New York and the Hudson Valley Furniture Makers, and a trustee of The Furniture Society.

In regards to his thoughts on the state of furniture making today, he believes the field is undergoing a major change.

“It is too early to know what the outcome will be, but I do think there is a renewed interest in hand-made items in reaction to mass production. This is limited largely to the sophisticated craft community at this point, but with a renewed awareness of the environmental consequences of disposable commodification it could spread. One of the things I value as a furniture maker is the interplay of physical manipulation of materials and the mental process that results in a piece.”

As for his future plans, Puryear says he would love to explore more ideas from his sketch book to see where they might lead. He added that he thinks his work will always be contemporary,
reflecting his personal aesthetic tempered by his awareness of culture and how furniture is used.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.

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