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Autumn Secretary

Who Am I? Exhibition

Published onAug 24, 2020
Autumn Secretary

Autumn Secretary, 2007
Christopher Martin (American, b. 1967)
Painted wood, steel, leather, Madrone, Afzelia burl, silver
Gift of the artist. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Artist’s Interpretation  

All that I design, I do so with the intention of pushing myself to explore new techniques and materials. I enjoy challenging myself, both mentally & physically. This desk was the final and paramount work in series I made inspired by Czech Cubism. Back in grad school, I was privileged to see a Czech Cubist exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt in New York. I was blown away by what I saw and it stuck with me. Many years later, I was awarded a Center for the Excellence in Arts and Humanities (CEAH) grant to travel to Central Europe to explore and study this fascinating but short-lived design movement. That trip inspired me to spend the next four years creating a body of work.

Looking back at the progression of this project, Autumn Secretary went through innumerable iterations over the span of a couple of years. My sketches took many forms from what looked like a lot like a loaf of bread on four legs, to a conventional small secretary, something similar to the final work. I say that because I like to leave room in all my work for serendipity, so very few of my pieces end up exactly like my drawings.

Upon settling on a design, I knew this was going to be a serious challenge, and it ended up being the most complicated piece I have ever made. At first, I wasn’t even sure it was going to be possible to build. I considered making it out of fiberglass, but I realized this was an inelegant solution to an elegant design. Then I made small models followed by a full-scale mock-up constructed of cardboard helping me to visualize the work in three dimensions.

It came down to making at least 17 different shaped puzzle pieces with every single edge cut to a different angle, then fitting all together to complete the shell. This took countless hours of cutting, testing, and fitting until by some small miracle, everything came together. I then had to methodically think through each step of the assembly to make sure I progressed in the correct sequence. The joinery and the assembly were extremely complicated, but the shaping was pure joy. Visualize me, plane in hand, sweat on my brow, a huge smile on my face, standing ankle deep in wood shavings. It took a lot of planeing, but I eventually made it into the cohesive form I was striving for.

During the making process, I took an autumn afternoon walk to clear my head. I kept picking up oak leaves and admiring their color. There were so many variegated reds along with remaining chlorophyll green, and yellow veins. These became the color palette for this piece, ergo the name Autumn Secretary. I presented an airbrush artist with a leaf wondering what he would think, but he was up for the challenge. It took us quite a few attempts to get it just right, and after several tinted layers of lacquer, we achieved the amazing depth of color I was seeking.

I visualized the interior of the desk as a city inside a cave, similar to the Anasazi dwellings in Colorado. I also wanted the inside to be an elegant response to the outside. For that I used clean straight-gain woods and hand-crafted the pulls from sterling silver.

This self-imposed challenge definitely pushed my design and creation abilities to new heights.  I ended up learning and utilizing several techniques and materials that were new to me. Fellow makers will appreciate knowing that this piece took me an estimated 200 hours to build. Hopefully, the casual viewer will simply be delighted by what they see.

Chris Martin


I visited Prague for the first time in March 1995 while on an undergraduate year abroad. In my memories, the city was drizzly, grey, and enigmatic, a place seemingly of another time and out of step with the worlds that I knew in Massachusetts, where I grew up, and in Dublin, my temporary home. Prague was an early stop on a long spring break trip. Arriving from Germany, my friend and I accepted an elderly woman's offer as we stepped off the train to rent a room in her private apartment near the famous Wenceslas Square for $10 US a night, in cash. Such platform rendezvouses were the most common way for visitors to find accommodation in Prague back then, before the internet and when foreign currency was valuable to the local population who could not use Czech crowns beyond the country's borders.

I was one of the first people in my extended family to visit Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall just six years earlier. My great-grandparents, poor Jews from small settlements in the Russian Empire, had made the opposite journey around 1900, coming from what is now Poland and Ukraine, to build more prosperous lives in the Canadian Maritime Provinces on my mother's side and Boston on my father's. None of them had ever returned and the World Wars severed all links to any family left behind. Yet I felt a pull to this part of the world, not to the villages of my ancestors, but to its cities and Prague in particular.

Unknown to me on that first visit was that a few years later I would make the choice to devote my academic life to learning about the history of the former Czechoslovakia, studying its language, literature, and architecture, and developing close friendships with Czechs and Slovaks who welcomed me into their academic community. Twenty years later, I am well-known as a pioneer in the study of architecture in postwar Czechoslovakia.

When I see the Autumn Secretary, it feels of this place that is so much a part of my life. The style is unmistakable, an homage to the Czech Cubists—artists, theorists, and innovators in making objects and environments in the years just before World War I. They sought to capture the dynamism of life and art in the early twentieth century and the optimism among Czechs at the time that they would not remain citizens of a provincial territory within Austria, but of a modern, prosperous, independent European nation. The exquisite craft of the desk, something that it shares with the work that inspired it, is visible in its closed sculptural form and in the unexpectedly symmetrical set of functional components within. This juxtaposition, of the almost black asymmetrical enclosure with the small jewelry-box scale of the four light wood drawers inside, expresses a tension that is held in perfect balance, but which adds a kinetic energy to the object in the true spirit of Czech Cubism.

Dr. Kimberly Zarecor
Professor, Architecture


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