Tools are not often thought of as art. They’re pragmatic utensils whose functionality is creation, a means to an end. They’re an artist’s paintbrush or a sculptor’s chisel.
But John Economaki sees tools differently. His tools have weight, sexy lines and rich finishes. Not the assembly-line items you let sit in a garage, but instead the kinds of tools you’d see on a display table at Restoration Hardware.
“Tools sit and do nothing most of the time,” Economaki says, “and I always thought, why can’t they have a function when they’re doing nothing? Why can’t they be inspirational just through their presence? Why can’t they be a silent voice of encouragement to the maker?”
Economaki sells what he calls “heirloom tools” through his Portland-based company Bridge City Tool Works, which he founded in 1983. It produces 8,000-10,000 tools a year on a made-to-order basis through manufacturing houses all over the country. His work is featured in a new book Quality is Contagious and in an exhibit by the same name now open at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland.
Of course, a toolmaker is often first a tool user, and Economaki is no exception. He started out as a furniture maker, creating such items as wooden clocks and silver chests. But in 1983 he developed pneumonia in both lungs. His doctor told him he had an allergy to wood dust and would have to get into another line of work.
“I literally was told not to go back in my studio,” he says, “and the only thing that I really know is woodworking. And I had made my own tools, and the thought just occurred to me, ‘Am I the only guy in the world that likes to work with nice tools?’”
While Economaki no longer makes his tools by hand, he still designs them. His drawings, as well as photos by his longtime friend Joseph Felzman, are part of the Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibit.
“It’s a huge honor,” Economaki says, “and here is this story about two guys … who met in their 20s who just got along and, you know, through symbiosis made each person better. So when you have a professional photographer shoot your work, and you know he’s gonna shoot it, you can’t have any flaws in it.”
This article features content from John Economaki’s interview with Oregon Art Beat. He will be featured on Oregon Art Beat this fall.