In 1999, a gregarious man with stained and cracked woodworker's hands walked through the doors at the Depot Art Center and made a lasting impression. The furniture he brought to show there was beautiful in its simplicity. He was given the Best of Show award and invited back to judge the next year's show.
In the years following, Mark Koons drove to Steamboat Springs early for the annual Fine Craft show because his old, white truck had a tendency to break down when he was on a deadline. He spent the extra days in Steamboat volunteering at the Arts Council and getting to know Visual Arts Director Beth Banning.
This year, the Arts Council invited him to curate the show, titled "Fine Craft 2003: Four Virtues."
"It was the general consensus that a lot of the work being entered was not true traditional fine craft work. It was more sculptural," Banning said. "We kind of jokingly looked at (Koons) and told him to choose the work for the next show. When he said 'yes,' we started looking at the idea more seriously."
Koons contacted craftspeople he knew from years as a fine-furniture maker and invited them to participate.
"I looked for simplicity," he said. "I want to see work that lets the material speak for itself."
He called Teresa Black, an accomplished horsehair hitching and braiding artist.
"I saw some of her rope and I saw that its strength came from endless hours of being worked by hand," Koons said. "I could see that she was lost in it when she made it."
For the show, Black entered a length of tight, strong horsehair rope she made by hand.
"This is stone-age technology," Koons said. "By using horsehair, (the rope) has some of the qualities of steel and plastic." And it exemplifies one of the four virtues Koons believes make true fine craftsmanship: appropriate use of materials, function, materials, line and skill.
"The four virtues is my own notion. It is my way of trying to explain something," Koons said. "But the concept is just an artifice to aid in the discussion of what we value in craft."
Koons values the message behind the work.
"When I look at an object, there is evidence of what is going on in the mind of the maker," Koons said. "Everything we make communicates something. Even if we say it has no message, the message might be that beauty doesn't matter to me."
Koons' own work speaks volumes. He entered "A Simple Chair," made of cherry.
"Like all human beings, I am struggling with the same thing as everyone," Koons said. "I am trying to ascertain the meaning of life, while fighting the impulse to say there is no meaning.
"I think about what my pieces say all the time. It's about one perception I have about being alive, that there is a lot of cruelty and brutality in the world. I want my work to be the opposite of that. I want to say, '(Life) is not all ugly.'"
But his chair is more than sculpture. It is first and foremost functional, one of the four virtues.
"When chair builders go to hell, they will have to sit in their own chairs," Koons said, laughing. Function seems an obvious goal of the craftsman, but aesthetic goals can blind the maker to the uselessness of their creation.
"You have to look at your chair and ask, 'Will it support your back?' or, 'Is it comfortable?' and, 'Will it last?'" Koons said. "A maker should be deeply ashamed to have something fall apart."
"A Simple Chair" was inspired by a piece in the book "1,000 Chairs." Pictured was a chair made in Austria 100 years ago, he said. "The chair builders intended it for hierarchical organizations such as the National Telegraph Office for the administrators to sit in.
"It was attractive and also disturbing." The chair was confining, designed to keep the chest out and hips back. "It was good for sitting and giving orders."
"A Simple Chair" was inspired, not by the rigidity of the Austrian chair, but by the concept of creating a chair that forces the sitter into expressing a certain body language.
"This chair is not for working, but for engaging in conversation." The chair is meant to be used as one of a pair. Two conversationalists should sit in identical chairs, facing each other.
"The chair is highly flexible," Koons said. "It is designed to shift as you move.
"If I have invented anything in this life, it is this chair."