The daughter of missionaries, Anne Briggs took a winding international road from the packed streets of Beijing back to the basics of agrarian America. Fluent in Mandarin and boasting a formidable business pedigree acquired at Peking and Whitworth Universities, she now designs and builds furniture, restores antique tools, and teaches hand-tool woodworking — all while managing a learning farm just outside of Seattle.
And, after a day of increasingly intricate outdoor endeavours, she somehow finds time to write for Furniture and Cabinetmaking Magazine and maintain Anne of All Trades, a website packed with insights into her personal journey alongside building tutorials and odes to the router plane.
We caught up with her over a couple of Woodford Reserve cocktails (away from the band saw!) to talk about the rise of maker culture and the challenges and rewards that come when we step outside of automation and learn to build on our own.
Flavorwire: Some older folks I’ve worked with have often hammered the idea that skills are worth more than money. I’d add relationships to that. To what extent do relationships with other makers influence your decisions?
Anne Briggs: Skills are most certainly worth more than money. If you have the skills to make things yourself, you don’t have to trade your time at a job for money, so you can afford to pay someone else to do things for you. Similarly, if you surround yourself with a community of skilled makers, “relationships” are just as much a commodity as dollars. It’s an attitude of “I can make this, you can do that — we can trade, and then we both get to spend our time doing what we love.” My community is everything to me.
FW: Could the network you’ve created crop up anywhere, or is it the unique product of your specific experience?
AB: Everything I do is motivated by relationship. My grandfather was a woodworker, and I came to love woodwork because I loved spending time with him. I discovered my passion for hand-tool woodwork because [that] was a means to get to know my new brother-in-law. I get interested in and become passionate about things because people I care about are interested in and passionate about them.
FW: I’d imagine speaking Mandarin and living in China have both had an impact on your view of how things work in other parts of the world and how they could work here…
AB: I learned Chinese because I loved talking to people. I had a special carrier on the back of my bike that I would load up with big glass bottles of beer, take it to my favorite street vendor, and set up camp every night. I would eat BBQ and talk to the locals and offer free beer to anyone who would sit and talk with me while they drank it. My biggest takeaway from my time spent in China was the importance of resourcefulness… There was no such thing as a “broken” bicycle in China, there were guys all over the place with little carts that could bring any bike back to life. My vendor was cooking the best BBQ I’ve ever eaten over used charcoals on an upturned railroad tie. People used what they had to make things work.
FW: What did you take from eastern traditions that you find useful? What did you find that you felt wouldn’t work in the context of America?
AB: It’s hard to watch an Industrial Revolution so similar to the one America experienced 100 years ago being repeated — and at such an alarmingly fast pace… Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of good sides to progress: healthcare, democracy, social mobility… far too many to mention, but I fear it won’t be long before small farmer towns, where people are happily living sustainably together in tightly knit communities, will be a distant memory.
FW: As we think about maker culture and the call to #preservetradition, it’s also interesting to think about how just as many in less developed nations are striving to become more industrialized. Are we privileged in that way?
AB: Absolutely. Living the way I do is certainly a privilege, and one I’m very grateful for. As the Industrial Revolution and mass production had been fully embraced in America and the interstate highway system was being developed after the end of the second World War, supermarkets and big box stores appeared and, in turn, traditional skills, backyard cows, chickens, and gardens disappeared. Some amazingly talented marketers painted a brilliant picture of the “American Dream,” a dream driven by consumerism and thus the endless trade of “Time for Money” — Money to be spent on Things that office workers can no longer do or make for themselves.
Though everyone loves the idea of locally grown food and hand-crafted items, it is shocking how hard it is to find people willing to pay what those things actually cost. Funnily enough, it’s often other “starving artists” or other farmers that support one another, because we are the only ones who truly understand all that goes into a finished piece or locally grown item… I consider myself lucky in having the luxury to do those things, both because I live in America and because I have a husband who works incredibly hard at a steady “white collar” job.
FW: With a husband working in technology, I’d imagine conversations at your house range from the most agrarian elements to the highest of tech. Are there ideological arguments over this stuff? How do the two of you see tech and maker culture interacting or overlapping?
AB: [Laughing] This is always a funny dynamic in our household. If it were up to me, we would be living in a tiny house on a ranch in Montana (or maybe even China) with 20 of our closest friends… If it were up to Adam, we would live in a condo in a skyrise in downtown Seattle. He’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat. He works for an online retailer in tech, and lots of online retailers are making life pretty difficult for a lot of people living the way I myself would like to live… But even though we are absolute total polar opposites in almost every way, we love each other and we have promised each other to do whatever it takes to make this all work.
He has chosen to shift his own dreams to accommodate mine, and I have done the same for him. It was a big discussion when I got my first pet rabbit. We now have 43 animals and counting. Between Adam’s job and my creative ventures, we now have the money side of things mostly taken care of, and now it is just a constant juggling act to make sure everything gets done when it needs to. Life sure isn’t boring, and I wouldn’t have it any other way…
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length.