In a contemporary design world dominated by the likes of Marc Fish and Joris Laarman you might be excused for walking by the brown furniture of Wisconsin cabinetmaker Charles Radtke. But if you did, you’d be passing up a treat: it’s the kind of work that requires careful examination and rewards it.
Notice the little brass accents crafted by Radtke’s longtime collaborator Sarah Perkins that glint from facets on the feet of Spirits Cabinet, 2015, or the slight splay of Enameled Two Door Cabinet’s four legs, which lends bulk to the work, as if it were an animal widening its stance to appear bigger. Scrutinize One of One and you’ll discover it’s covered with a barely-visible network of holes—which Radtke knocked into the ebony veneer using Perkins’s metal punch—points of deeper darkness on a dark ground, distinguishable only by the spots of light that reflect off their interiors, like stars in the night sky.
Radtke, who learned cabinetmaking at the St. Paschal Friary in Oak Brook, Illinois, and now works out of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, about half an hour north of Milwaukee, doesn’t make preliminary drawings and he doesn’t create multiples. “I approach the work like one thinks about a song,” he writes. “Do it once, let it stand on its own. . . . There are always ideas swirling around and I just need to harness them.”
Some of his best ideas have to do with the selection of woods. His Spirits Cabinet makes use of three species, two of them used traditionally by cabinetmakers (Belize mahogany for the face frames and a “fractured veneer” of tiger maple trapezoids), one a wildcard (plain-sawn sassafras faces). Recently Radtke has started using holly, a wood notable for its fine, almost invisible grain and flat white aspect that recalls medium-density fiberboard, favored by contemporary artists and designers like Ettore Sottsass for its nonspecific materiality. “I wanted a material that would allow me to work in the most salient and pure way to structure furniture pieces that were devoid of all the trappings of the material itself,” Radtke writes. He puts holly to masterful use in his Sarcophagus #6, 2018, the most recent in a series of case pieces inspired by a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian galleries twenty-some years ago. Monochromatic, the ponderous cabinet appears at first glance to be made entirely out of white pine, like a craftsman take on Nordic design. But look closer. The door faces aren’t whole, but subdivided into strips of holly, framed on their medial edges by shimmering leaves of quilted aspen, which, in contrast, appears almost as iridescent as mother of pearl. The chunky pink ivory handles are embossed with a diamond pattern and surrounded by a ring of rough, metal-punched holes, and the entire confection is surmounted by a peaked roof (of sorts) raised a few inches over the top of the cabinet by four columns topped by dentil-detailed capitals. Open it, and this stone-cold cabinet is—surprise!—painted blood-red.
Radtke’s “meticulousness sets him in tacit opposition to the dominant tendencies of our culture, which prioritizes speed in all things, especially gratification,” writes design scholar and editor at large for The Magazine ANTIQUES Glenn Adamson in the exhibition catalogue accompanying a retrospective on Radtke’s work at the Milwaukee Art Museum that wraps this weekend. “It differentiates him even from many other craft makers of his generation, who sometimes seem to make objects solely for the purposes of having them photographed.” A design rule of thumb is if a piece still makes sense when viewed from afar—e.g., in a photograph—you know you’ve got something. Radtke’s pieces do that: their silhouettes are classic, diverging only slightly from neoclassical antecedents, and responding to the influence of twentieth-century designers like Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Wharton Esherick. But, significantly, it’s only when you’re close enough to touch them that they offer up all their secrets.