At the beginning of the 20th Century three pairs of brothers did great work in three burdgeoning fields. The Greene and Greene brothers produced some of the finest furniture ever made. August and Frederick Duesenberg made cars that raised the bar of what was possible in an automobile to a level that may still be unapproached. And then there were the brothers from my hometown, two guys that made bicycles and had an unwillingness to accept the strictures of gravity. You probably know these two guys--the Wright Brothers.
My two boys have led me to think about the dynamics that allow this to happen--two brothers, the epitome of craftsmanship, pushing the boundaries of their craft. It also also led me to think about which pair of brothers, if any, fit the bill in the knife world. Before I get to my nominees, let's take a look at the stuff that made the other brothers made.
Greene and Greene
As a woodworker, the Greene and Greene style is probably my favorite form of artistic expression. I love Myles Davis's Kind of Blue and I am possessed by the raw emotion of Picasso's Guernica, but the things that engulf my imagination the most are the cloud lifts and tsubas of the Greene and Greene style. Its not just the visual splendor, though there is a lot of that, but also the clever tricks. In one particular built in book case in one of their house commissions, the brother's tapered the thickness of the shelves so that when you looked at them head on, they appeared to be parallel all the way to the back of the bookcase. Normally, perspective and three dimensionality makes the bottom of the back of the shelf "disappear" but the Greenes wanted to convey a sense of stability and seeing the bottom of the back of the shelf did that. Even conceiving of this visual trick is difficult, but actually pulling it off in wood must have been insanely complex. And remember there weren't a whole lot of fancy power tools at the time and CNC was still 80 years away.
One of my favorite pieces of theirs, aside from the entirety of the Gamble House, is the notoriously complex Blacker House Chair.
Everything about this chair is daunting. First, the legs are tapered, but not simply larger to smaller, there are actually flairs at the end of the legs to make them appear more stable visually, but still carry the taper. If you don't know to look for them, your eye just tells your brain everything is as it should be. Second, the plugs at the joints are insanely complex. Its not just that they are square (and its hard to cut square holes in wood, especially in the early 20th century without the aid of a mortiser or a CNC machine), but that the plugs are ultra hard ebony and that they aren't just flat, but actually little pillowed cushion-shaped objects. And they serve to reinforce the joints. Which leads me to the joints themselves. They all look square, but in fact, I do not believe any of them are. They are all slightly off, both for comfort and visual appeal.
For me, the Greene and Greene style represents the pinnacle of a craft--woodworking's zenith. But it gets there through a subtle but deep understanding of psychology, perception, design, color theory, and, in more than one way, geometry. This is the heart, mind, and the eye singing in unison.
As much as the Greene and Greene style is splendid art, the work of August and Frederick Duesenberg has an aspect of craftsmanship that we gear geeks can appreciate. Sure there was beauty and technique present, but there is also a bit of "hell yeah" and more than a dash of "nothing but the best."
At the time they were in their heyday, Duesenbergs were the finest cars made anywhere in the world. They were luxury sedans with handmade interiors of marquetry wood and glowing silks, but they were also technical beasts. Duesenbergs had engines many times more powerful than their next closest competitor. Their top speeds were twice or three times that of their rivals. In today's terms that would be like the Bugatti Chiron hitting 480 or 700 MPH (instead of its current top speed of around 273 MPH)!
The Duesenbergs were really focused on their vision--speed and beauty. Comfort, well, that was literally someone else's responsibility. As was custom at the time, high end cars were sold as a chassis and an engine and the passenger compartments, at the time called "coaches," were built and installed by local operations that were sometimes affiliated with the manufacturer and sometimes just small independent shops. It was kind of like how cabinets are sold at Big Box stores--a maker produces them and another person installs them. So most of the time, customers were buying the marvelous Duesenberg engine and a curvy, elegant shell. The actual parts customers sat on (or in) were handled by someone else.
My all time favorite Duesenberg is the 1935 Model SJ Torpedo Phaeton, seen here. I probably wouldn't turn down a 1930 Model J either:
The swooping, compound curve fenders and the distinctive grill/bumper all make this a fabulously bold car. But it is under the hood where the true Duesenberg magic lives. After a while, the 265 hp engines of the Model J were a bit staid. Now remember the Ford Model A, at the time, cranked out 40 hp. So the brothers, who moved their factory to Indianapolis for some odd reason (cows...yeah...they liked cows...and maybe some racing), put a supercharger on the Model J and cranked up the engine to 320 hp, giving the behemoth a top speed of 140 MPH (the Model A hit a gusty 65). And this on a car with a 142.5 inch wheel base.
Bold, amazing, and powerful. Duesenbergs are really unique in the history of automotive design and collectors have showered their cars with greenbacks when they come on the open market in good shape. In 2007 an SJ sold for $4.4 million. Another Duesenberg, the Mormon Meteor , sold for around $4.2 million. And Jay Leno paid $180,000 for the rusted carcass of a 1931 Model J.
The Wright Brothers
Orville and Wilbur Wright are special to me. They are from my home town. But they also happened to be important to my Dad, who runs the Aviation Heritage Alliance, a group in Dayton dedicated to preserving the history of aviation, especially the Wright Brothers, in Dayton. I have been to the Wright Brothers house and I got a tour of Hawthorne Hill from their niece.
It was an amazing experience and over the years a book's worth of Wright Brothers' trivia has sunk in to my brain.
The airplane was just one of many inventions. At their house they had all sorts of crazy ideas and amazing devices. One, which for some reason has never taken off, was a 360 degree shower. There were a series of tubes running around the shower stall like bars of a cell. At the door there were fittings that allowed the bars to detach, but when pulled closed would make a water tight seal (or did at the time). Then when the water kicked on, it flowed through the pipes and showered the person inside with gentle rain from all around--all sides and above. I didn't check out the floor, but suffice to say the idea really stuck with me. Why don't fancy rich folks have these set ups today?
There was an automated wallpaper clear, a hand built 16 valve engine in a massively modified car, a series of toys that were automatons, an ergonomic chair with attached footrest, and a crow's nest that looked out across the Gem City. Even the house itself was a marvel. Because of its orientation, wind patterns, design, and tree coverings, it remained cool even on the hottest days. Opening the two doors at either end of the long hallway shot a breeze straight through the house, in to the center column where the stairs were, and down again through the kitchen and out the other side. In the basement their workbench is still there, and, interestingly enough still has the original Gerstner chest on it full of the brothers' tools. They knew the Gerstners, another Dayton family, and they, like myself, liked their stuff.
All of this makes it no surprise that airplanes sprang from their brain at a time when, just a few years before, scientists had believed that heavier than air flight was impossible. Their bike shop, which is next door to where my Dad's office is, is a maze of pulleys and contraptions. You can feel a charge in the air just by walking in--innovation is in the oxygen molecules of this building, it is a special place indeed.
These three pairs of brothers, all of whom lived within 30 years of each other, raised the bar for beauty, power, and innovation. Each revolutionized their field and their work and ingenuity are still impressive today.
So the question is, is there a set of brothers that did or are doing the same thing in knives? There are quite a few families--fathers and sons, husbands and wives--but for the fun of it, lets just use brothers. I reached out to a few experts, Jim Nowka and Jim Cooper, and they had a few suggestions. Nowka threw out Barry and Phillip Jones. Cooper suggested the, Nylunds, the Beggs and the Fischers. Here are my nominations:
Knife Bros Guess #1: The Beggs
Its hard not to choose the Beggs, especially when they have a show called "Blade Brothers" in their past. Todd's style, something that I have grown to appreciate, is extremely expressive and unique. You know a Begg when you see it, instantly. Mark and John were great on the show. There is no question that it was a family operation and that they produce some of the highest quality blades on the planet. My only reservation is that it seems that Todd is the driving force in the craft of knifemaking and the other two contribute in different ways. Still, if I were betting which brothers would still be known and sought after in a hundred years, it just might be the Beggs.
Knife Bros Guess #2: The Grimsmos
Knifemaking brothers of and for the IKC. The Grimsmos are pumping out some of the sweetest cutlery on the planet using state of the art methods and documenting all of it on their great YouTube channel and IG feed. Nick sent me his Norseman for review (which is still coming) and it was a marvel. Everything was snug and comfortable and clean. Ask around and you find few if any collectors that have anything negative to say about John and Eric's blades. The consensus seems to be "they make amazing knives." The only issue weighing against Grimsmos is that they very young. Its hard to build a legacy in only a few years, but they are certainly well on their way.
Knife Bros Guess #3: The Fischers
Frank and Todd Jr. make some of the cleanest most sought after knives in the custom world and with each new release (or Launch, oh the puns), their skills are more and more evident. Lots of people marvel at the Fischer more blingy tactical customs, but just about everything they produce is really, really nice. I don't know much about the division of labor among them, but based on knives alone, they need to be in the discussion.
Honorable Mention: The Pardues and Robert Carter
There are a lot of two generation knife makers, but these three are the only three generation knifemakers I know of. Interestingly, all three have had production collabs, but, in a weird turn, the Father and Son both had deals with Benchmade and the Grandson, Robert Carter has a deal with Ontario right now. It would be a great move for Benchmade, both in terms of their legacy and in terms of injecting new life into their line up to do a collab with Robert Carter.
Drop your suggestions in the comments.