little light music
Dan Wascoe • startribune.com • Monday, June 5, 2006
Steinway veneers to groovy (literally) concrete and
abstract metal art, artist and Renaissance man Thomas
Schrunk lives for the play of light on
Schrunk can't read music, but the folks who make Steinway
grand pianos consider him a virtuoso of veneer.
The 64-year-old St. Anthony artist soon will begin work on
his fourth art case piano for the famous keyboard
manufacturer. Art case Steinways are stunning applications
of visual arts to a musical instrument — the company makes
only three to six per year, and they're pricey.
of Schrunk's previous models, called Europa, features
walnut and matched swirls of Carpathian elm burls combined
with such panache that five bidders pursued it when it
became available last January. The winning bidder, Greene
Music of San Diego, now is asking $249,500 for Europa.
Schrunk has made four art cases for Steinway, but his
repertoire includes far more than pianos. He's made tables,
chairs, headboards, boats and floors with hundreds of
precisely configured pieces that create the illusion of
flowing streams. He also makes abstract brushed-aluminum
wall art, and he has a patent pending for a type of grooved
concrete that catches and reflects light from different
angles, changing appearance as the viewer moves past.
"I can put a [concrete] skin on a building and it looks
like it's made of silk", he said, "but when a cloud sweeps
over the sun, the whole building will be in movement."
Whether the medium is concrete or wood, the common thread
running through Schrunk's art is making light interact with
a variety of surfaces and textures.
Prelude to a piano
basement workshop includes fiberboard sheets laid atop a
little-used pool table. Nearby, dozens of cubbyholes hold
small stripsof different woods. Using his own graph paper
as a kind of road map to plot the flow of the grain, he
pieces those strips together. He pays attention to diagonal
and vertical lines, which "we see better" than horizontals,
"People say I'm more of an engineer than an artist," he
said, "and they may be right."
When he showed his designs, unsolicited, to Steinway, "They
saw diagonal bookmatching that had not been done before."
To woodworkers, bookmatching means placing precisely fitted
pieces side by side to create either the illusion of
seamless continuity or strikingly dramatic mirror-image
patterns. He uses "a big paper cutter" to match angles,
then massages glue between the strips before securing them
with blue masking tape.
He ships his sheets of finished veneer to Steinway's
factory in New York City, where burly workers press them
around the curves of the grand piano. A single sheet around
the rim can be 17 feet long, with enough excess to permit
Andrew Horbachevsky, Steinway's director of design in the
factory in Queens, said it takes "a certain kind of person"
to master Schrunk's style and craftsmanship — "detailed,
In addition, he said, Schrunk's "unpretentious" and
"thoughtful" personality strikes a chord at Steinway.
"You've got to have a good chemistry," Horbachevsky said.
"If not, the end product is not what we want. ... We get
very passionate about what we do."
was born on Christmas Day 1941, and was raised by his
mother, a teacher, and his father, an egg wholesaler, on a
small farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He left the University
of Iowa after his junior year to join the Peace Corps. That
included time in India, where he became interested in the
art of refracted light and the multiple repetitions of
symbols and designs in Islamic art. These principles would
inform his later work.
Returning to Des Moines, he earned a bachelor's degree in
general science in 1967 and a master's in art history in
1972. He also took architectural photographs in Yugoslavia,
where he met his wife, Vanca. They were married in 1973.
He earned a second master's, in architecture, at the
University of Minnesota and soon turned to restoring
stained-glass windows in Midwest churches, absorbing the
lessons of transmitted light. He also learned to sandblast
glue off glass in controlled ways to produce a unique
mottled effect. But he disliked inhaling sandblasting dust
and turned instead to making wood frames for stained glass
and pictures made entirely of veneers.
In 1988, to share time with his then-5-year-old son, he
built a small glass-bottom boat. It quickly found a buyer.
The following summer father and son built a bigger boat and
Schrunk used veneer to cover a joint. "That was the nut,
the kernel" of what was to come, he said.
Although his Northern Rhapsody Boatworks was a featured
attraction at the Minneapolis Boat Show in 1990, he grew
bored with boats and decided to launch, of all things, a
Influenced by his mother's caution that "Silence is
consent," Schrunk ran for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota in
1996 as an Independence Party candidate against Democratic
incumbent Paul Wellstone and Republican challenger Rudy
Boschwitz. Schrunk was fed up with politicians who "pass
laws willy-nilly" but don't practice "quality assurance" to
see whether they achieve promised benefits.
Although the party's nomination went to Dean Barkley,
Schrunk remains proud of one of his campaign buttons:
"Honey, we Schrunk the government." But once "realism set
in," he decided at age 55 that he wanted to be a fulltime
embarking on his next art case piano project, Schrunk is
preparing a line of veneered tabletops that other
woodworkers will attach to bases. The tables are to go on
display at Blue Sky Galleries in northeast Minneapolis this
Schrunk enjoys teaching other craftsmen the skills he's
picked up in a lifetime of watching light glitter, stream
and dapple and transforming that transience into something
more permanent — "something greater than the sum of its