I am a terrible chess player. I have some good standard opening moves, and my endgame has a lot of potential. However, after the excitement of the start of the game, my mind wanders. My problem is that thinking about how the game works is far more interesting to me than playing the game. Perhaps if I spent less time thinking about why the knight moves the way it does, and a little more time actually watching the knights, I would stand a better chance.
While my playing ability is questionable, the game still interests me, and I have great respect for gifted players. It should come as no surprise then, that I have made several unique chess sets. In each instance, I had an opportunity to create something with minimal constraints to time and scale. In short, the only real limitation was that the end- result still had to be recognizable as chess.
The first of these projects looks rather tame and conservative to me now. The opportunity arose when a wonderful friend and neighbor, decided to clean out, reorganize, and re-invigorate her pottery studio. She does not like working in her studio alone and encouraged me to start some sort of project. Not too long before this, while on a trip to Italy, I had seen an interesting chess set in Venice. The pieces of the set vaguely resembled African animals, and the board was made of ceramic tiles with jungle scenes painted on it. I liked the idea, but not the execution.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be fun to expand on the idea. The result was the ceramic “Jungle Chess” set. The King and Queen would clearly be a lion and lioness, the dignity of the silverback gorilla lent itself nicely to the Bishops. The unusual move made by the Knight, and the awkward nature of the rhino seemed to go together. The mass of the elephant seemed an appropriate representation of the Rook.
As I roughed out my ideas in clay, the pieces presented a certain “gravitas”. In contrast, I thought it might be fun to have the pawns present a contrary theme. I settled on monkeys. The main pieces of the set stare straight ahead; are grave, and dignified. The pawns (monkeys) on the other hand, are all extroverted individuals. Some monkeys make faces while others gesture wildly, moon each other, and basically; behave badly.
I really liked what I had come up with so far, but was not sure what to do with the board to make it interesting. The idea of tracking animals through the jungle gave me an idea. I made stamps out of soapstone for all the pieces King through pawn. Then, when I had made all the individual tiles that would makeup the chess board , I laid these out and stamped them as though the pieces had been running back and forth all over the board. I liked the result. Some of the more rigid features of the game had become barely contained chaos.
Tree House Chess:
Another opportunity presented itself when my friend Peter, announced that the second floor of his tree house would be dedicated to chess. I immediately thought that a chess set with a tree house theme could be “way cool”. What was more, since the whole idea of a grown man building himself a tree house appeared to throw people off balance, I thought it might be interesting if what would happen if what I created was less obviously a chess set. What I hoped to do was to make something that visitors to the tree house would be drawn to purely by form and shape without first recognizing its purpose.
In this case, the concept for the board, or table, came first, and the design of the pieces would come later.
I had an image in my mind of each square of the chessboard at a slightly different level, supported from below, by a small-scale forest. The squares would be almost like the leaves of the diminutive trees. Mind you, figuring out how to do this provided a bit of a challenge, but in the end, it was just a question of time spent in the woods looking at branches. Eventually, I achieved the look I was going for; it just took many gluing and varnishing sessions. Like so many projects, the only real demands it made of me as a person, were the patience and discipline to keep at it.
While working on the board, I began to think about the pieces. More complex than the Jungle Chess pieces, I wanted to stay with organic tree forms. My concern was that if I made all the pieces from branches, I still needed to distinguish the pieces from one another, as well as the two sides from one another. The solution I chose was to have the core of each chess piece made from a branch, or branches glued together; Faux cherry for the black pieces and Beech for the white. Where ornament was required, I would use acorns, pinecones, or bark. Where detailed ornament was required, I chose to use metal cut in leaf forms; silver for the white, and copper for the black.
I think the end-result is a success. A game played on such a three dimensional board is full of surprises.