Christoph Finkel Between steep cliffs and a power saw

Christoph Finkel at Formex Design Fair, Stockholm August 2012
Christoph Finkel at Formex Design Fair, Stockholm August 2012 | Photo (detail): Daniel Frisk

“I don’t invent my objects – I respond to the structure of the tree-trunk.” Christoph Finkel is a wood sculptor. Long a member of the German mountain climbing elite – the artist now lives and works in his home town of Bad Hindelang in the Allgäu.

What does climbing have to do with art? “There are parallels,” says Christoph Finkel. “You need a deep respect for nature for both – and both have to do with freedom. On the mountain it’s the responsibility of one’s own, free decisions, in the other case artistic freedom. And in both disciplines you go to the limits of natural parameters: when I’m climbing I follow the course of the cliff-face lines to find new routes. And when I’m turning wood on the lathe I have to adjust to structures and givens – that’s what makes it exciting. You develop your own potential in the process. (…) And – for both you have to have passion, creativity – and you can fail along the route just as you can in working a piece of wood.”

From the “Holzlädle” to the object

Finkel 12/2012 Wood: mountain maple, 11,5 x 21,5 cm Finkel 12/2012 Wood: mountain maple, 11,5 x 21,5 cm | Photo: Daniel Frisk A visitor to Finkel’s showroom will quickly notice that wood plays a central part in his life today: it is located behind the walls of an ancient half-timbered building in the little town of Bad Bad Hindelang. The famed “Holzlädle” of his father, Rudolf Finkel, third-generation wainwright and toolmaker with his workshop in the basement of the building, is right next door. While the father here fashions traditional sleighs, toboggans and precisely worked and beautiful objects of everyday use – toys, cutlery, cutting boards, the son’s creations seem a bit more exotic.

Christoph’s artistic bowls, vases and sculptures with their elegant, sensuous forms seem to breathe a Far-Eastern, Zen aesthetics. Scandinavian style influences are hinted at, as well. With their timeless, organic form language, the objects build a bridge between tradition and modernity. Christoph now sells his objects in galleries and showrooms throughout the world, in Chicago and Miami, Sweden and South Korea. Oak, sycamore maple and pear-wood are his favourite types of wood. He finds his hand-picked pieces on outings into the local mountain forest and carries them back to the valley himself.

At the pinnacle of the mountain-climbing scene

Formex tradeshow, Stockholm August 2012 Formex tradeshow, Stockholm August 2012 | Photo: Daniel Frisk As a child, Christoph, who was born in 1971, tended cattle on the mountain pastures. He still lives according to the seasons and nature: on winter days he searches the local mountain slopes for avalanche deposits and examines them for broken branches, and then waits until spring to collect the wood. “The tree-trunks can be as much as three hundred years old, you really feel respect,” he says. He works the wood in summer. This demands great attentiveness and concentration. He has the necessary stamina as well. Out and about in the mountains from childhood on, he soon clambered his way to the pinnacle of the climbing scene. As a top athlete, he won a number of awards in the early 1990’s and became world champion in sport climbing, and later worked as national coach for the German national team and the German Alpine Association. In 2000 he bade competition farewell after winning the German championship title in bouldering – he had achieved his goals, satisfied his performance drive. Today he only climbs privately.

The character of each log

  • Finkel 14/2008, Birke, 36,5 x 25,5 cm ©
    Finkel 14/2008, Birke, 36,5 x 25,5 cm
  • Finkel 11/2011, Birne, Size: 37 x 21,5 cm ©
    Finkel 11/2011, Birne, Size: 37 x 21,5 cm
  • Finkel 32/2011, Eiche, 41,5 x 20,5 cm ©
    Finkel 32/2011, Eiche, 41,5 x 20,5 cm
  • Finkel 43/2011, Pflaume, 25 x 20 cm ©
    Finkel 43/2011, Pflaume, 25 x 20 cm
  • Finkel 12/2012 Bergahorn, 11,5 x 21,5 cm ©
    Finkel 12/2012 Bergahorn, 11,5 x 21,5 cm
  • Finkel 14/2013, Apfel, 16,5 x 10,5 cm ©
    Finkel 14/2013, Apfel, 16,5 x 10,5 cm
His artistic passion absorbs him all the more: in 1992 he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg (Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Nürnberg), studied figurative work with nude models, was in his element – and additionally in the neighbourhood of popular climbing hot spots in the Franconian Jura Mountains. Precisely this kind of looking is what distinguishes Finkel. It becomes evident when he waxes lyrical about the qualities of the pieces of wood he has found: “Sycamore maple has light, almost porcelain-white wood. Apple wood on the other hand has a beautiful grain… I work it while it is moist because it shrinks a lot when it dries.”

Finkel makes deliberate use of this shrinking quality: he drills grooves into his objects, creating lamellas. During drying, the lamellas then form waves along the entire piece of wood. And he also includes the traces left by his tools. With his tools, Finkel draws out the character of each piece of wood.

Christoph Finkel at Bärgündeletal, Oberallgäu Christoph Finkel at Bärgündeletal, Oberallgäu | Photo: Angelica Finkel “Most often I have a rough idea of the future form when I begin to fillet the log. When I’m turning a piece of wood on the lathe, I trace the hollow spaces and structures – the older the wood, the more tangled it is. This way of doing things has a great dynamism of its own and brings surprises with it. This way, a kind of communication arises between the wood and me.” Up to three months can pass from preparation of the wood to the dried and finished object; Finkel must monitor this process with the greatest care. Under these circumstances it seems perfectly reasonable that these unique pieces can ultimately cost up to 3000 Euros. Today a handful of select galleries and trade fairs are proud to exhibit his objects, for instance the design gallery Luminaire in Chicago. At the Salone del Mobile 2012 in Milan, together with textile designer Paola Lenti, Finkel held a highly successful exhibition in Chiostro dell'Umanitaria.

He does not ask himself whether his works are art or design. “Preconceived categories and dogmas just don’t interest me. You have either good or bad work, that’s the criterion that matters.” He is happiest wandering between the disciplines, between the worlds.