When it comes to guitar design, what does it take to become a master luthier? For Rachel Rosenkrantz, it’s combining age-old techniques with modern design and manufacturing technologies. Drawing on her past as an architectural and industrial designer, Rosenkrantz brings a modern approach to the ancient craft of guitar making. Today, both amateurs and celebrities, such as Kaki King and The Smiths’ Andy Rourke, seek out her custom creations. In this video, Rosenkrantz reveals how she is able to innovate in a craft that has been around for centuries. In her words, “If it’s not scary, it’s not worth it.”
Rachel Rosenkrantz, Luthier: I think it’s really being exposed to so much process and to understand that design decisions and design choices are completely interlocked with how you’re going to do it. It’s being able, almost like a chess game, to think five steps ahead instead of just two steps ahead.
Making instruments was a—I daydreamed about it for too long to not do it. And when I was in design school in Paris, on my way to work, I walked by the Atelier de Maurice Dupont on Boulevard Dominion. And just to see the progress every day on my way to work, I thought that kind of combines design and craft and music. It’s a discipline that embodies everything I am passionate about.
I try to take risk in my work. Otherwise, I’m just going to confirm what I already know, and I’m going to get bored. So it’s more fun if there’s a risk. If it’s not scary, then it’s not worth it. My teaching impacts my design work in the way that I’m in touch again with why I went to art school in the first place. It forces me to question the assumptions because of the questions I get from my students: “Why is it like that?” Well, actually, it doesn’t have to be like that. My teaching days are like a fountain of youth.
If it’s a pencil or a computer mouse, for me, it’s the same. I sketch first by hand. I use 3D modeling a lot to double-check or triple-check. There’s an expression in woodworking: calculate twice, cut once. With 3D software, it’s beyond that. With 3D printing, I can make shapes that are not moldable, or it would be very difficult to mold, and now I can actually have that printed within 48 hours.
The soundboard, the invisible parts—what’s going on inside? It’s almost like a ceiling with beams. If the beams were not here, everything would collapse.
That part is not visible, but yet it is crucial, not only for the structure of the instrument but for the quality of the sound. You can really shape the sound that way. Still, too, seeing something as solid and rigid and tough as wood just start to really take the shape you want, with beautiful curves, it’s a pretty magical.
One problem can have more than one solution. You can arrive at the same result in different ways. Through school and my design profession, it was to innovate. But on my guitar making, I had a very old-world training on classical guitar, and I have these two worlds that live together now. So it’s how can I bring an innovative instrument without disrespecting what’s been done before? Because I don’t want to claim to reinvent the wheel. A lot of people have been in my shoes before. I can definitely learn from them.
I don’t like to say that in design there are rules. I think there are principles, then you can choose to use them or not, but be aware of them. So at least that what you do is deliberate. When you see the customer’s eyes getting their instruments and knowing the life it will have after, that’s pretty priceless.
It’s funny, in my previous discipline when I was delivering a project, I never got a hug from a customer. Every time I deliver a guitar, I have the best hugs in the world. It’s kind of nice.