Snow is falling outside of Rachel Rosenkrantz’s studio, and there’s just enough pale winter light seeping in through the window to set aglow the neatly organized rows of tools that hang from her walls on magnetic strips. One such tool is something called a dozuki – a Japanese-style woodworking saw that cuts on the pull stroke, rather than the push. The dozuki, she explains, is great for making narrow cuts into the fretboard of a guitar, something she finds herself doing for hours at a time now that she’s a full-time luthier.
In the late 1990s, when Rachel was a sophomore studying design at ESAG-Penninghen in her native Paris, she used to walk past the workshop of a guitar maker named Maurice Dupont, known for his gypsy-style jazz guitars. Trained in classical guitar herself, she became fascinated with the work being done at Maurice’s shop, stopping in every day to watch his progress, and eventually inquiring about an apprenticeship there.
Although she was only 18 at the time, the feeling was that it wouldn’t make sense for a woman who’s already been accepted at a prestigious art school to take the seat of say, a 14-year-old boy who might not finish high school. So she left music and luthiery by the wayside and decided to focus instead on visual art.
Flash forward 15 years, after a semester abroad at RISD, a successful career in product design and an apprenticeship at Shady Lea Guitars in North Kingstown, and Rachel is sitting at her drafting table making sketches for the soundboard of an acoustic guitar. At some point after moving to Providence, she picked up music again and eventually decided it was time for a career change. “I was lucky that with my different work experiences I got to learn about the design process from A to Z,” says Rachel. “But when I wasn’t working with my hands I really missed it. And when I started to play music again, that’s when I realized I still wanted to design instruments.”
Today Rachel repairs, restores, designs and builds stringed instruments full time at her studio. When she’s not excavating the instruments of other local musicians, Rachel plays upright bass and guitar in her own bands, most recently with a harpist in a two-piece they’re tentatively calling Hyperprism. “It’s sort of a folk hybrid,” she says, “like obscure medieval central European – super spooky.”
This past year, Rachel teamed up with local artists Jen Long and Will Schaff to create the Whale Guitar, a collaborative art project with the mission of raising awareness about the plight of whales. Basing her design on drawings and ideas from Will and Jen, Rachel sculpted the whale-shaped, Moby Dick-themed electric guitar out of mostly recycled materials. The guitar is now being exhibited and played at whale benefits, and will ultimately be auctioned off to raise money for whale conservation activism.
In addition to this, Rachel teaches spatial dynamics at RISD, and even finds time for projects on the side, like custom making the dozen or so beer tap handles behind the bar at Faust, the Germanstyle beer hall at the Dean Hotel in Providence. Rachel’s work has been shown at exhibits like Carousel du Louvre in Paris France, the Hangaram Art Museum in Seoul, Korea and at the RISD Museum, amongst other places. And while Pawtucket might be a far cry from the boulevard in Paris where she used to watch Maurice work, Rachel says it absolutely feels like home to her.