By Emily Wright | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
In 1972, Czech violinist and master craftsman Joseph Kun was granted a patent for a new accessory he designed to help violinists support the instrument more ergonomically. The patent abstract reads:
A violin support for correct holding of the instrument when playing has a longitudinal rest member with two fork-shaped jaws at the ends thereof. The jaws engage the sidewall of the instrument and their position is adjustable with regard to the rest member in upright and longitudinal directions to enable proper positioning of the instrument and to allow the use of the support for various sizes of violins. The rest member is hand deformable and thus adjustable to the shape of the player’s shoulder portion backing the support.
Prior to that date, violinists and violists had a limited number of options to bridge the distance between the shoulder and chin. Many simply went without, and either altered their playing to accommodate the gap or learned to live with a painful neck. Some cobbled together homespun devices like sponges or layers of cloth meant to be tucked into a shirt or jacket collar for surreptitious support. Legends persist involving the literal attaching of the instrument to a player by means of a looped cravat (imagine the potential for things to move downhill quickly if a player’s sautillé was anything less than perfectly disciplined).
Compounding the need for some kind of mechanical intervention between violin and neck, the last 150 years have seen astonishing physical growth in humans. The average person today is nearly four inches taller than their 18th-century counterpart! As the 20th century progressed, players were being asked to play more athletically for longer periods of time. Kun’s experience teaching and playing coupled with his work as a luthier drove him to search for a solution to the unharmonious and distracting phenomenon of the slip-sliding violin versus the inclined head of its player. The Kun shoulder rest was born.
Two years after the patent for the Original was granted, Kun met his soon-to-be wife and business partner, Marina, when he was recommended as a violin teacher for her daughter Darya. They clicked immediately, and after marrying, Marina worked on developing the company and brand, while Joseph set about making improvements to the initial design. Each iteration was a near-instant success, with players of every stripe enjoying the simple, adjustable, handmade shoulder rest. Sometimes Marina and her daughters would get in on the action, gluing and attaching a covering to the curved metal base, one after the other. During this time, Kun was producing a few hundred rests per year. Thanks to Marina’s persistence, the company soon had to mechanize production to keep up with global demand. All the while, Joseph continued to craft prize-winning bows and remained an active member of the professional lutherie community. The couple hosted the Violin Society of America (VSA) convention at Kun headquarters in Ottawa in 1984.
The late 1980s and early ’90s were a time of growth and innovation for the family business. Years of use and feedback from players led to the development of two of the most recognizable shoulder rests on the market: the Super and the Collapsible, the latter of which was especially helpful for younger players. Collapsible legs allowed the shoulder rest to fit into cases easily, meaning they would not be left backstage, get lost at the bottom of backpacks, or go mysteriously missing when a student needed it most.
A few years after publishing The Art of Bow Making, Joseph Kun died, but the company continued to thrive under Marina’s leadership and experiment with modifications to its now-ubiquitous design. Since Joseph’s death, the company has doubled its range of models. For example, the Bravo model was created in response to players asking for a more elegant wooden look; each is handmade with European curly maple laminate. In 2004, the carbon-fiber technology that caused a revolution in everything from cello cases to airplane fuselages made its way into a Kun shoulder rest, the Voce. It would go on to win top prize for product design at Canada’s prestigious Design Exchange. It has since been retired to make way for the company’s latest model, the Seven.
Kun’s focus has always been on player comfort and functionality. I pressed director Juliana Farha—another of Marina’s daughters—about the small but vocal cadre of players and pedagogues who insist that any shoulder rest is an unnecessary impediment. “The moment you accept that the human body wasn’t designed to play the violin or viola for long stretches of time, a question arises about how to mitigate that. The catalog of pre–shoulder rest contraptions and workarounds attests to that imperative, and that’s what drove my stepfather. His goal was to make playing more comfortable, and that is still our mission.”
While Kun has never made acoustics a separate and discrete goal, it’s not clear that shoulder rests dampen sonority—another common criticism. Farha points out that the human body itself absorbs sound, while a shoulder rest lifts the instrument off the body with minimal contact with the violin, so it’s not clear that resonance is better served by trying to play without one. Going further, she adds “Most of the players who’ve tested [the Seven] so far have told us it actually enhances the sound of their instrument.” When asked about plans for the future, Farha hints that there are new things in the works, but it’s too early in the process of development to share.
Although she is mostly retired, Marina Kun still oversees the company, which is now managed by her daughters—with Juliana at the helm—and a small operations team. From a singular vision to a product sold in over 100 countries, the story of the Kun Company is an example of what can happen when a new idea finds the perfect champion at the right time.