Tuesday, October 11, 2011


This is our friend Dennis
when our second son was born this summer, a friend said to "there is a meadow on our land that we use for family occasions.  We have planted some trees there to commemorate various important dates, and if you would like to plant a tree up there for Charlie, we would love that."  Such a beautiful baby present, and of course we took him up on it.

It being only a couple of weeks after Charlie was born, Karen was not up to joining us, though she came to the house to introduce the baby.  My mother was in town, and Thomas came along.  Planting trees is such a joyous and hopeful thing, and it is always even more fun to do it with a group, so I was glad there were so many of us.  And we are trying to teach Thomas as many different creative acts as we can, so I was especially glad he would be there.
And this is our friend Jeannie

On the kind of summer day usually reserved for movies and greeting cards, we went all started up the side of the hill behind their house. The woods and the landscape up here remind me so palpably of the landscape where I grew up, it is like putting on a favorite shirt.  The woods we walked through had all been fields when our friends were young here, so this is a callow woods, lots of young, straight trees, reaching for the sun, the leaves a range of brilliant sap green where the sun hit them to the deep emerald of late summer.  Because this had been farmland we walked past some apple trees, long grown gnarly with their twisted trunks but still bearing fruit.
Setting out with Boy and trees

We don't spend as much time in woods as I would like, partly a function of living in a city and partly a function of how tightly my time is leveraged, and it was a pure joy to simply be surrounded by trees.  The air tastes different, the sun feels different on the skin.  On a sunny day in the woods there is something that makes me feel so safe, so tiny, and so hopeful, I miss it.

We walked out of the canopy of trees into the meadow, the bright sun suddenly brighter, and talked a little about things that had happened here over the years; a marriage, celebrations of different kinds.  We met the trees already there, a twenty-year-old maple planted for a niece when she was born, an oak tree planted as an acorn from the green at Yale University when my friend was a student there.  Maples grow so fast, it was so much taller and broader than the oak at the same age, these memories and markers in time manifesting differently depending on how we choose to commemorate them.

I had brought two saplings, both seedlings that took root from the big silver maple in our backyard.  One was from last spring and the other from this spring, one for each boy.  I liked that they came from our home, and that there would be a connection, as the boys grow and play in tree houses that we build in the tree or ride swings hung from the branches, these two young maples will be quietly growing on a meadow at the crown of a hill.  We have plans to visit them frequently, to say hello to help us stay mindful of different ways of celebrating new lives.

Thomas helped by putting dirt around the saplings after the holes were dug and by holding worms for us.  Compared to planting trees in our backyard, which has seen a lot of use and is pretty tightly packed, the loose, lovely loam of the meadow offered little resistance to the shovels, eager to accept the new life of the trees.

The markers that I made to be with each tree will decay in time, as the trees themselves grow larger and stronger, and in a year or two they won't be needed at all, and the trees will have their own identities, as our two sons are starting to do already.

Monday, October 3, 2011

a new bench

The old bench, rotted at the bottom of the legs and dusty
when we moved into our house there was a room in the basement that had obviously been a workroom or shop for many years.  It is where I set up my studio as well, and for the first several months I piled stuff on top of an old workbench that had been left in the corner.  The basement is pretty wet, and the legs of this bench had been standing in water for decades, slowly rotting from the floor up.  The top, with its marks of saws and hammers, rings from paint cans and globs of long-dried glue, was a Dead Sea scroll of home owning and fixing, upgrading and making that had been happening at this bench likely since before I was born.

Various sizes of lumber, with huge screws
I have no idea who made this thing or when it was put together, but I am tied to that maker by geography, as it was obviously built in this room.  It is too big to fit out the door as it is, so I am pretty sure it was built in here and has been here since.  It was cobbled together out of pine, all construction-grade, all different sizes, and all obviously scavenged from some other original purpose.  There is a row of holes drilled across the back, storage for screwdrivers and chisels all now packed and moved to where ever the maker now lives, if he is still living.  There are the long straight lines incised into the top that tell me about many and many a saw cut with a handsaw, much like the saws that I use myself.  It was held together with huge #12 screws, most of which were rusted in place.  These screws were sunk into end grain and used in ways that let me know that this was not a woodworker, this was someone with a knack for making stuff and a need for a bench.  This was not a woodworkers bench, smooth and clean and level, with precise and strong vises, ready to hold a piece of material for delicate planing in preparation for a precise and tight-fitting joint.  This was a rough-and-ready mostly flat surface, built quickly to simply give a place to stand and work on a variety of projects from building a Boy Scout pinewood derby racer to rewiring a faulty light fixture.  Of course I fell in love.

Grandfather's bit brace
I could not use it as it was, and I had designated that corner of the shop as the place for the outfeed table for the chop saw, so the bench needed a new home.  And possibly a new identity.  I started to take it apart with the idea that I might make it into a new bench, someday.  Taking it apart was a journey in itself, as I could watch the maker trying to fit his scavenged lumber together in a way that would stand up.  Some of the pieces were too short and did not meet quite flush.  Some of them had huge nails augmenting the screws as they inevitably loosened over the years.  Removing these rusty screws is not something one can do casually.  It can not be done well with a power drill, no matter how careful one is.  The best tool remains a bit brace with a good, sharp screwdriver bit.  I used my grandfather's, and slowly and painfully removed the screws one by one.  The rust was mostly on the surface, and I can use those screws again, as you can see, and I saved them all against that.  They were remarkably well preserved down inside the ancient two-by-fours.

This resulting pile of dusty and rotting pine has been sitting in my shop now for over a year, waiting to be something one day.  Other projects became more important, and the wood, which had been waiting quietly for so long after all, was content to wait a little longer.  Then I read this post by my friend and colleague Niels about a little saw bench he had made.

The thing about a Western style workbench like the one in his shop and mine is that they are built to hold material while you plane it, at about 36" off the ground.  If you use a handsaw at this height, all the power comes from your arms, which are comparatively weak.  For longer-term sawing, and for greater precision, it is better to have the material below you, and use gravity to help you push the saw blade down.  Especially if you are rip sawing, or cutting along the grain a long board.  Shorter sawing benches like the one in his post help the maker take advantage of gravity and reduce fatigue.  In addition, you are pushing in to the bench and thus in to the floor, a very stable action, as opposed to laterally across a bench, in which operation your bench wants to tip or skid across the floor.  So I decided that I could use a sawing bench.  In addition, it would act as a workbench for my constant studio mate, who is only about 30" tall himself and can't reach my bench yet.

I preserved the old marks of use
I had thought that I might plane all of the boards down until they were clean and smooth, but I could not bear to do it.  It would be like erasing the names from the front of a family Bible, a negating of the service that lumber had done for decades.  So in the end I just surfaced it enough to give me the flat and smooth surface I need to do my work well, and left the scars and badges of honor, the old paint and the odd nail still embedded.  Even so, the lumber fought me:  It did not like being meddled with.  A hidden screw dulled my handsaw with a shriek.  The old lumber split several times as I was cutting joints and had to be glued back together before I could continue.  In the end though, we came to an understanding, the old lumber and I.  In the end we have a wary peace, and are willing to try working together this way for a little while.

I drilled some holes for a holdfast, and a handle, all while my son looked on.  He learned the word "holdfast" and what it does, he helped me file the edges on the handle.  Next time we are in the shop, he will hammer nails at this little saw bench, and the next time I am hand sawing I will have a sturdy piece of furniture to assist me.  And maybe I will make a second one out of the remaining lumber so that I have a pair.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

tools and newness

i haven't corroborated this but I was told a while back that the most common surgery performed in the world is one that is typically performed (in the U S at least) by the least qualified person in the room.  Imagine this:  a room full of doctors, residents, nurses, nursing students, one patient and that patient's family member.  Now imagine that a surgical procedure needs to be performed and the job is carefully prepared and then handed off the the sleep-deprived, terrified family member of the patient.  Sounds a little silly, but that is what the cutting of the umbilical cord has been for the birth of both of my sons.

At first I objected to the whole process on a couple of grounds:  first, as I say, that maybe medical professionals should perform medical procedures, not furniture makers.  Second, that it seemed a little patriarchal and condescending to me that the birth partner who has not done very much of the biological and physiological heavy lifting should, as a final flourish,  perform this very theatrical act.  It felt old-fashioned and arrogant in a "I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it" sort of way. 

All of that said, I did cut both cords in the end and I am glad I did, though it is hard for me to articulate why I am glad about it.  As surgeries go, it is a pretty hard one to screw up, after all.  And it did sort of make me feel involved a little more directly.  But it was not the act of the cutting that I wanted to write about specifically here.  It was William H Ditmars, who I never met.

William H Ditmars was a country doctor in rural Michigan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I don't know a lot about him which is more my failing as a student than anything else.  The person who does know a fair amount about him is his grandson, who is the family historian.  He is also my father.  It was from my father that I learned to be so sentimental about objects and to revere the stories that we layer on to objects and to do my best to pass those along.  My father is the current curator of the Museum of the Collection of Leonard Family Artifacts, a duty which he is in the process of disseminating to those of us in my generation in the family.

My father and I share (in addition to membership in the Museum, of course) a love of tools.  Not just wood working tools, though we both love those as well, but any tools.  I am fascinated by the human drive to affect the physical world and by the lengths we will go to as a species to give in to that drive.  Humans as tool makers have made such incredibly complex artifacts in our quest to give shape to our world and understand it, and it never ceases to amaze me.  I love any well-made tool, whether it is for cooking or carving or looking or listening or fixing people or objects or making stuff. 

It also interests me to look at the ways the tools that we use often evolve, or don't.  There are wood planes from ancient Rome that are nearly identical to the planes that I use, for example.  When we find a design that works it can stick around for millennia.  Then again, we are still so unsure how we feel about talking to someone that is not in the room with us that cell phones are not the same month to month.  The process of tinkering is innate in us as creatures, the need for constant refinement of our tools.

When I cut the umbilical cord on my first son, I was handed a standard pair of surgical snips.  Just sharp scissors with short blades, really.  The umbilical cord is rubbery and slick, and as I cut it sort of slid away from the blades, making for an awkward action that took longer than it needed to and scared me because I felt like I was holding things up and doing something wrong.

A few months ago, my father gave me these and asked what I thought they were.  Obviously they are surgical snips of some kind, of course, and they are obviously quite old, as they have certain visual qualities that place them æsthetically in the first part of the twentieth century.  They fit nicely on my fingers, and the curved blades still slide very satisfyingly past each other.  Not being a medical historian I had no idea what they were for specifically, of course.   My father said that they were umbilical cord snip and that they had belonged to his grandfather.  You see where this going.

These purpose-made little snips, with curved blades that capture the cord so it does not slide away as you cut, were designed for one thing and one thing only.  And I was going to be called upon to perform that act in the near future.  How could I not ask the doctor if it was ok?  His response was that there would be clamps on either side of the cut, and then another clamp at the baby's belly, so there was no risk of infection, so why not?  We have a very patient doctor who is pretty amused by us as a pair, I think, and this was just another weird question from us.  He is getting used to it.

Yesterday at about 10.20 in the morning, I used my great-grandfather's umbilical cord snips to cut my second son's cord.  I had carefully boiled them for a long time and kept them in a sealed ziplock bag in my pocket for three days, as you don't get an opportunity like this often and I did not want the moment to come and have them lying on the counter at home.  The moment came, I cut the cord, and they worked beautifully, performing the same action that they had been created to perform a hundred years ago.  It is so satisfying to use a well-designed tool.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

success story

this is Alison.  She was a senior last year in the program in which I teach.  Like many of my students, she did not have a lot of experience fabricating, and like many interior designers (young and old) she had designed a lot of furniture on paper without a heck of a lot of understanding of what the lines she was drawing would translate into in real life.

As our world gets increasingly more fragmented (not just a doctor but a pediatric surgeon, not just a historian but a medieval European historian, not just a designer but an interior designer for office environments), the sheer amount of information we become responsible for often requires us to don blinders, to lose sight of larger contextual realities.  As designers, especially, it is our job to not just remove the blinders, but to replace them with special lenses that allow us a 360 degree view of the world.  Our job is to make connections, to examine relationships critically, to build bridges.  The way that I try to do this in my teaching life is by enabling design students to also fabricate the things and spaces they have designed, to add a dimension to their design work; that is, to add designing with their hands to the designing they are already doing in their heads.

Every student I have worked with here has really taken to the process.  Making is such an inherently hopeful and empowering act that it is hard to avoid getting caught up in the sheer joy and excitement of helping raw materials become an object through the use of your own hands and eyes and mind.  This was the case with Alison. 

Outside the faculty offices on the 6th floor of the Warehouse (the building in which the Design Department is housed) we needed a furniture object to give us a place to put pamphlets, to display new materials, and to collect student work and projects.  This is exactly the kind of real-world opportunity that we look for, of course.  Client-driven, a clear set of requirements (what we call a "program"), and a scale that is achievable in a semester.  I asked around in our senior class and Alison leapt at the chance.

Over the course of the semester Alison submitted different designs and we talked about materials.  Our department has a great interest in sustainable practices so she wanted to find a material that would fit within that thinking but of course "sustainable material" is a little hard to define.  Where it comes from is a factor, as is the way the material is harvested and the way it is processed, shipped, and sold.  Wading through all of this requires research and diligence, and eventually Alison found a local company that specialises in LEED certified materials.  They had three sheets of a product called Plyboo, which is made out of bamboo (a rapidly renewable resource) that had been water stained and had been refused by a client.  The company would not take the sheets back either, and they were sitting gathering dust in their storage.  This kind of "front end salvage" plays a large role in my studio work, of course, and we were excited to be able to rescue it from limbo.

The linear quality of the material itself drove the lines of the design, and we ended up with a clean, simple form that really showcases the material well.  Another former student (who is from Vermont where they have a lot of cows) serendipitously emailed me about a company called Vermont Natural Coatings that is making no-VOC furniture finish out of whey, a byproduct of the cheese-making process.  They were very nice over there and sent us some sample finish, and I can report that it is very easy to apply and that it looks really nice.

The cabinet was screwed together with stainless steel screws

End result:  A real-world student designed and fabricated object made with rapidly renewable material and finished with an experimental, renewable, no-VOC finish.  That's a good day.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

maker's guilt

over the last few months I have started in on a side project making musical instruments, the beginnings of which I wrote about here.   I have started a side blog about this project, which I am calling "Salt City Found-Object Instrument Works" and which can be accessed at that link.  Syracuse got its start because of the salt flats here and so is informally known as Salt City, which I really like.  It is gritty, just like the town is, and utilitarian, just like the town is.  The new blog is really just a place for me to chronicle the instruments that I make, it is not too terribly deep an exploration into what they are conceptually, but that is okay, that is the kind of thing I reserve for this blog.

As I have been making more and more of these found object instruments out of tins and cans and sticks, I have been trying to approach the whole process by applying an absolute minimum of "woodworkeriness."  Whenever I pick up a hand plane I stop and try to come up with a different way to accomplish what I am doing.  Before I go to the table saw I ask if that is really necessary.  The idea is that I want to make these instruments as accessible as possible, right down to the manufacturing of them.  If I can really make a twenty dollar guitar using only the most rudimentary hand tools, then anyone can.  Which means (I hope) that the ability to make music could be at anyone's fingertips.  I have been working lately on a commission for a banjo, which I will write about over at the Instrument Works at some point, I think, that has turned into quite a wood working project, and I feel myself slipping away from the original roots of this endeavor.  The next one will be  more direct, I hope, and a little more basic.

The part of these that I have not tried to make yet is the tuning pegs.  There are friction-fit pegs in fiddles and dulcimers, of course, but I have not yet broached that, instead going to the local music store to buy tuners that actually I can get on line.  I have a couple of problems with this:  one, that I should probably just order these, since it would be cheaper and more convenient, and two, that I am just buying pre-packaged tuners and that feels like cheating.

I have been noticing this phenomenon occurring more and more in my life lately:  what I have started to call maker's guilt.  Whenever the subject of buying something comes up, I have started to instinctively recoil and think "but I could make that!"  It has started to seem counterintuitive to me to buy something that I could make myself.  This is a relatively new phenomenon in my life and it has not started suddenly.  Rather, it has been a slow washing in of a tide over several years as I learn the processes behind bringing objects in to being.  Not too many years ago I thought nothing at all of buying Ikea furniture, as I like the æsthetic and it was cheap.  Now the thought of doing that really gets under my skin, even though there is no way I could ever make it as cheaply or get it into our lives as quickly.  Knowing that I know how to do it and that it is only a lack of will or desire that stands in the way of me making everything in our house sits poorly with me.

Obviously this is unrealistic.  Obviously I can not make everything in our lives.  It would take the fervor of an extremist to try to do so, and even then, I would not make very good shoes, probably, or particularly flattering clothes.  Or a car that works.  Or a stove or a computer or a bike.  Or even guitar tuning pegs, really.  There are things that it has to be okay to have other people do, there are objects that it has to be okay for other people to make for me or do for me.  I have no trouble, for example, hiring electricians to do electrical work on the house, or plumbers either.  And doing so keeps money in the local economy and allows those people to help provide support for their families.  So it is not reprehensible, it might even be socially and economically necessary.

That knowledge does not change how I feel, though.  I have felt maker's guilt rising more and more strongly in me in the last few months, and I have had to be pretty thoughtful about quelling it.  It takes a real effort to let go, to not cringe when I buy something that I could make if I tried, even if I could not do it very well.

None of this is intended to be an apology for being a consumer.  I think it is more that I am trying to figure out where I sit relative to the things that I consume and more importantly how to talk to my sons about that.  They are coming in to a world on a precipice, and their generation will have to be so much more thoughtful about what and how they consume and about their responsibilities as denizens of an extremely rich country.  I hope that I can help them find a meaningful and less damaging way to negotiate their world by thinking about how I negotiate mine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

birth. day.

birthdays have always seemed more or less nominal to me.  They are a marker in time that often does not have a lot to do with accomplishment of deed or of a meaningful place-marker in one's life.  Twenty-one, for example, is supposed to be a big deal, but I turned twenty-one three days after starting a new job in a town where I knew no-one and spent the day completely uncelebrated.  That rankled me a lot at the time.  Now, eighteen years later to the day, it matters not at all.

That said, it is a useful way to take stock and to acknowledge that many ways I am fortunate.  I use that word - "fortunate" - advisedly (or as advisedly as possible).  I am not a fan of "lucky."  Luck is arbitrary, the face value of cards dealt you after a shuffle, and I have to say that I feel that life is structured in a more meaningful way.  Fortune, on the other hand, has more of a crafted implication, one makes one's own fortune, sometimes.  My facebook page today is a massive list of well-wishers, and each one makes me smile and reminds me of stories and of a particular time or times in my life, like counting back the rings of a tree and seeing years of plenty and years of drought, moments of joy or sadness or love.  Lots of love.  I believe it was true when that person said that we come into the world with nothing and we leave it the same and what makes our lives matter is the people we impact along the way.

Given that rubric, I am massively rich.  Today I have heard from people I knew twenty years ago and people I have met in the last month.  FaceBook is good like that.  I have had the good fortune to pass through the lives of a lot of people, and I am thankful for you all.  I am thankful for  your patience, your perseverance, your heavy-handedness when it was called for, your light touch when that was needed.  I am thankful for students that heard what I said and for teachers that said what I needed to hear.  I am thankful for musicians that played new chords and for singers that sang the words I knew.  I am thankful for family and friends and for the fact that I am able to say today that I am making a difference in the way that I live my life, even if that difference is small.

I spent today exhausted and joyful and still learning, and I ate well and drank a lot and had a surprise cake and finished the day with family and a kiss from my son and a kiss from my wife.  That is a good day.

I used to yearn for age and experience.  I spent a lot of time wishing that I was older and knew more and had the cache that experience and wisdom bring.  I know a lot of people that spend a lot of time and money trying to look or seem younger, thinner, sexier.  Tonight, I am ecstatic to be just exactly where I am, who I am, as old as I am.  If this is the beginning of 38, it is going to be a hell of a year.

Friday, May 20, 2011

in defense of a theater education (did I really just write that?)

i remember very little about the beginning of high school.  I am sure I was scared and I am sure that I tried to find my way in this new world.  What I do remember is that early on I got involved with the theater crowd.  In a high school that mostly served poor rural white kids and bussed in poor urban black kids, it is not much of a stretch to understand that drama was not a particularly high priority.  The drama classes and drama club then were run by a singular person named Maggie Griffen.  Maybe another time I will write about her, today I have been thinking about all that ensued.

Suffice it to say that she welcomed me and (along with the other drama club folks) nurtured me and brought me along.  Eventually I started volunteering at the local community theater (beginning a relationship that lasted until I finally got out of the entertainment biz entirely almost twenty years later), where I was taken under the wing of the technical staff and trained in what would later become my vocation.  This training was not, at first, a classroom training, but rather an apprenticeship of sorts.  We worked in the shop two nights a week, and when we got closer to show time we worked more and more until we were basically there whenever we were not at work or at school.  Then the show would come down and we would start the process all over again.

It was a magic time.

My jobs within that community started out as menial jobs, and as I learned more by watching and by doing and by being shepherded by very patient people I was given increasingly complicated tasks.  These culminated in being in charge of whole groups of people and large projects by the time I was a senior.  A senior in high school.  I had apprenticed and learned on the job management skills, carpentry, electrician work, plumbing, upholstery, painting, rigging, all manner of jobs.  I had learned these skills by doing, by using my hands alongside the hands of people who had been doing this since before I was born, by watching as much as by being told.

I went on to college, first at a state university and then at the recently re-named University of North Carolina School of the Arts (many of my peers are as unimpressed by the name change as I am, but there it is.  Times change).  At these schools I honed my skills, learning the "why" behind the "what."  I grew up a little, I learned a little more respect (not enough, but it is a slow process for a 20 year old boy).  Then on to New York to work in the field; cocky like a lot of young people, narrow minded like a lot of young people, self-absorbed like a lot of young people.  Though it would be some years before I started to hone in on what was missing (a socially active component, and ecologically sound component), a lot of how I move through the world was already in place:  a desire to work and work a lot, a need to use my hands, a passion for working with a group of people, the inability to sit in an office alone.

This all came to a head yesterday morning when I came in to the shop.  A colleague had asked me to make something for him.  A small project, very easy for me, just not as possible for him as he has a different skill set and does not have the equipment that we do.  So first thing in the morning I started in on this little job.  It was only after I was done an hour later that I realised that I had just reaped the benefits of my theater education:  I had worked quickly but precisely, thinking on the fly and planning as I went  - not in a haphazard way, in a very considered way but also very rapidly - I had moved material through the shop and executed the project at as high a level of craft as I could (which is certainly good enough for this project) and had, in an hour, finished and could move on to the next project.

This was only possible because of my theater training, and it was very satisfying.  It made me grateful for my early apprenticeship and for my later formal education, for my journeyman phase in the City, for all of the teachers and mentors along the way.  So I started to make a list of what I learned in the late eighties and early nineties in the course of all of this, the beginning of which is below.  This is an incomplete list, but pretty impressive:

Manual Skills:  carpentry, welding/brazing/soldering, upholstery, plumbing, electrics, tile work, furniture construction, painting, faux finishes, stitching, patterning, embroidery, rigging, leather work

Managerial skills:  group dynamics, time management, interpersonal communication, budgeting (okay, I don't use this a lot, but I know how to do it if forced as I have been over the years occasionally), adherence to a deadline.

Life Skills:  basic physics, basic geometry, problem solving, teaching, work ethic, finding joy and pride in my craft, respect for others, respect for and a love of history

There is more to the list, but that is a good start.  This post has turned self-congratulatory, which is a little grating to read, I know.  But this is meant to be less about me personally and more about the education itself.  There is a lot wrong with the entertainment industry, as there is with just about every industry, but the education has a lot about it that is right, too.  I have a zero desire to return to that field, but if either of my sons said to me that they wanted to pursue a theatrical education I would encourage that completely.  And as they grow and develop, I think it will be important to me that making and using their hands constantly will continue to be central to their learning.  

There is a bit of misdirection involved in this kind of education.  The focus is often on completing the task at hand, the skills that are being learned may not be acknowledged or even obvious.  But the deeper learning that comes from, for example, using a saw to cut twenty platform legs all to the same length does not leave one, even decades later.  I am very fortunate for the education I have received.  I am fortunate that I had the legions of caring and dedicated and patient teachers.  And I am profoundly thankful for all of it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

making and community

the State University of New York (SUNY) school of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) has been working on a biomass project with willow trees for about twenty years now.  Shrub willow, it turns out, is a pretty amazing plant.  Rapidly renewable, a good source of heat, a great candidate for phytoremediation, there is a lot to recommend it.  It also grows long and straight, and is very supple, which makes it a great candidate for weaving into furniture and other things, which is what I spent yesterday morning doing.

We have an event on campus called S U Showcase, which showcases student work from all over the college that has happened this year.  Last year, there was also an official opening of a rain garden that had just been completed on campus, that had been designed by ESF students.  It happened to co-incide with the time of year that the Willow Project folks are cutting down, or "coppicing" all of the willow plants, so that they will grow back the following year.  So we got some of the willow up here and I worked with faculty and staff and students to make a hollow form to celebrate the garden.  We all had fun (though it was cold and rainy), and the end result was pretty good.

Alexandra Fiust and I getting the basic structure in place.
This year, Dr. Rachel May, who ran the Showcase, asked me to do another structure, this time on the quad.  Of course I leaped at the chance to play with twigs again.  I went down and got three thousand or so stalks of purpurea, a species that grows long and straight and makes great furniture as well as sculptural objects, and then found a willing student to come down and help me start weaving them together.

One of the things that happens when you are doing something weird in public (like on the quad of a university) is that passersby fall in to one of three general categories: 1) too cool to even acknowledge that anything is going on; 2) interested but unwilling to engage, afraid that they will be tainted somehow by the weirdness; or 3) interested and engaged and willing to jump in and be weird as well.  It is interesting to me how many people fall in to category 2.  We had a bunch of people who stopped and watched, but when I asked them to weave a twig in they backed away as if I were handing them a basketful of slugs.  These folks are the well-trained products of a system and culture that teaches us that we can not be makers, that we have somehow been divested of permission to be a part of a creative experience unless we are specifically trained to do so.

But then there were fair number of people who fell in to category 3, who grabbed a twig and added it to the form.  One only needs hands to make this kind of thing, so no knowledge of special tools or techniques is required.  I tell folks that the only rule is that they weave the twig in , and if it stays, they have done it right.  They usually laugh and say something about how they will probably ruin the structure, to which I usually crack wise and try to get them to laugh, so that they are more at ease.  Some people actually get into the process and start to weave more and more twigs in, which is when I really feel like things are progressing well.  I got to meet a lot of people on the quad yesterday morning, people I would never have met otherwise.  I met a Spanish teacher, an art historian, a grad student who is the assistant coach for the cross-country track and field team, the administrative assistant of the math department.  Once they understood that there were no rules, that the twigs just get woven in and that is that, they were a lot more likely to join in.  Which was the point, after all.

This kind of project is always about community to me.  The individual twigs are very supple and have very little inherent structural integrity.  But as they get woven together, they start to support each other, just like people in a successful community.  Like people in a successful community, the twigs come together to create something that is very stable, and that is stronger by far than any of the individual twigs.  Like people, they all have to bend a little, but not break.  They all have to interact with the other twigs to hold them up and be held up by them.  And the material really dictates the finished form.  Though I start out with a basic idea about what I want it to be, each stick adds its own voice, its own pressure, altering the whole a little bit.  The finished form is actually quite strong, and may be close to the original idea, but is shaped by the multitude of voices of the twigs that make it up.  Beautiful, really.

The finished structure.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

information storage

there is a cardboard box in my attic that I have moved five times in the last fifteen or so years.  It is stuffed full of letters that long ago girlfriends wrote to me, answering letters that I wrote to them.  The last time we moved I looked at them again and made the mistake of actually reading a couple of them.  They were about what one would expect, I probably don’t have to expound upon them here.  You probably have a similar box or two yourself.  It is touching to look at these folded pieces of notebook paper, to vaguely remember a time in my life when I knew all of the answers and was so sure that I was right about everything I had an opinion about.

The names conjure images of faces and times, and even in this too-connected age I have not been able to find some of these folk again.  Not that I know what I would talk about with them after twenty years.  I hope that I am profoundly different from the person that they wrote to, I hope that I am more patient and more thoughtful and more aware of others and of the world around me.

I wanted to throw that box out when we moved, it seemed to have so little to do with my life now.  I am not likely to get the letters out and read them again, and I doubt there is anything in them that would be of interest even to twenty-year-olds that wrote them, let alone to anyone else.  But I could not throw them away.  I held the box in my hands and I tried to let it and its contents drift out of my life, but then I thought “what’s one more box?” and packed the letters back up and brought them with us.

This whole series of thought came about because the New York Times ran an article about Friendster.
I was not cool enough to understand why Friendster would be attractive to people.  When I first heard came across it I was skeptical in the extreme and mostly ignored it (ironic, as I am now an avid Facebook user).  I had some acquaintances that were on Friendster, though, and when MySpace started up I joined that, which was the beginning of my life on social networks.  I am not interested in making a value judgment about any of these methods of interaction, the article was about something more profound.
Friendster is apparently going to wipe its servers clean of a great deal of information soon.  In the computer world it is ancient, almost ten years old.  It has fallen out of favor and is trying to re-invent itself; as a part of that is dumping a great deal of old information, some of which has not been accessed for years.

But the article quoted a person who met and courted their spouse on Friendster, and who was saying that all of their early correspondence was through Friendster and was slated to be erased.  I would imagine that person was one of hundreds if not thousands who met and courted that way, and who have been trusting the servers at Friendster (or MySpace or Facebook) to be their cardboard box in the attic.  Even though we don’t access those letters often or ever it is important that they are there, that there is a record of our loves and losses, our triumphs and defeats.

The difference is that I am in charge of that box in my house.  If I decide I do not need those letters in my life anymore, I can get rid of them consciously.  I own those particular pieces of paper, I decide their fate.
The analog to this in my own life is the growth of my son over the last twenty months, all of which has been chronicled on Facebook, and all of which lives in some server somewhere in the world.  The source videos and photos live on a machine at our house, but the way that they are strung together, the comments that we and our friends have made about them, the conversations that they have inspired do not belong to us in the same way.  Should Facebook end, so too will we lose that particular way of remembering.  And as impossible as it seems to us in the moment, Facebook is likely to end a lot sooner than a photograph is likely to disappear.

I am not sure what it is that I think should be done about this, if anything.  I was just struck by the poignancy of the story of the person in the article.  This record-keeping, this storing of the past in objects or papers has taken on a new identity.   The memories are no less important, but somehow we have come to a place that we are trusting other people to manage their storage for us.  In surrendering the responsibility for storage and management, we have also surrendered some of our ability to have a say about the fate of one of the most precious things we have:  our memories.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

craft part iii

a letterpress designer, an itinerant copy writer, and a furniture maker are sitting around a fire...

This sounds like the beginning of an irrepressibly nerdy joke, but as it happens this was Friday morning last week.  One of the things that I am profoundly thankful for in my life is that my path seems to cross others' in unpredictable and delightful ways. So Friday morning last week I ended up sitting and talking to two people that it is unlikely I would ever have crossed paths with about something that turned out to be a common thread and a common passion:  Craft.

Casey McGarr, who has a truly dizzying array of old wood type (and you know how I feel about wood) told us that many people turn to him for letterpressed invitations or cards with the expressed explicit desire that the type be smashed into the paper "so people know that it is letterpressed."  I can understand this thought process, I suppose.  So many of these once-necessary-now-nearly-defunct crafts face the same kind of requests, this idea that the process should be evident in the product so that the user or viewer will know how the object was produced.  I do this in my own work as well; leave plane marks evident, or celebrate jointery or hardware to make a point and to use my work as educational tools for the user.

The thing about that kind of approach is that it is actually antithetical to the traditional intention of artisans who use this technology.  A good letterpress operator will know how to adjust the press so that the type just kisses the paper enough to transfer the ink but not enough to deform the paper.  This is exactly the same as blacksmithing, for example.  George Martell, the smith who gave me what few smithing skills I have, told me that a good smith never leaves a hammer mark, that a piece that is well made is smooth and straight and shows no marks at all of the process of making.  Or of songwriting:  if the lyrics are too clever (say Gilbert and Sullivan, for example) we become aware of the cleverness of the writing but can lose sight of the intended message.

Which begs a familiar question:  What is the point of all of this, process or product?  It could be both, I suppose, but this is another one of those root questions that I come around to now and then that does not seem to go away.  How can I as a maker celebrate the process and materials in a way that feels honest and clear while at the same time creating an object of beauty and use?  When am I smashing the paper, and when am I making a legitimate statement about my stance as a maker and about my respect for tradition?

When I wrote about Pye and his bowls not too long ago, I was trying to unravel a different part of the same question, which at the end of the day might be about means and ends as much as it is about process and product.  Whichever way we come at this question, though, it comes down to intent, and to methods of work, and to choice-making.  And it does not seem to go away, which I think is a good thing.

What a lovely way to start a Friday morning last week.  And how lucky I was to be able to spend time with folks who are interested in asking the same questions that I am asking.  And how very informative to have the questions phrased in unfamiliar language.  The Texas trip was great in so many ways.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


this past weekend I traveled to Texas Hill Country.  I spent four days under a cloudless sky out in the wilderness surrounded by (mostly) graphic designers.  New territory for me in many ways; geographically, professionally, contextually.  It was great fun, and the trappings were outstanding, of course.  There was an obscene amount of Texas-style barbecue and other delectables, the country was beautiful in a rocky way, the accommodations were lovely, complete with a hat rack in the room (thank God for Texas and cowboy hats).  But it was the contextual territory that was the most interesting for me.

I had been asked to lead a workshop about wood, giving it three times for two hours each.  This is tricky, if the desire is to have everyone leave with something.  I can spend two hours just turning a couple of planks over and over and switching them end for end to find the right combination of grain pattern and patina, of live edge and machined edge.  In the end we decided to make lamps out of locally found dead-fall trees, which ended up being pretty successful.

When I have been involved with this kind of workshop in the past, many if not most of the participants have had some experience with making things out of wood and working with their hands in a particular way.  That was not the case here.  These people were (in many cases) very experienced designers with many years of professional accomplishment behind them, and some are even very used to making books or screen printing (a process that remains opaque to me to this day.  Some day I shall have to remedy that), but that have little experience with wood or with wiring.  Not that they should, of course, that is why they were in the workshop.

But by and large these are people who design digitally, and design for print.  Their application of their craft and their design skills has a radically different user interface and a profoundly different expectation in terms of life-span, usually.  As we all worked, and as they grew comfortable exchanging a mouse for a screwdriver, an amazing and heartwarming shift began to occur.  As each person plugged in their nascent lamp to test it, their faces registered delight of a level that really moved me.  Many of them went from "I am not sure I can do this at all" to "I want to make everything into a lamp!"  And the really amazing thing is that by the end, many were helping their fellow students, showing them how to use the crimper or to wire in an in-line switch, people who two hours before did not know what an in-line switch was.

Some of the student work.  Photo by Andy Birdwell
This starting to sound self-serving, which is not my intention.  This shift that happened, this empowerment (pun intended) of all of these people, is less about any ability that I have and more about something much more important and profound:  A willingness to learn.  I have taught this information to hundreds of NYU students, only to look up and see them drooling on their t-shirts.  It isn't about the information, it is about being receptive.  The 60 or so people that I spent time with this weekend came to the class with something that can not be bought or sold, and that can not be injected from an external source.  They wanted to learn.  They were invested in their education for those two hours.  They sat down from a place of "I'll try that" instead of "I can't do that."  It was really inspiring.  This experiment would have been a dramatic failure without that attitude on their part coming in.

It served as a real object lesson for me with regard to changing contexts.  There is such a tendency on my part (and on many people around me) to approach the world saying "I know my place here and I know what I do well, and that is what I am going to do."  This is often a reasonable approach, and certainly is a comfortable one, like putting on a straight-jacket that you know and love.  Comfortable, but ultimately stultifying as far as growth.  Change is hard, of course, and new experiences can be painful or scary.  But I am inspired to adopt the attitude of the people I was so recently surrounded with to try to maintain that openness, that desire to learn new things, and the willingness to take on things that are likely to fail, simply because when they don't fail the triumph is that much greater.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


most people that make furniture know who David Pye was.  He was a Professor of Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art from 1948 to 1973, and in 1968 he published "The Nature and Art of Workmanship," which is still one of the key treatises addressing what we call "workmanship," or craft.  I was turned on to the book by Craig Vandall Stevens, who told me that it was the single most important book in his life and that it was very important that I read it.  With that kind of endorsement, how could I not check it out?

Photo: Phillip Sayer/Crafts Council
The discussion in the book is primarily about the place of machines in the making process, and their appropriateness given the desired outcome.  Pye coined the terms (and I feel a need to acknowledge the implicit sexism contained in the word "workmanship."  I will be using that word in this essay only because it is the word that Pye used) "workmanship of risk" (a methodology of making that requires a high level of understanding and craft on the part of the maker, and that can be at any time destroyed by the work due to inattention or callowness) and the "workmanship of certainty" (a methodology that is automated to the point that inattention by the worker has a minimal effect on the outcome of the process).    It is important to note that this does not necessarily have anything to do with the machinery used, that depending on the context the machinery associated with workmanship of risk can also be used in a piece at the other end of the spectrum.  Pye also points out that there are different levels of workmanship that are appropriate and that this appropriateness is also contextual.  It would not make sense to apply the type of precision required to make engine parts to the practice of splitting fence rails, for example.  Both endeavors require precision (just ask Abe Lincoln about fence rails), but the type of precision that is appropriate for one is not appropriate for the other.

Photo:  David Pye/ Crafts Council
This is all an extremely ham-handed explanation and distillation of this book.  I suggest you read it for yourself, it is life-changing.  It was for me, anyway.  What I wanted to write about here, though, was not necessarily that discussion (although one could argue that a great deal of this blog is focused on that discussion), but Pye's woodworking (above, pictured in his shop).

And this is the kind of work that he produced and was known for.  He carved these bowls using a nineteenth century tool (I can't seem to find a photo of one on the internet, surprisingly) that made these beautiful gouges that radiate from the center and can be modulated in really breathtaking ways.  There are a couple of his bowls in the foreground of the photo above as well.  Not all of them are that big, of course, and he experimented widely with the shapes as well, but it is that interior texture that knocks me out.  Ever since I first read the book that texture has stuck in my head.  Recently I decided to do something about it.

I have had a couple of pieces of long-leaf pine kicking around the shop for a couple of years that are off-cuts from the end of some floor joists from a building on the campus of Trinity College.  They are about a foot square, and extremely hard, and they seemed like good candidates for bowldom.  The tool that Pye used to make his bowls left that signature tool mark, those radiating lines that start in the center and get wider as they get closer to the edge.  I wanted to replicate that mark, and it was important to me that it be the tool that made the mark, that somehow inherent in the making of the object that mark was created.  It also seemed to me that this would be a good excuse for me to familiarise myself with our CNC technology and to learn to use a new tool, the drafting program Rhino.  Below are some process shots.

This is the raw material  You can see the triangle-shaped area where the surface of the wood did not oxidise because it was set into the wall of the building.
This is the file in Rhino, which is the drafting program we use here.

I started by surfacing the material and getting all the sides square to each other and the bottom of the piece

This is the material on the CNC router table.
The machine started by surfacing the top of the blank.

The machine starts the way a carver would, by removing the bulk of the material quickly and roughly.

Lastly it takes a series of finishing passes.  I was able to experiment with different settings to find a tool mark that was pleasing.  You can see the scallops that reference the bowls that Pye made.
Those of you that work with wood will know about the heightened feelings surrounding CNC technology.  CNC stands for Computer Numeric Control, which is to say that a computer tells the cutting head where and in what direction and how deep to make a cut in the material.  A lot of people that work with wood say that this type of technology is the death of craft (well, of Craft), that it means that anyone can make fancy wood objects, that it devalues the work of people who do not use this technology and that it should be eschewed at all cost.  Other people are saying that it is a tool like any other and that it merely needs to be treated like a table saw, a tool that can help achieve a desired goal, and that the object itself is not inherently bad.

I tend to fall somewhere in between these two points of view.  Philosophically, this technology is no different from a table saw.  It is motorised and can be used to create a very high degree of precision.  It requires thoughtful attention to make it do what the user wants it to do, and in the hands of a less skilled worker it can be worse than useless.  It makes repeating an operation easy and easy to do in a way that the finished product is identical every time.  It (like a table saw) is a tool that gives form nicely to "workmanship of certainty."  So why does it feel so different to me?

In no small part it probably feels different because it has become popular and readily available in my lifetime.  The table saw was invented in the 1850's by a Shaker woman, it has been around as long as anyone I know can remember.  When I started making things professionally, the table saw was already an integral part of the wood shop.  I have never seen a professional shop without one.  On the other hand, I had not even seen a CNC mill until I was in my mid twenties, and had been making things for a while.  So there is that.

 I am happy with the finished bowl.  I feel like it is a craft object.  I spent as much or more time setting up the file and then the machine as I ever did to mill and cut the wood for the table that the rest of this particular long-leaf pine became.  I did a lot of thinking about proportion and line and form, as much as I would do if I were carving this bowl by hand.  And the bowl sits on our dining table (the top of which I planed by hand in a very laborious way) and every night I enjoy its presence as we eat.

But for me something is lost in this particular amount of remove between the maker and the material.  I am used to my interaction with my material being modulated by a saw handle or the butt of a chisel.  I am even used to that interaction being filtered through a power tool, a router or a jigsaw (in fact, that was was a great deal of my interaction with material for the entirety of my life in theater).  Having that interaction modulated by a computer screen, on the other hand, feels too distant for me.  I do not think that having that amount of remove makes for a finished object of less craft or even that the finished object has less emotional resonance.  For me, in my making process, it is important for me to have a specific relationship with my material, one that is not modulated through a computer.
Detail of the tool marks radiating from the center

This may change over time.  It probably will.  But as I think about my growth and about my making that is where I sit for the moment.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I have some traveling to do next month, and am going to be where I would like to have a guitar.  But traveling with a guitar is cumbersome on a plane, and I did not want the hassle, so I thought maybe it was time to make a cigar-box guitar, one that I could travel with, that would fit in my suitcase and that would be strong enough to stand up to being thrown around buy the baggage handlers.  And then it became a little bit of a game for me to gather the pieces as locally as possible.  Here they are:

There is a cigar store around the corner from where I work that sells the boxes for a dollar and donates the proceeds to charity, so that seemed good.  For the tail piece (that holds the strings and the end of the neck by the box) and for the nut (the piece at the other end that holds the strings up off the fretboard up by the tuners) I went five blocks away to the Habitat Restore and got a used hinge and an old bolt.  The wood for the neck is this beautiful long-leaf pine that was salvaged from a building two blocks from here from support beams that have been standing in pace for a hundred years.  I wrote about that here.  The thing that came from farthest away was the tuners and the bridge, the piece of wood that holds the strings up off of the box.  They came from Beat Street Music in Manlius, twelve miles away.  Beat Street is a great local guitar shop, with some really beautiful old and new instruments, and they do repairs as well, so the owner had some old tuners that had come off of some other guitars and an old bridge from a banjo.  The tuners don't match and the bridge is a little worn, but they all work well.  Here is the finished guitar:

And here is a detail shot of the tuners and the nut (which is a bolt.  Which makes me smile):

And here is what it sounds like, the twelve-mile, two-hour, twenty dollar guitar:

Obviously I have some practicing to do, I don't really play slide guitar.  But I can learn, and now I have something that I made myself to learn on.  I have been listening to a lot of Mississippi Fred McDowell, so we'll see what rubs off.

The other outcome of this exercise, of course, is that it has been a thought experiment about resources and where they come come from and how they are used.  Everything in this instrument could have been seen as trash.  No one was going to buy those tuners from Beat Street.  The cigar box could easily have been seen as waste.  The lumber was slated for the landfill and the hardware ended up at the Restore because it was not wanted.  But put them all in the same place in a particular way, and they become something very useful, and maybe even desirable.  The easy thing to do when looking for a travel guitar would have been to drop a couple of hundred dollars on some mail-order thing that was made in China.  But there are alternatives, and they can be pretty cool alternatives, with the bonus that there is an added layer of meaning on the object, an emotional layer that is created by taking the time to source locally and to make the object myself.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


i was sifting through my email this morning and came across a letter that I had written to a couple of my students at about this time last year (dated Feb 10 2010, or 02 10 2010, which is pretty pleasing).   There are some references to things that were happening at that moment, which make it sound dated, but the gist of it is about right. Nothing that I have not written about before, really, but I wanted to put it here for storage, so here it is:

Our brief conversation this morning in the café has stuck in my mind, and since talking about things is how I get them out of my mind and into the world I thought I would give this to y’all and see what you have to say.  You asked me how I know all of the seemingly unconnected little factoids that I know, and though it was probably asked rhetorically, I have been thinking about my answer, and it is a simple one:  Knowledge is power.

Not “power” like in a He-Man “By the  power of Grayskull I have the power” kind of way where your clothes disappear and you become a hilariously over-muscled super hero in a fur loincloth (fur?  Really?  Always seemed like a strange choice to me), more like the power to make one’s own choices and to make a positive difference in the world.  Think about it.

The group that wields the sacred knowledge is always the group that runs things.  In early civilisations this was the shaman or priest or whatever group member stood in in that capacity, the person that held the secrets to the power of the god or gods of the day.  These were the decision makers, the rich and powerful, the people who made the rules and (for the most part) had all the money and the good stuff to eat.

Then there are the people who hold the military knowledge, about how best to kill the most people.  These are often people who are in control in a culture.  It is no accident that the U.S. President is the “Commander in Chief” of the armed forces.  He (Hasn’t been a She yet, but I have faith.  One day, one day.) is in control in part because he has the knowledge necessary to control the most powerful army in the world.  General Mao.  Saddam Hussein.

Then there are the more insidious kinds of knowledge that put the holder into powerful positions:  How to steal legally (as the major banks did, causing the Recession we are currently enjoying), how to lie legally (as, for example, the corn syrup commercials who say that it is all-natural and good for you), how to disenfranchise legally (as in the misogynistic Superbowl commercials that got me all pissed off that I was railing about in Materials class until I realised you were all just looking at me in that way you do when you are just waiting for me to shut up and get on with it).  These are bodies of knowledge that are pretty opaque to the average person, but knowing how to wield them lands one in a pretty sweet position.

So in a culture that has spent so much time and energy trying to breed people not to question, not to think for themselves, not to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, the most empowering thing I can think of to do is gather as much knowledge as possible, and to disseminate it to as many people as possible.  And then to encourage them to do the same.  U. Utah Phillips says “the histories we are given in schools is not the history of MY people.  It is the history of the rich, the powerful, the greedy.  The only way we can get a TRUE history of our people is to listen to our elders, and to pass on their stories.”

So how is the history of the Hudnoshonee people relevant to Interior Design?  Because it is all connected.  It has to be.  Every choice that we make is made in reaction to what we know.  Either what we know through experience, or through reading that we have done, or through stories that we have been told.  The more things we know, the farther reaching our design work (and our lives in general) have the capacity to be.  And the greater chance we have to make a positive difference in the world, to “play our part,” as Shakespeare says, and then exit the stage.

I have always delighted in knowing things.  Any things. It is all relevant.  And the best tools you have as a designer are your eyes, to see instead of just looking; your ears, to listen instead of just hearing; and your brain to synthesize it all.  You short yourself as a designer and as a person and your society in general, if you do not use all three, all the time, in a thoughtful way.

Wow, this got longer than I intended.  And I am not even through.  We will have to continue this another time.  Have a good weekend.  For a gold star, bring me an extremely obscure fact on Tuesday and relate it to your project.


postscript:  Every time someone calls me “Geek” (which as I told Kennedy this afternoon has long since stopped bothering me as it has been happening since before you were born), I think of someone like this:

Look up “geek” and you’ll see what I mean.


Friday, March 25, 2011

ornament / structure

there is a project on the bench these days that I am not ready to write about yet, but that has gotten me thinking about ornament.  I waffle a lot when it comes to ornament, specifically about two issues, I think:  What is “ornament,” and what is “function?”
The second question maybe needs to be addressed first as I think of my work as being “function-based” design.  That is to say, that I eschew adding elements that are not in some way dictated by the structural needs of the object.  Certainly structural needs are one compelling mandate, but there are other aspects that dictate functional needs, and that can influence the finished form.
In the current project, there are aspects that have no structural function, so they led me to question the “functionality” of them at all, and their necessity within the overall piece.  In the recurring “form v. function” debate, I tend to think that form and function are like the chocolate and vanilla in a marbled cupcake, that they can not be separated in any meaningful way, that in the best design work there is nothing that one could remove that would not be sorely missed in the remaining piece.
There are, however, functions beyond the purely structural.  As I was contemplating these panels and their place in the overall piece, I thought of the bed I made a few years ago and the oak branch that I found on the forest floor that became the lamp-post/headboard:

There are of course a variety of ways I could have kept that corner of the bed off the ground, and there are other ways to solve the need for a reading light.  The structural functionality of the base of the oak branch as a leg of the bed or of the rest of the oak branch as a lamp-post are important, but the necessity of introducing an element that had the æsthetic function of providing relief from the relentless straightness of the machined planes is just as important, making the æsthetic choice a choice about functionality as well.  Which brings us back to the first question, the question about ornament.
“Ornament” is a dirty word to a lot of designers that I greatly admire.  Often it is to me as well.  The idea of creating something that is ornamental not an appealing one, and often when I look at heavily ornamented structures or objects I feel that though I may admire the maker I do not want to live with that object or in that structure.  That being said, there are of course ways to make necessary structures ornamental.  To say the same thing coming at it form the other direction, there are ways to see the inherent beauty in the structure of an object.  Japanese hand-laid "washi" paper is a good example of this:

The structure of this paper, that is to say the fibers that are the paper, can be presented as we are used to seeing them in a sketchbook; homogenized and bleached to the point that they appear as one solid sheet ready for the mark of a pencil.  But in the paper shown above the fibers are not homogenized like that.  They are allowed to have their own life by the maker, they have a voice and an identity.  Though decorative, in a way, they do not strike me as ornamental.  And they are integral to the paper, they in fact are the paper.
It is this parsing of the line where æsthetic function becomes ornament that I have been thinking a lot about lately.  As I make the objects I make, as I develop my teaching, I am navigating the murky waters of ornament and trying to figure out what it is that really resonates, what it is that really needs to be there.  I have also been re-thinking whether, in a basic sense, ornament is, in fact, a bad thing.
Because this is really about asking questions about my own life, of course.  What needs to be here?  What are the things that are (for lack of a better word) “structural” and what is “ornament?”  What in terms of emotional and intellectual and physical needs must remain, and what can I strip down, strip away?  As I build my life and the life of my family, are there things that are ornamental, and if there are is that okay?  And what are the structural needs?  Are there moments where emotional ornament is actually structural?  And are there ways that I can make the emotionally structural necessities ornamental?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


as I age (I am occasionally reminded that I am pushing forty) I am mellowing.  Though there are things that I believe firmly and fiercely, my overall world view is getting more relativistic as I wander farther into my time on this planet, and many of the things that I once felt stridently about are getting harder to parse, with "right" and "wrong" being less abundantly clear.

In 1997, as I was in my final year of my second undergrad, I took a class from a teacher and mentor and friend named Bland Wade.  He runs the Theatrical Properties department at my alma mater, and in addition to being a great teacher (one of the highest compliments I can pay) is also a great designer and craftsperson.  Though I have not seen him in a few years now, he remains present in my life in a number of ways, not least in this little footstool:

I took a class from him in my senior year called "furniture for the stage," in which one of the projects was this footstool.  We carved the cabriole legs ourselves, assembled the stool, upholstered it, and finished it.  Though it was built for the stage, I have kept mine all these years and it has seen some hard use, always being paired with a chair that belonged to my great-great grandfather, even wearing the same upholstery fabric for many years.  But the legs have gotten loose, and the upholstery is sagging, it was clear that fifteen years later it was really time to attend to this little workhorse of our living room.

So I took it down to the shop and started to disassemble it.  One of the first things I noticed was my signature:

I remember being so proud of this stool when it was finished, and thinking that it would last forever.  In a way, I was right, to a twenty-two-year-old fifteen years is functionally forever, isn't it?  I remember thinking that I now had the secrets to making furniture, and that this would be a family heirloom, and that my great grandchildren, whom I would never meet, would have this stool.  See, I thought this way even fifteen years ago.  No wonder I can not escape it now.

This is how this stool was put together:

Lag screws and drywall screws.  Not a "for the ages" construction methodology, really.  Wood, as I think I have written about before, expands and contracts with the seasons.  In humid summers it absorbs water from the air and swells, in the winter when the air is drier it loses the water and contracts.  When you put metal fasteners into the wood (which do not expand and contract with the seasons), they crush the wood fibers that expand around the fastener, so that when the wood shrinks again the hole is too big for the fastener.  Over several years this can make the hole permanently too big for the fastener, and in this case makes the legs loose.

The important thing to remember here, though, is that this was intended to be a theatrical prop, not a piece of heirloom quality furniture.

Everything in the theater has what can be an interesting dual life:  they are simultaneously used much harder than normal objects and used for a much shorter time than normal objects.  There are no forces more destructive than an actor in the throes of a scene or a careless stagehand rushing to complete a backstage task in the dark.  So objects get beaten up, clothing gets torn, doors get slammed much harder than in real life, even in a house with a toddler or a teenager.

So when we built this stool, the intention was to make an object that would stand up to that kind of use over the run of a show, not to the slow and inevitable wear to which the seasons subject it.  Subtle difference, maybe, but important.  Thus the lag screws.

Disassembling this object, seeing its guts again after fifteen years, has inspired me to think about these intentions, and about the ways that we choose what is appropriate.    The construction and lack of refinement (there are bandsaw marks and file marks on the cabriole legs, for example, something I would not normally allow to remain on a piece I made now) were completely appropriate for the intended use of that object, and only seem out of place when looked at in a different context.  In the same way, the methodologies that I now apply to my work would be completely inappropriate in a theatrical context, as they take too long and are too exacting for that milieu.

Which of course also gets me thinking about the relativistic nature of so many of my other beliefs.  Obi-Wan reminds Luke that "you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view," which I find true more and more.  With the exception of rules about hitting and hating and stealing, there are often more than one way to look at a lot of the issues in my life just now, and I am trying to be more mindful about the fact that alternate approaches are worthy at least of a thoughtful ear and patient consideration, even if they seem at the outset to be misguided or inapplicable.