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.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

on rituals and passing them along

rituals are important, of course.  As I raise my son, I am working to imbue in his life a number of different activities that are ritualistic to a greater or lesser extent, one of which is frequent and regular time spent actively making things.  Impossible to tell if it will stick of course, but that is the plan as it stands.  So weekend mornings we go down to the shop (which at nineteen months he pronounces as "shah") to make stuff.  He knows that I wear certain shoes in the shop, and has taken to bringing them to me and saying "shah, dada!" Melts my heart.

Once in the shop, I sit him on the end of the workbench, where he pounds away happily as I work.  As I can not leave him alone there, I have had to create projects that can be done entirely at the bench, which means that they have to be made entirely by hand.  Over the last few weeks this has been a valuable way for me to reconnect with a part of my making life that I had been letting slide.  Here is a photo of him on the bench:

The little mallet in front of him with the blue painted handle was a part of my first ever tool kit, which you can see here:

As you can see, the chisels were real chisels, the saw was a real saw.  I used that kit to build all kinds of things for years, and still have (through the auspices of my father, the family historian) some of the tools from it.  I will not give my son real chisels yet, of course, but he has a screwdriver that he calls his chisel, and he will very studiously hold it on a piece of wood and hit the back of it with his little mallet, copying in miniature what he sees me doing.

As this blog is mostly about making, I thought I would show what I have been making for him.  He loves pounding and hitting right now, so it seemed to make sense to make him a pounding bench like the one that I had as a child.  Good for teaching fine motor skills as well as giving him something that he can hit as hard as he wants, so it is a win-win.

I had some ash that was left over from a project several years ago.  I don't use ash much unless I am bending it, so I have been carting this stuff around for a while, and I finally decided to use it for this.  I did all of the work by hand, even cutting pieces to size, which is an operation I would normally do on the table saw.  There are a couple of benefits to this:

First, I got to use my big bow saw, a tool I seldom use any more.  I could almost feel it quiver with excitement when I took it off the wall.  The blade is of course still sharp, and it sang through the wood, ecstatic to be useful again.  Damn fine, clean cut.  What a joy to shake hands with a friend one has not seen in a while.

Also, Thomas learned about marking and sawing.  Every step I take in the shop I talk about with him, so we talked about pencils (which he calls "p'tiss" which is also what he calls his penis, which can be confusing sometimes.  I often have to rely on context to know which he means.  A little like speaking Chinese) and drawing lines on wood.  Then we talked about saws, and about different saws (which he pronounces "Shah," again, very similar to the way he pronounces "shop.")  He watched me saw the wood to length, and since then has used his little toy saw on all kinds of things around the house, saying "shah, shah" as he does so.

Now when we enter the shop he starts by sitting on the bench and pointing out all of the tools and naming them, taking great pride in naming each one as I point to them.  He is learning that these things have identities and uses, and he is learning what those uses are as he watches me.  I am working on what the next project will be that I can work on with him, for a couple of reasons.  I love reinforcing in his little brain the import of making and using his hands, but it also is such a vacation to be making things at my own pace by hand in the shop that I really treasure my time in there on these weekend days.  How lucky.

Here is the finished pounding bench and hammer that we made:

And here he is using it.  I love that look of extreme concentration as he pounds.

Monday, March 7, 2011


a colleague of a friend of mine that teaches at Rhodes College did a project recently called "American Values."  She has described it really well here:  American Values

Though my photo was submitted after the deadline she was kind enough to include it anyway, for which I am thankful.  It is an interesting question and an interesting idea, as we hear so much about values from the politicians and the talking heads.  I am glad that she tackled the question and was happy to be able to participate.

I did not have to think long to find my answer to her question ("what is one of your core values?").  Working with my hands (in whatever capacity) is so important to me that I have a hard time coming up with what I would do if I could not.  It is central to my livelihood and to my life.  I play guitar, I make things, I cook, I plant things.  I am working to teach my son to do the same, and as he sits on the end of my workbench and watches my hands work he tries to copy the actions I am making, so I have a feeling that he is headed down this same road.  A couple of years ago I wrote this paean to my hands, and I still feel the same sense of awe when they do what I want them to and when I see what they can produce.

Working with my hands is important to me in another way:  It is central to my politics.  In my grandfather's generation, most Americans worked with their hands as a matter of course.  Materials were precious in a different way, and most households had a saw or two, a hammer, a couple of hand planes.  Not everyone was a furniture maker, of course, but everyone was able to use their hands to make things and fix things. My grandmother knew how to pluck chickens, and did so regularly.  The objects in their lives and their homes were, for the most part, mechanical, and repairing them or improving them was within the average person's realm of understanding.

Of course, the average life expectancy for men was 43, for women 35.  It is so hard for me to not dive headlong into the pool of nostalgia.  But that is not what I was writing about. I was writing about politics.

We live in a very different world, now.  a world in which the things that surround us are so complicated that even if we had a desire to fix them, the vast majority of us would not know how.  This computer, for example:  When it does not work, my ability to fix it is limited entirely to turning it off and then on again, in the hopes that it will magically fix itself.  I might as well burn some sage and wave the smoke over the thing for all the knowledge I have with regard to repairing it.  In almost every respect, this object, like my car and my television and even my alarm clock function for all the world like magic.

The same is true for the systems that govern my life.

Think about it:  Do you know where the power plant is that makes the lights come on when you flip the switch?  Or where the water comes from when you turn on the faucet (or less apetizingly where it goes)?    What about the factory where the shirt you are wearing right now was made?  Or the processes and machines that were used to make it?  Or the food you ate for dinner?  The gas that you put in your car?

We are surrounded by systems and items that, when examined, are pure mystery, and we are encouraged by the providers of those systems and items to keep it that way.  I have a theory why that is, and it is pretty sinister.

The less we question these things, the more likely we are to just pay for them so that we can go about our daily lives.  I would much rather pay someone minimum wage or less to pluck chickens for me so that I don't have to do that messy, cold, foul job myself.  I get a plucked, skinned chicken breast for dinner, and I don't have to think about how it went from running around a henhouse to sitting on my plate.  I also don't have to think about the person who raised it, and what their working and living conditions are, or the person who slaughtered it and how they live.  Or even the person who packaged it, trucked it to the store (trucking accounts for over 25% of annual Green House Gas emissions in the US annually), took it off the truck, stocked it on the shelf, or rang it up at the cash register.  I just get my chicken breast.

We can do the same thought experiment for anything, of course.  Textiles and clothing is another chilling one.  Or plastic toys.  Or plastic anything, really.

The companies that sell us stuff don't want us to think about the processes of making the stuff, because if we really did we would be more thoughtful about the things in our lives and less likely to buy so much stuff.  As long as we are told not to consider the processes and systems that run our lives, as long as we surrender that much of our free will, we willingly subjugate ourselves to the interests of large corporations.

Which brings me back to using my hands to make stuff (you thought I would forget that part, didn't you?).

When we wanted a coffee table, for example, we were faced with two basic choices:  Buy one or make one.  If we had bought one, my son (who is in a real phase of hitting things these days) would probably have destroyed it in a couple of years, and we would have thrown it out and gotten another one.  Since I chose to make one, though (maybe I will do a post about that one of these days), it occupies a very different place in the emotional map of our lives, and we care for it more meticulously.  It is a lot more likely to be a part of our lives until our son has a house of his own and needs a coffee table.  The product of working with my hands will have a long and useful existence, and at least until I am dead will not be seen as an object that can be thrown away.

What if we could apply that to more of the things in our lives?  What if we knew the farmers that grow our food?  The folks who make our clothes?  It is not particularly possible for all of us to make everything in our lives, of course, but what if we could make SOME of the things in our lives and the rest were provided locally by people that we knew and trusted?

What if (to flip it around) we chose NOT to trust large corporations, who have no allegiance whatsoever to my community, or to ecological or social responsibility?  What if we all just started to choose to make more, buy less, and think often about how we live?

To quote Arlo, then my friends we would have a revolution.  Not a bad idea.

So thanks, Dr. Johnson.  What a great project.