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.