Answers on a postcard

Spring Fair Stand - courtesy of Sonya Vengrova

Spring Fair Stand – courtesy of Sonya Vengrova

A few days ago I attended the Spring Fair at the NEC in Birmingham. This is a massive trade show for the retail industry: possibly the biggest in Europe – but only one of many throughout the year and the country. It’s where shops come to find the stock for the next season: accessories, gifts of all shapes and sizes, novelty items, products for the home, the kitchen, the bath and so much more. It’s all there. Rows and rows of stands selling scented candles, greeting cards, handbags, picture frames, humorous placards and fridge magnets (an exercise for graphic design students: can you find a version of “If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen” that hasn’t been tried yet?)…

I was there to explore the possibility of engaging with the retail market. I have a few designs that I believe could be manufactured in small production runs at a lower unit cost and marketed through more outlets than I have been able to reach so far. Do I want to go down that route?

Such a move would definitely challenge me. I know nothing about production processes. I know nothing about the retail sector. I feel excited at the thought of engaging with new networks, learning about new techniques and approaches… a whole new world! But it’s going to require a considerable investment in terms of time, energy and possibly money. There is a big risk of failure: at the very least I make a fool of myself and at the worst I actually lose money. So, it’s scary and exciting and the adventurer in me says it’s worth at the very least exploring more… who knows where it might lead?

But (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) seeing all that “stuff” – much of it utterly ephemeral by design, prompted me to question how I engage and relate to that world.

You see, when I was a teenager I got caught in the confluence of two apparently conflicting ideological streams. On the one hand a good Catholic education encouraged me to look with suspicion at our materialistic society, stressing the importance of looking for ‘higher’ goals than a success measured purely in status and property. On the other hand, that critique was reinforced, ironically, by the anarchist/left-wing political discourse I encountered through the music of a range of Italian singer-songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s (for instance Fabrizio de Andre’ ed Edoardo Bennato), as well as the last reverberations in the educational system of the student movements of ’68 (which, alas, I had missed being too young).

I decided then that in my life I would refuse to become enmeshed in the machinations of the capitalist system, that I would be wary of the brainwashing that leads people to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of an illusory, limited and limiting ‘success’ (the house, the car, the wife, the holiday, the career, the second home, the exclusive social milieu, etc.) and that my quest would be one for freedom and spirit, not in any particularly religious or transcendent sense, but in the sense of personal creativity, integrity, authenticity and self-awareness.

In some ways I have succeeded. Throughout my working life, I have mostly had a variety of jobs, basing my choices on my passions and interests rather than on salary and career opportunities. And I have left jobs when the demands of my employer felt irreconcilable with my sense of who I was. Even the decision to set up my own business was brought on not by a new found entrepreneurial spirit, but by the fact that I wanted to be able to both make, design and teach and I couldn’t find employment that would allow such flexibility: I had to design my own job.

However, I am wondering whether in some ways I have not been deceiving myself. Because I have little disposable income and little interest in property (books are my main weakness in that sense: I am a glutton for books); because in employment I never had any financial or strategic power or responsibility, I told myself that my involvement with the ‘system’ was so small as to be negligible. I told myself that I had managed to escape from the Matrix.

Even now, keeping my business small – the poor but happy craftsman in his dusty workshop – allows me to believe that I am not really part of the world of commerce. My turnover is measured in a few thousands of pounds, not in hundreds of thousands, or millions or billions. My pieces are made by a free and independent craftsman, with care, with appreciation of the materials and the skills involved, not mass-produced by wage-slaves in sweatshop conditions. My designs are bespoke, unique – they come from an emotional engagement from my part and from the part of the client: they’re not generic, one-size-fits-all compromises. I offer an individual, personal service: I am not some faceless corporation. I use quality materials, from well-managed sources, not cheap wood from illegally logged tropical forests. And wood is the re-usable, recyclable material par excellence… Besides, my work is bordering on (if not actually) art. And art is something different from mass-produced, mass-marketed ‘stuff’, isn’t it? Otherwise, why would people pay so much more for a picture of a tin of soup than they would pay for the real thing? (yes, the reference to Andy Warhol is intentional). And my measures of success are to do with the quality of the experience for me and for my clients, not with financial considerations (although I do need to earn enough to keep going…)

But is all this enough? Does it really absolve me from my involvement (or is it collusion?) with a psycho-socio-economic system that I believe to be flawed in its premises and responsible for many of the ills of the world? And what happens if I go down the production-for-retail route with its deeper ramifications into the ‘market’? Is it really possible to act within the system without working for the system? Or is the only honest congruent solution that of taking the red pill and disconnecting completely? Is any compromise a collaboration?

What would William Morris say?

Answers on a (virtual) postcard, please.









The Adventurous Forest

Why do I do what I do?

It’s a simple question with a many layered answer.

First of all, because I enjoy it (most days) – perhaps not all aspects of running my business and not all of the time but:

I enjoy the sense of satisfaction I get from making each piece – from the pleasure of solving a challenging making problem with use of clever jigs, to the feeling of smooth shavings coming off the hand tools (although the timber does not always cooperate…), the physical reassurance of feeling my body working, moving, doing… The sense of self-confidence I get when things work out and I feel capable and competent. And finally the sense of achievement when the piece is finished: something that I made!

beautiful shavings off a hand plane

beautiful shavings off a hand plane

I enjoy the praise when people like my work, when they go “Wow!”. I feel clever and capable. And at the same time I often struggle to hear the praise – I do carry a strong fear that I’m just  lucky coming up with these ideas… That at the end of the day, I am just making it up as I go along – I do not have any cast-in-stone rules to be sure I produce beautiful work so it could all go disastrously wrong next time and people would go “what is that s**t? (and I do get people telling me that they don’t like my work and that’s fine, I can live with that – as long as enough people tell me they like it…)

I enjoy the intellectual challenge of coming up with the designs, drawing them, figuring out how to make them, sourcing materials and all the preparation work that it’s necessary.

I enjoy going to exhibitions, shows, meeting colleagues and feeling part of a network of people with ‘something’ in common even though our stories and approaches are so different.

On a good day I even enjoy all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running the business: maintaining a web presence, dealing with insurance, admin, accounting, reading and researching to develop new ideas and keep up to date with materials… Although I do get stuck from time to time (and then for a couple of weeks nothing happens except the most urgent stuff) and although I do feel overwhelmed quite often… I am getting better…

So in brief, I do it because, most of the time, what I do makes me feel good about myself. And since I need to earn a living, I want my job to be something I enjoy.

And this is where another layer comes in. I think one of the aspects that helps me feel good about my work is that I have chosen it freely.

There is a lot of talk (especially around work) about finding your passion, following your passion. Is that what I have done? Is furniture making my passion? I don’t think so. Reflecting on a friend’s blog recently , I realised that furniture making and design has become such an important part of my life only because I have made it so: by giving it so much attention and focus, by investing so much of my energy and time – but it could have been some other topic, some other skill… I guess that having an initial sense of affinity with something helps to turn it into a passion, but I am also starting to think that it’s how I focus my energy, how much of myself I give into something that turns it into a passion. For instance, I love playing music – but I’ve never invested the time, concentration, dedication that I put into learning to make furniture: I don’t know if I could have been a great musician, but I know I could have been (could still be?) a much better one. On the other hand, my friend Eleanor Brown… well, her life is full of music and her music is full of her life.

When I enrolled on my first City and Guilds course in my mid-30s, I did not have a clear idea of where I was going to go with it.

My first project on the City and Guilds course - an occasional  table in Maple

My first project on the City and Guilds course – occasional table in Maple

All I knew was that I needed to do something to get out of a job that I was not enjoying anymore. I only discovered bespoke fine furniture in the summer between the first and second year of the course. And then I knew that that was the sort of work I wanted to do.

When I left my first cabinet making job with Robin Furlong, it was because (although he is a lovely man and the work was very good) I was missing being in an environment with more people around (my previous career was in group work, so I was used to seeing lots of people every day) so taking up teaching seemed an opportunity to fulfil that need.

The Gullwing Cabinet I made for Robin Furlong was awarded a Furniture Guild Mark

The Gullwing Cabinet I made for Robin Furlong was awarded a Furniture Guild Mark

When I left my course leader job, it was because I wasn’t doing enough ‘making’ and I was frustrated with the absurdities of the education system. I enrolled on the degree at Rycotewood as a way to refresh my skills and to take time to see what options I had.

When I finally set up my business, it was not a lifelong ambition – far from it – but out of the options open to me, it seemed to be the only one that had a chance to address my needs most fully.

So now I design and run a business (and that keeps my mind active, creative, challenged…), I make furniture (and that keeps my body and my skills in good shape), I work in a collaborative studio and I teach evening classes (so I’m still involved in education and I get to see people) and I write a blog to explore my thinking, motivation and meaning (in short, a sort of spiritual discipline…)

I believe that the underlying factor that moves me and has guided my choices is a promise I made to myself when I was a teenager. The promise of living a life I could believe in, I could commit myself to with determination, with passion, with freedom – and that applies to work too: I don’t understand the split work/life. If I need to spend so much of my life in work, then I want my work to be part of my life – something that challenges me, nourishes me, something that I can do with passion – not just counting the days till the weekend or till retirement. I want my work to be something that helps me in my quest to be fully me and fully alive!

I am aware (and grateful) that I am fortunate in having this choice. If things had been even just slightly different in my genes, my family, my upbringing, my social, financial, academic and physical circumstances, I might not feel I have a choice at all. But I do have that choice. As Joseph Campbell was fond of pointing out, the knights of the Round Table, when they set off on the Quest for the Grail, “each entered the Forest Adventurous at that point which he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.” I do what I do because my quest has taken me here. There is no path and there are times of darkness and aimless wondering and despair. And there are times when you come out and see that even the darkness is full of stars. The journey continues…

Docendo, Discimus

Looking back over the summer months, I realise that most of my reflections have been generated by visiting or taking part in exhibitions. In particular, I have to admit that I have learned a lot by seeing the work of the students of courses I am involved in. As Seneca wrote many centuries ago: when we teach, we learn.

dan's and sam's tables

dan’s and sam’s tables

Last spring, I taught for a few weeks on the first year of the BA in Furniture Design and Making at the Rycotewood Furniture Centre in Oxford. As it was a temporary cover, I saw the students start to develop their projects but I did not see the finished articles until the end of year show. In a few cases, when the students showed me their initial sketches and discussed their ideas for the tables they were making, I found it hard to understand and appreciate what they were aiming for and what the finished pieces would look like. I believe I am pretty visually literate (in terms of being able to look at a sketch and visualise it in 3D) and while I could see what they were planning to make, I could not fathom if the piece would work. Two examples stick out. Freya’s table top was made in two halves – a board of solid wood and a board of concrete that had been pressed onto the wood so that it would visually have the same pattern – basically a book-matched pattern (pretty standard) but in two different materials (not so standard). I really wasn’t sure that it would work. I was concerned that the two materials would not come together in a unified whole. I almost suggested that she keep the concrete in the middle and put wood on either side instead. I was wrong. Seeing the finished piece what stood out was the book-matched pattern rather than the colour/material contrast – it worked! Elliot had designed a very angular zig-zagging type of table. Asymmetrical. Sharp. He had even made a full size mock up – and I still couldn’t see what he was aiming for. The finished piece, with the underframe painted in various pastel shades, worked really well. What had looked (in the sketch and in the mock-up) as a jumble of lines and angles, with the help of colour turned into a pattern.

I feel that what I learned was that communicating your ideas is difficult and clients must really trust you to commission a piece. What was clear in their heads, in their vision, was not evident to me at all. Do I communicate my ideas to my clients well enough?

terri's table and clock

terri’s table and clock

At the Warwickshire College End of year exhibition I learned instead how insecure I still am about my place in the world of furniture making. Phil, a mature student, was showing an impressive body of work with professional looking business cards, seeming well intent on setting up his own business. And I am ashamed to say that my first reaction was of fear – competition in my own backyard! Scary. It took me a few minutes to shake that off and just appreciate his skill – several pieces in black walnut with a clear Art Nouveau feel to them and very well executed. Good luck, Phil! It was also good to see how much Terri’s work had progressed over the years – I taught him in the first year of the course and he showed promise then. His final pieces were very interesting, very neat and crisp.

What is interesting about the fear of competition is that I didn’t feel anything like that at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham, where I was exhibiting my work alongside some 50 other furniture makers. What I felt instead was pride at being part of such a creative, skilled and interesting bunch of people. We all have our own individual styles, approaches, aesthetics and philosophies and there is room for everybody. In the fifteen years that I’ve been involved with the world of bespoke furniture I have always been amazed at the generosity of my colleagues. There is such a willingness to share tips, techniques, contacts for materials… In many ways we are loners, we are choosing this particular career because we want to “do it my way”, but at the same time, when we get together there is such a sense of “being in it together”… The other moment of pride at CCD was finding out that two of the students I taught at Rycotewood had won the Alan Peter’s Award. Well done Sam and Dan!

Rycotewood stand at New Designers

Rycotewood stand at New Designers

I had another epiphany at New Designers in London. As I wondered around the exhibits, I noticed a console table. What struck me was that even from quite some distance away it gave the impression of a high quality piece. Why was that? It was demi-elliptical console table, very well executed in macassar ebony but not a particularly innovative design. But these were details that I could see only once up close – what had I seen from a distance? And then it struck me: a high gloss finish on a tight dense wood. At the Rycotewood show I had been slightly disappointed by Jan’s table. It was a good design, it was very well made and I had expected it to sing out just like this one was. Why hadn’t it? I think this was the reason. The top on Jan’s table was made with a much less dense timber – a reddish cedar that matched the cherry underframe very well but too open grained to give that very smooth shiny finish that looked so good on ebony. I’ve never worked with ebony but at Cheltenham I saw a timber I liked – ziricote – a Central American wood, similar in some ways to rosewood, not quite as dark as ebony and apparently more environmentally sustainable than both – used to great effect on a piece by Keith Seeley.

So now I find myself toying with the idea of making another version of my Twirl table with ziricote and a glossier finish to see what a difference it makes. What do you think?

twirl coffee table in stained oak

twirl coffee table in stained oak

I’ll keep you posted!

Right or left?

Hokusai - The Great Wave

Hokusai – The Great Wave

I’ve been reading “The Great Partnership” by Jonathan Sacks. One of the main themes of the book is the tension between a scientific and a religious worldview. He sees this tension as the very basis of Western thought, intrinsic in Christianity because of its dual nature: steeped in Hebrew tradition but developed and spread in Greek.

I think it’s an accepted fact that language shapes our thinking: you can only express thoughts and feelings in the language you have available and that same language will shape your thoughts and feelings. If I remember right Steven Pinker addresses this in “The stuff of thought”.

But Sacks in the book takes this even further: he advances the hypothesis that even the way a language is written, its graphic appearance, has an effect on the thinking process. He contrasts Aramaic and Greek. His reasoning goes like this:

Aramaic does not have vowels in its written form. To know what a particular word is, you have to read it in its context: it will only make sense based on the whole discourse. After all, if you’re faced with ‘p*t‘, it’s only from context that you will be able to work out whether you’re meant to read pat, pet, pit, pot or put. You need to look at the whole; you need to see how the parts relate to each other to make sense of it. Sacks’s hypothesis is that there is a connection with the fact that Aramaic is written and read from right to left: to understand it you need to engage the “right” part of the brain, the mode of thinking that deals preferentially with the big picture, relationships, meaning. On the other hand Greek is written phonetically: for every sound (vowel or consonant) there is a graphic symbol. To write a word you have to break it down into all its constituent parts. This is a “left” brain approach: looking at the details, differentiating, separating. And it’s read from left to right.

This reminded me of something I read some time ago. It was an article about  Hokusai’s print ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ also known as ‘The Great Wave’. The writer (I can’t remember who it was) maintained that Westerners must necessarily have a very different understanding of the image because they look at it from left to right, whereas the Japanese would “read” it from right to left.I have often wondered if he was right.

Hokusai - The Great Wave (reversed)

Hokusai – The Great Wave (reversed)

I’m not going to retrain myself to read anytime soon, so I thought I’d try a little experiment. At the top of the page you have the original (from New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s website) and here is one that I flipped over to mimic “reading” from the opposite direction.

What do you think? Does it read differently?


7-Hall Table

7-Hall Table

And now I get to ask the same question about my work. After drafting the post above, I went to visit a potential client. They like my 7-Hall Table. But because of the design of their hallway, the drawer would need to come out from the right hand side.



Does it still work if I just flip it? Or am I better off coming up with a totally different design? What do you think?

Yoga and Craft

Apparently in Silicon Valley, the ancient spiritual practice of yoga is now presented as a technology (yes, not a technique, not a discipline or a practice: a technology!) to achieve peak performance…

I had a strong reaction when I read this so I followed the link and I watched the video to understand what it was all about. It amounts to a few minutes of quick variations of standard yoga poses – with the encouragement to focus on your breath and develop some awareness of what you are feeling, where the tension is in your body and so on… (Milarepa will be annoyed to know that a few minutes here and there is enough to reach ‘consciousness’… all those years he spent deepening his practice…)

sawThe nub of my reaction was that it seems to me that this new ‘technology’ speaks exactly to the critique that so many social philosophers from Marx and Engels to William Morris  and  to Gramsci levelled at the working conditions of the industrial era – the concept of ‘alienation’. My understanding is that with that term they described the profound disconnection in the worker between who s/he is as a person (thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations, beliefs, interests) and who they are required to ‘be’ in the workplace so that the company can prosper – a cog in a machine, a small part of a much bigger organisation, whose value is only in his/her ability to facilitate the progress of the task at hand (be it the flow of information or the next step in an assembly line sequence…) And this “new technology” offers the illusion of being person-centred and care about the individual while reinforcing the fact that what is required of you is to be at your best for the benefit of the organisation (“achieving peak performance”: whose? yours or the company?)

But perhaps I misunderstood something – I don’t have much experience of large corporations and that kind of work… I’ve never risen far in those sort of organisations

In any case, my thought process then moved into a different direction. I realised that one of the reasons I felt frustrated with the news of  this revolutionary technology, is that for me it’s old news. I’m not a yoga practitioner: I’ve dabbled in Zen meditation and T’ai Chi over the years but never with much consistency and I cannot claim to have ever achieved any proficiency or expertise in those practices. No, it’s old news in the sense that in my work as a furniture maker I have learned some time ago that it’s imperative that I am aware of how I’m feeling, where my focus is, where my energy is at etc. if I want to do a good job. I work with my body and my mind and my spirit (I mean that part of my mind that is not the logical/problem solving side…). The sort of furniture I make requires deep focus and concentration. There’s very little of routine tasks. Every operation needs my full attention. Especially with hand tools, but also with machines, I have learned from bitter experience that if I am tense, out of focus, somehow unbalanced, I will make mistakes. I’ll rush, I’ll try to take too thick a cut and tear the fibres, I won’t take the time to sharpen the tool or change the blade and it will show in the finished result. Or I will simply not cut it straight and square. And so I have learned that it’s important, as I move from one task to the next, to re-centre, re-focus, let go of distractions… For me it often takes the form of having a drink and a wander around the workshop. Or putting all the tools back so that I start the next phase with a clear bench. Or stretching my back by hanging from the architrave on the main door. And sometimes it means saying “sod it, I’ll go and do some filing, work through my inbox and leave the practical work for later on, when I’m in a better place”

Surprisingly enough, I learned much of this by teaching. When beginners are struggling (especially with hand tools) I have found that very often what I need to do is to help them shift their attention from the task (the line that they are struggling to follow in sawing, for instance) to their body and centre. Sometimes just changing their stance slightly to one side means that they can approach the task in a completely different way. But as long as they insist on focusing on the line, they contort their elbows and shoulders in ways that make it pretty difficult for their body to cut straight. In the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days, a baseball player explains how important it is to keep the focus not on the target but on your body: how you hold the ball, how you release it etc. Those are (seemingly) small things, but they are the ones you can control – the target is outside and therefore not worth worrying about: once you’ve let go of the ball, it’s out of your control… If you focus on the target you’re out of balance. If you prefer to get your philosophical insights from more literary sources, I think Eugen Herrigel in Zen and the Art of Archery says pretty much the same thing.

All of this led me to wonder whether this might be what distinguishes “craft” from other disciplines. I have always struggled with the label of craftsman – I am never sure exactly of what it means. Other jobs require a high level of skill or a good understanding of materials or a creative approach – and yet they are not classed as craft.

But perhaps this is it – craft is a particular approach to working, a particular attitude from the maker, an attunement to the task and the material that requires the whole person to be ‘present’ and eschews alienation. At the end of the day, what William Morris called “meaningful work” as opposed to the “useless toil” of the factories. And what I aspire to.

Fearful symmetry

My father was an engineer, even though he never actually completed his degree because he had to go to work when his father died. He had a classical education (Latin, Greek, philosophy), a somewhat surreal and mischievous sense of humour and he loved walking in the mountains singing Alpini’s songs (the army corps specialized in mountain warfare) though he could barely carry a tune, let alone harmonise. But he was an engineer: he had a strong belief in a rational universe that can be understood and described by the human mind and a fervent hope that technological progress and scientific understanding would help to improve society (alongside his Catholic faith to give a moral compass along the journey). He loved the novels of Jules Verne for their scientific content , which I tended to skip: I was more interested in the adventures… When I started doodling as a child, he had one constant comment to make on my drawings: these people, animals and houses I was portraying didn’t just hang in the air in real life, they were firmly planted on the ground… so why is it that in my drawings so often the ground line was missing or any indication of the ground they stood on? As soon as he reckoned I was able to understand them he taught me to draw isometric, oblique and orthographic projections – engineering drawing techniques. Measured to scale. With ruler and compass.  He also taught me about the golden section and its importance in defining beautiful proportions. (You can see him in this video at 00:50 about traditional methods of  working copper in Piemonte, a trade my family had been involved with for several generations)

DSCN5094For my Confirmation (I must have been 11 or 12) I received a number of presents, but two stood out. A small transistor radio from Gian Piero and a set of engineering compasses from zio Fulvio. The radio gave me the opportunity for the first time in my life to listen to music other than what my parents had chosen… but that’s another story. The compasses I still have with me and I still use. The case is a bit knocked and the foam inside has pretty much perished. But the compasses are still there. They’re probably the only possession I have from my childhood that has followed me around in my journeys.

Another influence around that period was my maths teacher, Don Sestero. He was an old man – he’d already taught my dad and my uncle at the same school. His approach in teaching arithmetic and geometry was very slow and methodical. He was fond of explaining that it wasn’t enough to learn these things – they had to be assimilated: “bisogna assimilare” – they had to become part of you, second nature. I enjoyed geometry even though I was a pretty recalcitrant student. Only once I started teaching technical drawing to furniture students I realised the value of his very methodical approach and his amazing skill: his drawings and diagrams on the chalkboard were faultless. And drawn with such ease!

When I started designing furniture all these influences came into play. My approach is very geometric. I work with grids, mathematical proportions, symmetry. I am much better at producing measured orthographic drawings then at freehand sketching. I love the playful precision of working with compass and straight edge to create ever more complex patterns by bisecting, transposing, rotating etc.

One of George Nakashima's beautiful pieces

One of George Nakashima’s beautiful pieces

There are furniture makers that like their work to flow with the wood, that like to let shapes and proportions define themselves as they make the piece. They work with waney edged boards (this is when the edge of the board still maintains the shape of the outer profile, the bark of the tree, it hasn’t been squared at all), following and allowing the vagaries of the timber. Their work looks and feels very natural and organic. George Nakashima was a great master of this approach.

I’m not one of those. I need to know what I’m going to make quite accurately before I start. Yes, when it comes to selecting the timber I’ll look for the grain and features that work best with my design. Yes, I reserve the right to modify some proportions or shapes slightly as the work progresses (sometimes a shape that looks good on paper, at 1:5 scale, needs to be different to look good at full size and in 3D). But I have tried using waney edges, letting the work flow organically and I’ve never been satisfied with the results.

Sometimes I take it to mean that I’m not artistic or creative enough. That I don’t have fine enough sensitivity to be able to perceive and work with the spirit of the wood, the “Soul of a Tree”, as the title of Nakashima’s book would have it. I have often judged my approach to be pedestrian and pedantic.

I have reflected on this a lot in the last five years – since I have started making a living from my designs, and I have come to accept that this is my approach. I start from geometrical constructs. I often start from a golden rectangle. And then I play with the symmetry and the lines. Sometimes a little shift is enough to make an idea come alive.

Swirl - Mirror and shelf - Oak, Glass, Nickel Silver

Swirl – Mirror and shelf – Oak, Glass, Nickel Silver

The inspiration for my “Swirl” mirror and shelf was the shape of a fern when they just start to uncurl at the beginning of spring. But to be able to make it I needed to draw it. So I started with a golden spiral (a spiral constructed using the golden rectangle – it’s a beautiful exercise – absolutely no measurement needed, just a compass and a straight edge – I love it!). That didn’t work. Then I tried an archimedean spiral. I don’t like it as much but it was worth a try. Still didn’t work. But it inspired the solution I was looking for. The twirl is made of 24 sections all cut at 7.5° at either end. If all the sections were exactly the same length they would form a circle. But the sections get longer and longer so that the ends don’t meet. It still took some experimenting – if I remember right I started with a regular increase (10% each time) but I ended up having to tweak that here and there to finally get the shape I wanted. (reflecting on this now, I wonder whether a portion of an epicycle – the sort of shapes you get with a spirograph set, another toy I loved as a child – would have worked…). (I just want to be clear: on the Wikipedia pages I referenced, I don’t understand the mathematical formulas for those shapes – sines, cosines, radians and things like that don’t make any sense to me – Graecum est, non legitur – but I love drawing them using ruler and compass…)

Extra Time Clock – The elliptical shape and the centre of the clok are determined by the golden proportion

My Extra Time Clocks have 25 spokes instead of the 24 divisions we normally expect. Geometrically interesting in that 360° does not divide in 25 easily. In practice it means that the eye doesn’t find the expected lines of symmetry and the shape acquires more sense of movement – you don’t see that cross that fixes time in a traditional clock.

The sweeps of my Waltham Cabinet (the sides, the top, the bottom of the front) all follow the same radius: I wanted to be able to make them all off the same jig. It took a lot of experimenting with different radiuses before finding one that worked.

Waltham Cabinet - Ripple Sycamore and American Cherry

Waltham Cabinet – Ripple Sycamore and American Cherry

People often ask me “how long did it take you to make that?” And I’m never quite sure how to respond. Do I tell them that it took me 2 weeks, or do I explain that before I touched a single piece of wood, I went back and forth for several months sketching, thinking, making models, calculating, drawing to scale, then drawing full size, then erasing it all and starting again?

As Stephen Covey said: “All things are created twice; first mentally; then physically.  The key to creativity is to begin with the end in mind, with a vision and a blueprint of the desired result”.

Designing Eutopia: when a chair is more than a chair

Philippe Starck / Kartell - Uncle Jim Chair

Philippe Starck / Kartell – Uncle Jim Chair –


At the recent Salone del Mobile in Milan, Kartell unveiled a new range of  chairs designed by Philippe Starck. The news was commented on in two discussion groups I follow. One of the groups focuses mostly on production furniture: the comments here were about the technical achievement of producing “the largest single mould polycarbonate sofa” . The other group tends to focus mostly on bespoke furniture and high value added design. Here the comments targeted the fact that the design (effectively another iteration of the plastic monoblock chair) showed no engagement with issues to do with environmental awareness and sustainability.

In 1516 Thomas More coined the word “Utopia” as the name of an imaginary island which he described as being the perfect society. The etymology of the word is normally explained as a combination of the Greek word “topos” (place, location) and the prefix “ou-“ (no, not) and so is usually translated as “No-where”. However reading Umberto Eco’s “The Book of Imaginary Lands” I learned that an alternative etymology has been suggested: that the prefix should be “eu-“ which carries positive connotations (good, pleasant) so that Utopia instead of being Nowhere Island, is actually “The good place”.

Thomas More is only one in a long list of writers describing Eutopias – perfect societies… What strikes me about these ideal worlds is that they generally tend to be totalitarian: almost every aspect of the lives of their citizens is controlled, “designed” for the common good. The dystopias of science fiction (and here the prefix is “dys-“, with negative connotations “bad”) – from Arthur C Clarke’s Rama sequence to films like Eon Flux, Equilibrium, Serenity – are often imagined as the degeneration into tyranny and dictatorship of eutopian attempts to create rich, peaceful and stable societies.

Map of a city in Utopia

Map of a city in Utopia

What’s all this got to do with furniture design, Philippe Starck and Kartell?

Much of the thinking that underpinnned design movements that I like from the 19th and 20th century had to do with social and political agendas. (I guess this applies to earlier movements too, but I don’t know them as well). William Morris and the Arts and Crafts were hoping that by re-valuing hand skills and craftsmanship they would free labourers from the alienation of the useless toil of factory production in favour of meaningful work. The DeStijl movement had a strong foundation in theosophy and (at least to start with) a strong moral and spiritual ethos. The Shakers saw their designs and working methods as extensions of their spiritual lives. The Bauhaus and Modernism held the belief that applying a scientific practical approach to design, rather than simply an aesthetical ethos, they could create better products that would improve everyday lives.

Today there seems to be much pressure on designers to come up with designs that are environmentally friendly, sustainable, socially inclusive etc. – in a word, ethical. Some commentators are actually saying that without those characteristics there is no “good” design. (See my blog on Alice Rawsthorn’s comments). I agree to a large extent and yet I fear some sort of “group-think” developing that could become restrictive and counterproductive. In fact, going down the route of green=good / plastic=bad becomes a negation of the best aspects of design thinking: asking questions, looking at products in their wider contexts, finding the unexpressed needs and the unintended consequences…

For one thing we run the risk of ending up with poor quality products. I find it difficult to understand why so much furniture made out of reclaimed timber is so badly made: poor finish, gappy joints, sloppy movements. My guess is that the designers believe that by giving it such a “rustic” look they are emphasising the fact that the product is made with recycled materials… but why should something that screams “I am made of scraps” then attract the same price tag of something of much better quality? My guess is that the clients are prepared to pay a premium to buy themselves the sense of moral superiority that comes from owning “green” furnishings. There is a website that looks at some aspects of the collusion between big business and ethical products –

For another thing, the question of how environmentally friendly and sustainable something is, often does not afford clear cut answers. Around 14 February every year there is a debate about roses. How does the carbon footprint of a rose grown in West Africa, blooming in time for Valentine’s Day under natural conditions but transported several thousands of miles compare with a “locally” grown rose which had to be coaxed to bloom with artificial light and heat? As far as I know there is no definitive consensus. (As an aside it could be argued that the design thinking (i.e. creative) question should not be which rose?, but why a rose? Is there some other more personal creative way to tell my beloved how I feel about her/him?) I understand that the food critic Jay Rayner in one of his books raised the same question about food production (I heard him discussing on the radio the pros and cons of New Zealand lamb vs. British lamb.

Or looking at a material I am more familiar with, wood. A piece of furniture hand crafted out of locally source timber might seem great in principle but: how sustainable is it really? If all the wood used in Britain (for construction or furniture), had to be British, how long would our forests last? Information from the North American Hardwood Council (or some such body, I don’t have the details to hand) claims that their forests, thanks to good management, are actually growing. I have heard similar claims about European forests. That’s a good thing, right? The reverse of the coin however is that the growth is probably based on replanting only a limited range of fast growing, commercially viable species, logged in relatively short rotations and that therefore the increase comes at a cost of reduced biodiversity and loss of ancient woodlands and their related ecosystems…

Should we just stop making things then? Stop designing chairs was a campaign linked to Helsinki as World Design Capital in 2012

Another level of analysis would look at the fact that by choosing “local” roses, or lamb or timber you are contributing to and supporting the local economy. And that must be good, right? And yet many products on the market make their USP the fact that by purchasing that particular product you are supporting some other “local” economy, be it in Africa, Asia, South America…  Advocates of globalisation actually claim that by actively  choosing to trade with countries with poor environmental records, questionable employment practices or a general disregard for human rights, we can stimulate change and ‘nudge’ them to improve on all those counts much more effectively than by boycotting them.

Gio' Ponti - Superleggera Chair -

Gio’ Ponti – Superleggera Chair –

And yet another level: why did Kartell and Starck produce this chair? Despite pushing the technical boundaries, the technology is fairly well established. The design does not look terribly different from many other plastic chairs – I don’t believe that it would be particularly more or less uncomfortable than similar designs. Kartell are a business: they manufacture plastic chairs. To keep their business going they have to sell furniture. To maintain their market share (and to increase it) they have to come up regularly with new products that attract the buying public’s attention. Philippe Starck runs a design agency: to keep his business going he needs manufacturers that buy his designs and produce them.  (other designs of his show engagement and understanding of ethical product issues…) If there is not a “need” for this particular design, there must be, at the very least, a market for it.  So who’s going to buy it? I don’t know what its price point is: looking at the images I would expect it to be a mid-range item. It’s a mass produced plastic chair: despite Stark’s cache, probably not iconic enough yet to be a strong statement piece (like, say, Gio’ Ponti’s Superleggera); yet the design is crisp, the execution excellent: it’s clearly not a cheap chair: it’s not aimed at people whose prime consideration is price. I imagine the people that buy it will be aware of the fact that it’s by a recognizable designer  and a reputable maker – it will show that they have an understanding of design, of current trends. That they have taste and can afford to choose quality stuff (both in a domestic and in a public or corporate setting). And for that market it matters that it is a new design. That it was unveiled at Milan. That it attracted press and critical attention. Designing and making the chair was ultimately only a small part of its significance.

This is why I enjoy engaging with the design community. Because design is not just about the product – for me it’s a way of making sense of the world.  On one level a chair is a chair: something you sit on. And yet it is more: it’s also a status symbol, a piece of art, a technological achievement, a political statement… its design, production and significance weave a complex web of meanings and connotations – looking as a designer means realising that “everything connects to everything else”, as Leonardo da Vinci taught us. And more: any chair is just a point in a long history, in an endless process of iterations and variations, repetition and innovation. Humans have been ‘designing’ things to sit on for… well, I guess from the moment they learned to stand. And yet no solution has been final – nor it will ever be. Things will change: society, technology, materials, mores…and we will need a different chair…

Perhaps we will find a way to create a just, peaceful society around the world – but it won’t be by designing it in black and white. It will be by embracing complexity: what looks beautiful to one person looks ugly to another. By embracing ephemerality: what today looks like a solution, tomorrow will look like a problem (what world would we be living in if the internal combustion engine had not been invented or we hadn’t found ways to use electricity?) . By embracing change: today’s technical innovation is tomorrow’s old fashioned way of doing things.

Finally, to accept that in design, as in life, there is no ultimate solution. Whether that is a reason to feel excitement or despair, you’ll have to work out for yourself: I haven’t made my mind up yet.





Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl

As Jubal Harshaw said:

“Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl.

An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become.

A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be…. and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart…. no matter what the merciless hours have done to her.”

Rodin - Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière

Rodin – Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière

I was thinking about this quote yesterday as I was visiting the Moore/Rodin exhibition at Compton Verney. Jubal’s words are probably the first critical assessment of Rodin’s work that I ever came across. In the passage, Jubal is talking about the sculpture “Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière” and that piece is not in the show… but much of what he says about Rodin rang true as I looked at the pieces on display..

There is a quality to Rodin’s work that moves me profoundly. And the juxtaposition of Henry Moore’s work made this all the more evident and poignant. From a purely visual aspect the two artists sit very well side by side. There is a clear thread that links Moore and Rodin: the way they both work with volumes, light and shadows feel very similar. But where Rodin moves me (almost to tears at one point – “Cathedral”, two hands reaching for each other…, Moore left me cold.

To paraphrase Jubal Harshaw, the sculptors that came after Rodin saw what he had done with shapes and continued to explore the visual aspects but failed to see the humanity contained in his work.

I grew up in the north of Italy, near Turin – a place full of history, of great political and religious significance. Pretty much in every square, in every park and on every other corner you will find a statue (generally, bronze if they’re generals, warriors, politicians; stone if they’re saints and religious figures). Whoever they are, those characters stand tall, strong, proud – leading, admonishing, teaching, solid in their beliefs and glory – but ultimately two-dimensional: they are didactical, propaganda works. Rodin seems to be able to go beyond the surface – to give a full story – to show the humanity, the roundedness of the figure. Often his work is unpolished, with casting and making marks left clearly visible. And often the figure is not complete – here it’s just a hand, or a torso, or most of a figure but without arms, or again there is no clear distinction between the figure and the rock it grows out of – and yet they face you with such presence and power!

Look at Adam. 

His strong legs and arms, the details of every tendon and muscle in his body so carefully realised – full of energy and tension… Michelangelo would have been proud! And yet he is contorted, conflicted… far from the idealised figures of the classical tradition. He is here not as the ideal man but as “the real man” with all his contradictions. A classical body, yes, but also one that struggles, definitely fallen out of Eden.

I was thinking of Michelangelo’s David and wondering: what would have Rodin done with that subject? Michelangelo gives us a young man, fresh from his victory over Goliath, with a glorious future ahead… And I imagined Rodin giving us an older David, one that has known defeat and shame, aware of his weaknesses and mistakes and yet, despite or perhaps because of that, still unmistakably a king.

That is what I see in Rodin’s work: this sense of tension, of strength and solidity and brokenness and fear, within the same figure.

Look at the Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone…

Harshaw again: “Ben, for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures – it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn’t simply say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it… and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried – and failed, fallen under the load. She’s a good girl – look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods… and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.

But she’s more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her – over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women – this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn’t even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”

I don’t know enough about art and Rodin to know if this is what he was aiming for. In a sense it doesn’t really matter: this is what I see in his pieces: humanity, bare in all its contradictions, tensions, fears and desires, strengths and weaknesses. And I guess that’s also what makes his figures so flexible. It’s interesting how many of them start out as parts of the “Gates of Hell” ensemble only to end up as stand alone pieces, often with completely different titles… Or they start as individual pieces and become part of a group… because it doesn’t really matter if this really is “Adam” or a “Shadow from Hell” or one of the “Burghers of Calais”… those are just temporary labels, accidents in time and space. Their underlying humanity – that’s what’s real and timeless and what they all share. It’s interesting that even with the figure that ended up clothed, he started from naked bodies and only after he was happy with that he would drape clothes on. Underneath the trappings of office and status, we are all the same… and good art allows us to to look at individual, specific items and yet transcend them and see that something “other” (universal, timeless) behind the physical, material object.

PS – And I guess I need to come clean, before you start looking for art history essays by Jubal Harshaw. He doesn’t exist: he is a fictional character created by Robert Heinlein and appears in several of his novels. The passages quoted are from “Stranger in a Strange Land”… As Charlie Brown says in the one of the Peanuts strips, if I remember correctly, “I quote wisdom wherever I find it”…