Twelve Days

…and it came to pass that I discovered that I carried an unspoken rule: that my posts should be well thought out arguments or at least clearly develop a specific theme and question. And I found that this kept me stuck: in the past 12 days several things have sparked thoughts and reflections; hints that might develop further… but at the moment they are no more than raw inklings. And I decided to share them anyway.

On 25th February I went to visit “William Blake: apprentice and master” at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I haven’t had any dealings with Blake since my early twenties but at the time he was one of my favourite poets. And within minutes of entering the exhibition, I was under his spell again. What is it that moves me so much in his work? As the exhibition demonstrates he was a very skilled and accomplished printer and engraver but technically his poetry is relatively simple. His use of language does not have the subtlety of a T.S. Eliot (to pick another of my favourites…) but his work has power!

William Blake - Ancient of Days

William Blake – Ancient of Days

“Rinthrah roars and shakes his fires”… say it out loud a few times savouring the sound: you don’t need to know what sort of creature Rinthrah is, nor how it fits in Blake’s hellish visions to feel its fiery power.

Wondering why Blake’s work carries such strong resonance for me I was reminded of a clip from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon that I used to play at the beginning of the design lessons. Bruce Lee in the role of a Shaolin teacher asks his pupil to throw a kick and he is not satisfied until the student can do it correctly: not with anger, not for show… it’s not even a matter of technique: “We need emotional content” he powerfully admonishes the student.

I guess that’s what I hear in Blake’s work: “emotional content”. Not a facile appeal to pathos or bathos in order to spark a superficial sentimental reaction. Emotional content in the sense of being fully present and immersed in the work. Of pouring all of oneself into it, whether it’s a kung fu kick or an engraving.

 

On Saturday 28th I was at Warwick University attending TedX Warwick. It was an interesting day, with a wide ranging series of talks. But I must admit that the thing the struck me most was the photographs. Loads of people were taking photographs on their phones – all day. Some I could just about understand: of the speakers, of the dancers. But others I couldn’t: of the empty stage with the logo, of the food they were having for lunch, selfies next to a great big red X in the enatrance hall… I don’t understand it. I photograph my work because I need to keep an up to date portfolio to show prospective clients, to provide to magazines and websites and to attach to applications to exhibitions. But my lunch? Me by the beach? What is that about? Marina Warner in Phantasmagoria has several chapters that deal with photography. At one point she quotes Italo Calvino’s “The adventure of a photographer” whose protagonist refuses ‘to live the present as a future memory’. Is that what it is about? Seeing the present as a memory already? Or, given that those pictures more than likely will be shared online, is it that the experience becomes real only once it has been witnessed by our ‘friends’ and ‘followers’? How does it affect your experience of the “present” the fact that you are looking at it through a lens – effectively distancing yourself from it? That you are effectively constantly interpreting it not for what it is but for how it will be seen by others?

 

And finally on Saturday 7th March I was back in Oxford for “Love is enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol”. A very interesting combination. I don’t know much about Andy Warhol, and I can’t say that this exhibition has done much to make me want to look at his work in much more depth. It was interesting to discover that there is more depth than I thought to his art, that there is some serious phylosophycal thought behind it… but it still doesn’t grab me. As for William Morris… well, a couple of things struck me. I have always struggled with his wallpaper designs and now I know why: they are just too full, too busy… What I really enjoyed was looking at the “cartoons” (I believe that is the term) of the wallpapers . Full size pencil drawings on paper. Those were just great. What you could see in them was the very careful geometry that underlies the design. I knew it was there, otherwise you can’t have a repeating pattern, but these laid it bare. Usually there was only one iteration of the pattern with enough details of the surrounding repeats to understand how they tasselated together. And only a small portion of the pattern was coloured in… just enough to give all the information necessary to the setters so that they could carry out the work. And so what you had were bright patches of colour in the centre of an intricate geometric pattern that became more vague and diffused as it expanded: just gorgeous! Why would you want a whole wall of it? Repeating it over and over, filling every space, just kills it for me.

Morris, Burne-Jones and others - The Vision of the Holy Grail

Morris, Burne-Jones and others – The Vision of the Holy Grail

The other thing that struck me was about scale. In the first room there was a tapestry by Morris, Burne Jones and others, part of the series about the Grail quest. I would guess it was more than 2 metres high and 6 metres long. And at that size it made a much more powerful impact than the reproductions I have seen in books and catalogues…

And it made me think. I tend to think small: coffee tables, clocks, cabinets, hall tables. What would I design, if I thought big? If I had to create something to fill a whole wall? Linking back to the thoughs about the wall paper above: how would I balance filling and owning the space with my need for emptyness, for room around things?

Thinking about Blake’s powerful beings and Morris’s Grail knights and wallpapers: what creatures, gods, monsters, geometric patterns would I devise? And how would I ensure that their appearance has such power?

PS – while searching for an image, I discovered that Love is Enough will come to Birmingham Museum later in the year! I’m going again: more of the Grail tapestries will be on display. And if anybody with a better understanding of Warhol cared to join me to help me understand him better I would really appreciate it.

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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!

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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.

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Designing Eutopia: when a chair is more than a chair

Philippe Starck / Kartell - Uncle Jim Chair

Philippe Starck / Kartell – Uncle Jim Chair – designboom.com

 

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 – http://www.everyonedeservesgreatdesign.com/#now

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 - designmuseum.org.uk

Gio’ Ponti – Superleggera Chair – designmuseum.org.uk

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.

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