Warwickshire Open Studios 2017

This gallery contains 13 photos.

In 2017 Studio 16 opened its doors to the most diverse, interesting and participative crowd ever, we welcomed many spectacular visitors ready with curiosity, insights or alternative visions. This year we presented original works by our three in-residence makers and … Continue reading

I’ve seen the light!

I love it when serendipitous encounters suddenly shine a light on some undiscovered aspect of myself.

On my way back from a delivery a few days back, on the spur of the moment, I popped in to see Sarah Silver of Bastian Contrarian, an experienced copywriter and skilled translator, and a friend. We had a good chat over coffee and then she invited me to see the studio of Nick Logan, an artist and wonderful oil painter.

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Nick Logan’s Portrait of an Old Man (work in progress) after Rembrandt

While looking around Nick’s studio, my attention was caught by an oil painting of a bearded man – a work in progress. I discovered later this is an homage to Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Man”.

I love art in many forms, I go to exhibitions, have my favourite paintings etc. but I don’t know anything about the actual technique of painting. Three years of art classes at middle school made sure of that. All I remember of those years is trying to paint a landscape with a tree a sheep and a road (or perhaps it was a stream)… failing miserably and not getting any real tuition on what I was doing wrong or how I could have improved… so I never really tried again. I can just about use watercolours to give a bit of texture to my sketches before I present them to the clients but I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Looking at the painting that Nick had been working on though, I saw something I had never seen before (probably because for the first time in my life I was looking at it as work in progress rather than as a finished piece).

When I visualize my furniture, when I sketch it, draw it and even when I am just doodling I see objects in solid blocks. I basically draw in the same way as I make: one square block here, one block with a corner cut off there, etc. Everything is defined: there are rigid lines to determine where a piece begins and the next starts. If I use texture lines at all is simply to indicate the grain direction and pattern rather than any depth.

But on Nick’s painting there were NO LINES! What I saw, for the first time in my life, was that the whole thing was defined not by solid objects, parts, components (this is the nose, this is the ear, this are the lips…) but by light. There was no line to say “here endeth the nose and here the cheek begins”… there were just changes in light! Changes in tone, in colour, in hue but just changes in light.

I was trying to explain my realisation to Nick and he knew exactly what I was talking about. In the same way as I look at objects as defined by the shapes of their components, he looks at objects as defined by the shapes of the light. He sees shapes too but he sees the shapes that the light creates.

I think that’s why I’ve never mastered the skill of rendering – because I am fixated on the “object” rather than the light. I don’t pay attention to the light because (in my mind) that’s ephemeral: it changes with the position of the object in the room, with the time of the day, with the weather; whereas for me the shape of the component (the leg, the handle etc.) it’s permanent and constant…

And so I am left wondering: what would happen to my designs if I started looking at light rather than at objects?  You’ll just have to wait and see: I intend to keep this insight in my awareness as I go about my business of looking at the world for inspiration.

The Designer’s Ego

Mark Newson’s Lockeed Lounge Chair recently sold for £2.4 million, making it the most expensive design object to date. While I don’t think Newson will make any money directly from such a transaction on the secondary market (unless, with clever foresight, he built any such conditions in the original sale transaction: would that be possible at all?), it will certainly affect the perceived value of any product even remotely associated with his name. Does that turn the chair into an art Marc-Newson-Lockheed-Lounge-at-Phillips-design-auction_dezeen_784_0piece? After all, you don’t spend that amount of money on a piece of furniture because it’s comfortable (though it might be, for all I know) or just the right size for that awkward space in the living room – in the same way as you don’t spend tens of millions on a van Gogh because the colours match the wall paper. The value of the piece rests not in the objects themselves and their functionality but on their significance, much of it resting on the “name”.

At the recent symposium “Ideas in the Making” in Oxford, one of the recurring themes was the importance for creative people to approach their work with humility, keeping their ego in check, whether by acknowledging a sense of ‘inspiration’ that is somehow extrinsic to themselves, or simply by accepting the need to subsume one’s personal preferences to the requirements of the design brief. The architect/designer Giuseppe Boscherini made an impassionate plea to recognise how the design process is a collaborative effort. While we are used to actors acknowledging and thanking a whole raft of people (family, producers, directors, colleagues) in their acceptance speeches and writers dedicate paragraphs to recognise the contribution of editors, researchers, advisers and (usually) long suffering family members, such expressions of gratitude seem to be much rarer in the field of design.

I found the same theme in “Artista e Designer”, by Bruno Munari. He takes the point even further making it the defining difference between the two fields. In his view art is a personal endeavour: the artist’s goal is ultimately always self-expression, whatever form they choose to work in (even risking inaccessibility, misunderstanding and rejection), whereas the work of the designer is one of collaborative efforts (with users, technicians, craftspeople, engineers etc.) in order to develop pragmatic, accessible and functional objects, where even the aesthetics are determined by materials, manufacturing and usability rather than personal preference. Paradoxically, despite his attacks on the cult of personality in design, he is probably the first designer I was ever aware of: my first school satchel in the early ’70 was designed by Bruno Munari – I remember being aware of the fact at the time, even though at 7yrs old I had no conscious interest in design and designers. (By the way, Munari’s book is well worth reading – while dated in some respects, it was published in 1971 – some of his sarcastic sideswipes at aspects of the art market he disapproves of and at artists’ attempts at product design had me laughing out loud – ).

I see much of this tension in the world of craft designer makers. On the one hand there is much talk of re-inventing and rediscovering a vernacular crafts tradition (hence the pastel colours and faux-rustic setting of the New Craftsmen gallery for instance) while on the other hand much of the ‘value’ of those same products is attached to the persona of the makers and a to practices that are closer to the art world: signed limited editions, numbered and catalogued short runs and one off pieces. Soetsu Yanagi in “The Unknown Craftsman” pointed out how much of the work of studio

The unknown craftsmanpotters seemed to be about deliberately recreating imperfections and asymmetries of earlier traditional (‘vernacular’) pieces; defects that in the original were due to the economic pressures of manufacturing: the makers were paid by the piece and the cost had to be kept low as these were, at the time, everyday objects not museum pieces; those same imperfections, in the world of studio pottery, now representing added value as well as an individual maker’s mark.

I see that same tension in my business. Some of my clients, in the best vernacular tradition, if you will, simply come to me because I am their local woodworker: what they want is a piece to fit a particular corner of the house (and there is nothing on the market of the right size, or shape, or colour), or they ask me to modify an existing piece to improve its functionality (take a shelf off for instance). They want somebody with the practical skills to do a good job of making a functional, usable piece that fits with the rest of the furniture in the room – regardless of current trends or of my own personal aesthetic preferences. I even had people walking into the workshop with a piece of wood simply to ask me to cut it up because their DIY skills or their equipment at home was not up to the task.

Others though, come to me because they have seen my work and they like my “style”. They still want a practical solution (a table, a set of shelves), but with the added value of my aesthetics, my craft skill, my problem solving contribution: my signature, as it were. They don’t just want a table but a Magnino table. From here to one of my pieces being resold for millions is quite a gap, but only a quantitative one, not a qualitative one.

After all, no matter how self-effacing I would like to be (in some ways), for my business to be successful and sustainable I need to maintain a visible profile. I have to keep emphasising my Unique Selling Point, as they say. What I offer is a service, and not an essential one. Nor am I the only one, even locally. What makes my work different from other makers? Why should you choose me over somebody else? Ultimately just me: my approach, my sensibilities, my aesthetics, my listening and problem solving skills, my understanding of materials and production processes: the service I provide. So, not unlike the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping, how do I say “look at me, look at me” without ego?

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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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Sir Christopher Frayling at Designer Crafts at the Mall 2015

On 15th January 2015, at the opening reception of Designer Crafts at the Mall, sir Christopher Frayling gave a stirring address pointing out the value of crafts and design in the modern world.

Here’s the full text:

Welcome to Designer Crafts at the Mall 2015—a special year, because this is the 25th Anniversary of the  Society’s  winter  exhibition  happening  here  at  the  Mall  Galleries.  Your  Silver  Jubilee.  Over  200   members, fellows and licentiates of the mall2015 are represented in the exhibition this year—including five former chair-people at one end of the spectrum, and 33 design graduates of summer 2014, new licentiates, at the other. I can think of few other survey exhibitions where the age-range goes all the way from 80-plus to 23-plus—a very healthy sign, and an important pledge  to  the  future.  Maybe  the  RA  Summer  Show…  but  that’s  about  it.  One  particularly  distinguished   exhibitor is Heidi Lichterman—who organised the very first winter exhibition here 25 years ago (when it included just 22 exhibitors), and who continued to curate the show for the next 20 years, 21 in all: her work is on display in the main gallery. Our guests tonight include John Deston, Gallery Manager, who  has  attended  all  25  of  the  Society’s  exhibitions  here.  A  new  feature  for  2015,  to  celebrate  the  25th, is that all members, fellows and licentiates have been challenged by the organisers to submit a small piece of new work—25 x 25 x 25 centimetres—to open the numbers out a bit: and the response to this call has been beyond all expectations. The results are also in the exhibition, in a special section.

 To  set  the  scene  for  tonight’s  reception,  Id  like  to  offer  a  few  snapshots  of  the  context  in  which  it  is  happening—to demonstrate just how significant this exhibition has become, and especially now.

 SNAPSHOT ONE

Did you watch the episode of The Apprentice on television a few seasons ago—the one in which the contestants  were  set  ‘a  design  challenge’?  The  challenge  was  to  design  a  product  that  would  appeal   to dog-owners, which the teams could then try to sell to three retailers. Well, the moment the word design’  was  mentioned  by  Alan  Sugar,  the  contestants:

  • glazed over
  • removed their smart silk ties
  • whipped out a flipchart
  • started doodling with coloured felt pens
  • and came over  all  ‘creative’,  as  if  this  was  a  holiday  from  more  grown-up concerns.

 

Needless to say, the retailers were deeply unimpressed—as was Sir Alan. There was no clarity of thought, no analysis of the brief, no discussion of need or of how the product might be sourced and made, no market research, no research of any kind, no sense of what the product might signify—or of whether  it  was  practicable.  Just  lots  of  diffuse  ‘creativity’—or rather, of what the contestants thought was creativity.

Which just goes to show how, despite 180 years of publicly-funded art and design schools  in  this  country,  70  years  of  the  Design  Council,  and  endless  public  education  about  ‘design’— its importance and its processes and its methods—there are still a lot of basic misunderstandings out there. All those superficial makeover programmes on television seem to have won the day.

 A well-known designer—known to all of us—has recently referred to the cycle of design in the real world  as  ‘the  five  Fs’:  they  are

‒ function and fabrication—an understanding of and use of materials, and a consideration of processes.

‒ fair exchange between wants and needs—an understanding of the context for the product—design as something that happens in social, cultural and economic worlds

‒ fashion—the look, and its emotional impact—what some commentators have called emotional  ergonomics’

‒ and of course finance, or funding—and pricing.

Too  often,  however,  the  eminent  designer  added,  design  has  been  reduced  these  days  to  the  three   Fs’:

‒ finish

‒ photography

‒ then f— off.

 Sorry about the spelling of photography—but  you  know,  I’m  sure,  all  about  spelling  and  art  schools.

This attitude reminds me of the story the architect Hugh Casson used to enjoy telling, of overhearing two young designers sitting and chatting with one another at the height of the Swinging  Sixties.  ‘Let’s  be  philosophical  about  this,’  says  one  designer  to  the  other.  ‘Don’t  give  it  a   second  thought!’

So  it’s  no  wonder  that  The  Apprentice  contestants  reacted  as  they  did—when some within the design world seem to have a similar approach. Or claim to.

And  it’s  no  wonder,  either,  that  they  were  muddled  about  what  a  product  might  be.   The  Oxford  English Dictionary  still  defines  the  word  ‘product’  as  ‘a  thing  made  or  produced  or   constructed  or  manufactured’.  And  yet  it  has  come  to  be  stretched  in  recent  years  to  cover  insurance  products’,  ‘investment  products’—packages  of  services,  in  other  words:  I’ve  even  seen  in  a  travel  agent’s  window  the  phrase  Sun  Products’, meaning  holidays  in  the  sun,  and  in  a  car  park  Parking  Products’,  meaning  different  deals.  So  the  word  ‘products’  is  in  the  process  of  being   stretched to cover the virtual world as well as the real one—and it is now in danger of losing sight of its  original  meaning  altogether,  a  tendency  which  has  been  called  ‘living  on  thin  air’.

 This  exhibition,  Im  glad  to  say,  stands  at  the  opposite  pole  to  all  these  tendencies—and it should begin to shout its distinctiveness, and its achievements, from the rooftops. More loudly, in my view, than it has in the past.

 Meanwhile— SNAPSHOT TWO

The language of design has been moving from out of the design world where it originated to statements about almost anything by politicians and media pundits. Have you noticed this?

‒ fitness for purpose (from the Bauhaus)

‒ form follows function (from Modernism)

‒ blue skies thinking (from Icarus challenging the gods, Prometheus Unbound; the two great foundation myths of human creativity).

 There are countless other examples—not  to  mention  assorted  ‘broad-brushes’,  ‘frames  of  reference’,  palettes’,  ‘sculptings’,  ‘patinas’  et  cetera.  The  language  of  art  and  design,  to  give  a  sense  of  ‘cutting   edge’  (there’s  another  one!)  to  whatever  is  being  discussed.  This  language  used  to  be  our   language—it started life as a series of technical terms—and now it belongs to everybody and has become  a  set  of  clichés.  If  I  hear  the  phrase  ‘fitness  for  purpose’  once  more,  I  think  I’ll  scream!  Like   the  debasement  of  the  word  ‘craftsmanship’  by  advertisers.  It’s  time  to  give  substance  to  these   phrases again—or to find new ones.

 Which brings me to SNAPSHOT THREE

At the National Portrait Gallery, there is currently an important exhibition, curated by Fiona MacCarthy—who has written a lot about British Design and Craft—on the subject of William Morris and his Legacy, from Victorian times to the near-present. It is about a man who saw the way things were going in industrial Britain—the 1880s especially—towards consumerism, over-consumption, brands, labels and verbal product differentiation; poor quality products with big labels; settling for second-best, and an increasing gulf, which he saw developing, between human beings, nature and materials: leading to all sorts of confusions and misunderstandings. Against this, he issued his own clarion-call.  I  quote:  ‘If  you  want  a  golden  rule  that  will  fit  everything,  this  is  it:  have  nothing  in  your   houses  that  you  do  not  know  to  be  useful  or  believe  to  be  beautiful.’  The  church  architect,  and   champion of the Gothic Revival, J.D. Sedding—a  friend  of  Morris’s  who  is  also  featured  in  the   exhibition, the man who helped to bridge architecture and the Arts and Crafts—added  this:  ‘There  is   hope in honest error—none  in  the  icy  perfection  of  the  mere  stylist.’

The great architect and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh was to turn this into his personal motto— to the point where the quote is usually attributed to him these days. It was Sedding in fact.

 SNAPSHOT FOUR

My  final  one.  This  exhibition.  Against  the  tendencies  Ive  mentioned  this  evening—and in many others—this exhibition is, and has been for 25 years and more, about long-term substance rather than short-term style. About an understanding of materials and their possibilities—borne of intimacy, experience and professionalism. About design through making and making through design. And about the special kind of design thinking which arises out of doing things well—through patient and reflective practices rather than cutting corners. This exhibition, in short, always makes a refreshing change  from  design’s  equivalent  of  fast  food—and from the widespread debasement of the word designer’  as  a  prefix,  as  in  ‘designer  carrier-bags’,  and  so  on.  ‘Designer’  as  a  brand,  to  justify   premium pricing. The exhibition is about second and third and even tenth thoughts—embodied in things.

 And, as it always has been, it is an opportunity to view, buy and commission work from across the range of contemporary crafts—textiles, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, metalwork and glass and mixed media—at a time when crafts courses in Higher Education are fast becoming an endangered species. Did you know that in the six years 2007-2013, the number of crafts courses in England, within  HE,  fell  by  46%.  And  that’s  according  to  the  Crafts  Council’s  latest  official  figures.  2015  is  a   critical time for the crafts in education—which makes the work of this society, the facilities it offers to members,  and  this  exhibition  all  the  more  important.  It’s  truly  remarkable  that  Designer  Crafts  at  the   Mall is arranged and managed entirely on a voluntary basis, from within the membership. Why is it that in the arts and design so much has to be achieved on a pro bono basis—for love? A bigger question.  It  doesn’t  happen  so  much  in  other  walks  of  life,  in  my  experience…  But  it’s  marvellous   when it does.

So,  in  opening  this  reception,  I  propose  a  New  Year’s—a 25th anniversary— Resolution: to use this exhibition, and the work of the Society, as a platform. To say some of the things about design that need saying—and  need  saying  urgently.  To  raise  the  Society’s  profile,  and   in parallel extend its sponsorship. And in the process, by a virtuous circle, to promote its sales as ambassador for what it stands for—sales which are already on a steep upward curve. I believe that sales this time last year (the winter exhibition 2014) were some 72% up on previous years, which is a hopeful sign. I know Christine Dove, your Chairperson, is keen on this Resolution and has already put a lot of effort into it—as has Dawn Thorne.

So, warm thanks to the Gane Trust for the prize it sponsors; thanks to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship  Trust  for  organising  this  afternoon’s  seminar;;  thanks  to  all  who  put  this  exhibition   together—organisers and exhibitors—and  thank  you  all  for  coming.  For  all  the  reasons  I’ve   mentioned, and more, Designer Crafts at the Mall is a cause for real celebration.

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!

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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?

PS

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.

reversed

reversed

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?

 

 

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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”.

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