Ticking away…

So much of my life has been influenced by the rhythm of the academic year that September often feels like a more appropriate time to take stock, re-evaluate and make plans than January.

This year I find myself very aware of the passing of time. The point was brought home to me very strongly while I was at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham at the end of August, the largest exhibition of designer-maker fine furniture in the country.

my Twirl2 coffee table and Hall Table at Cheltenham

My Twirl#2 Coffee Table and 7-Hall Table at Cheltenham

I first visited the show in 1998, the summer between the first and second years of my City and Guilds training. I had never seen such furniture and from there I was hooked! When I was working for Robin Furlong, we brought our work to exhibit. Later, when I was teaching furniture making, I visited to keep in touch with the industry, to see what techniques, materials and design features were coming to the forefront, to keep my teaching relevant and up-to-date. And since I started my own business I have been going as an exhibitor.

One of the things I became very aware of this year is that a number of exhibitors that I used to see regularly in the early years are not there any more. It started with noticing that Martin Grierson was not at the private view. He retired some years back but he’s still been very active encouraging networking and organising exhibitions. And his absence started me thinking… who else wasn’t there? A few names jumped out. Andrew Varah, a great inspiration to me and many others, died a couple of years back… Sean Feeney, Robert Hingham and others have scaled down their operations and don’t exhibit as much… Richard Williams and Barnsley Workshop seem to have changed their business models and exhibit elsewhere I guess…

24082015126

Tom Eddols Coffee Table at Cheltenham

And new people, recent graduates from a variety of courses are taking their places. I was particularly struck by the presence of Tom Eddols. Tom was a student of mine at Warwickshire College and after finishing his course went on to work for various fine furniture workshops. And this year he was there exhibiting under his own name… I enjoyed thinking that we had three “generations” exhibiting together: Robin was there – I trained under him and then I trained Tom… If Martin Grierson had been there as well, we would have had four “generations”…

I’ve been involved with this woodworking world, in one way or another, for 18 years: I started my formal training in September 1997. Many things have changed (new technologies, machines, materials) and many haven’t (wood is wood and a sharp chisel and a steady hand are still required to cut fine dovetails…) – but every year I go to Cheltenahm I meet new people that share a passion for the work and the materials. It never ceases to amaze me: the sheer variety of designs – from very “traditional” fine furniture to cutting edge pieces bordering on the “conceptual art” (Sarah’s concrete-canvas chair?!? Or fine oak pallet?); the time, attention, dedication that goes into producing that work; the research, planning, thinking, creativity that is required.

And witnessing this flow of people and ideas, the changes that I have seen in less than twenty years, led me to thinking about the slow majestic flow of “tradition”… Not something stuck in the past to be re-discovered or preserved but something alive where creativity and passion mix the old (the mortice and tenon goes back thousands of years) with the new (computer controlled machines, acrylic, synthetic resins) to make beautiful furniture. And it’s quite humbling to think that in some way I am part of that too…

Advertisements

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?

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture

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!

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture

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”.

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture

A designer, a maker and an artist walk into a…

I recently participated in a workshop organised by Interiors and Lifestyle Futures in Birmingham. One of the exercises asked us to discuss how we describe ourselves professionally. The facilitators shared a list they’ve been compiling from previous workshops: while the list was fairly long, it boiled down to combinations of designer, maker, artist, craftsperson. Within the context of the workshop, this exercise was little more than an icebreaker, but it resonated with me because, from the moment I started my business, I have been wondering about how I label my work and myself.

My standard answer is that I am a furniture designer maker. And I tend to say that I design and make bespoke furniture or fine furniture: I guess the first emphasises the uniqueness and customisation of my work, whereas the second hints more at the high level of technical skill in the making and the aesthetics of the pieces.

I have so far eschewed the term artist , when I haven’t actively rejected it. In fact when I was asked to write a profile piece for ArtSpace, the magazine of the LSA (Leamington Studio Artists) I titled it “Why I am not an artist”.

Joseph Campbell talks of true art as having the capacity to generate “aesthetic arrest”. As I understand it, what he means is that art can help us to “stop the world” (to borrow an expression from Carlos Castaneda), to interrupt our normal everyday perception of the world and open us to an experience of something “other”. Through the immanence of the artefact we can experience or at least glimpse the transcendent, the sublime, the transpersonal. I certainly cannot claim that quality for my work. But neither do many people that describe themselves as artists.

More down to earth, Alice Rawsthorn in “Hello World”, after a thorough discussion of the various features of art and design, concludes that the only identifiable and defining difference is in function. Design is about problem-solving. It has a practical application. Products that are designed have a use, art products do not. I agree with her reading, and in that sense I am not an artist. Yes, I want my work to be beautiful, original, intriguing but fundamentally useful.

And yet… When I make a commissioned piece I am indeed problem solving. I am designing and making something that is useful and needed. Usually when clients approach me to commission a piece, it’s because they haven’t found the solution to their problem. It might be that they need something that fits in an awkward space. Or that fulfils a particular function. Or it might be that the pieces they have found do not fit with the décor of the rest of the room…

But what about the speculative pieces? Something like the mirror and shelf combination that I call “This Thing of Darkness”. It is useful, yes, but the inspiration behind it was purely emotional and aesthetical. It started with the line from Shakespeare’s Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. It comes right at the end of the play: all the spells have been broken or released, the games are over. Prospero is describing, acknowledging and prescribing the new order. As part of this process he takes responsibility for Caliban, the misshapen, villainous creature (“this thing of darkness”) that has been doing his bidding.

This Thing of Darkness - English Oak

This Thing of Darkness – English Oak

But watching the play with my wife, it struck us that we could give a psychological reading of that line. Over the years we have both worked with a personal development approach called “Shadowwork” based on the work of C. J. Jung. Jung talked of a Shadow we carry within our psyche. This Shadow is made up of the aspects of our personality that we choose to hide, deny and repress and from there it can affect our behaviour in ways that go against our conscious intentions. The work of therapy is then that of bringing these aspects into the light, to acknowledge them as part of us, in order to become a more whole, integrated person but also to strip the shadow of its power.

Reflecting on this reading of the line, it struck me how appropriate it would be as the title for a mirror. A symbolically magic mirror. One that reflects the parts of us that we do not want to see, our shadow, forcing us to face them and acknowledge them as “mine”.

As soon as I had that thought, I had a clear idea of what it could look like. It took me some time, sketching and playing with it to find the right proportions but also to convince myself that it would work. Ideas don’t usually come to me that quickly and easily. And of course it would have to be framed in a dark wood.

Does this make me an artist? After all the process was not about problem solving. In my mind, the functional aspects of the piece are somehow secondary to the psychological connotations and realisations that it carries for me. That might not be the case at all for the people that have bought the mirror. I’ll share this story with them, but they have simply bought it because it’s a beautiful piece that fits in their house and has a practical and decorative function (I imagine).

Having actually written it all down, now I wonder. Why is it so important to describe myself as just one thing? I know that as human beings we are much more complex than that. In the words of Walt Whitman “I am large. I contain multitudes”.

http://www.magnino.co.uk

http://www.facebook.com/MagninoFineFurniture