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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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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