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”.