“Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool or material that is does not respect and that it does not love…It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty…To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for.”
These words, written by Wendell Berry in his book The Art of The Commonplace, express my reflections on design and quality of work. I have found that beautiful and useful work requires attention to at least three areas noted below.
First, I have found it necessary to develop an apprentice mindset – a willingness to study and rely on the rich traditions of the past as a guide for the present. In the introduction to his 1984 catalog, Thomas Moser noted that “after 4000 years of accumulated furniture design there is nothing fundamentally new under the sun . . . human needs remain largely unchanged.” The masterpieces of the past contain a wealth of accumulated wisdom on various combinations of shapes, contrasts, human-scale proportions, boundaries, etc. and how they work together to create items that are both beautiful and functional. We must study, appreciate, and apply the wisdom of the past in our work if we are to make the most of the present opportunity.
Second, while appreciating the rich tradition of the past, it is not enough to simply reproduce that furniture (unless, of course, a reproduction is the desired result.) It is important to preserve the best of the past, but also to add or eliminate details, to simplify or elaborate, etc. depending on present needs. The rich possibilities from the past must be adapted to the present in ways that express familiar things in new ways, especially to bring utility for present needs. I make every effort to listen carefully to my clients needs and desires because the success of a piece depends not only on its beauty, but also on its utility.
Third, as the past and present come together in fresh new ways, there is a (more or less) three-step process that “unfolds” a beautiful and functional piece of furniture. The first step involves visualization of the overall form, shape, and prominent features that could be seen even from a distance (for example, from across a room). The second step involves the “unfolding” required details (such as drawers, doors, shelves, legs, etc.) from the overall form. These details (which are seen as one walks closer to the piece) emerge and begin to take shape with their own edges, boundaries, colors, etc. Finally, in the third step, the fine details “unfold” from the previous level of details as edges become more defined, and things like textures, thicknesses, mouldings, inlay, etc. become fully defined. These details are (or felt) mostly from a very close-up perspective. The whole process of “unfolding” a design is very interactive and often involves cycling back to a prior step to make modifications that fully support the current step. If this process is followed faithfully and with good attention, the result is likely to be very good – something that will satisfy for many years to come.
If you want to gain a more in-depth understanding of the design process as I understand it, please see my series of posts on design that start with The “Shape of Things To Come” or the “Shape of Things Past?”