The Old Way of Seeing

ImagePerfection in joinery is relatively easy to achieve. In the final analysis it requires learning (through instruction and practice) just two things:  First, how to mark a line precisely (or perhaps transfer a mark from another line), and second, how to cut to that line precisely whether done with power or hand tools.

Do these two things well, and your furniture will (at least from a technical viewpoint) be excellent.

Perfection (or even coming close) in design is, however, quite another matter.  We all have the ability to know good design when we see it. Good design has certain qualities whether or not we can identify those qualities clearly or describe them with words.  But knowing good design, and being able to create a good design seem worlds apart for most craftsman today.

ImageElsewhere I have compared the shape of two pre-industrial pottery jugs with the shape of a post-industrial jug.  The shapes of the jugs created by the pre-industrial potters were both pleasing and useful (good design), while the shape of the jug created by the post-industrial potter was mostly just useful (not bad, but not particularly good design either). I noted that the pre-industrial jugs tended to conform to some “rules” (the first one, shown to the left, being proportioned as a golden rectangle, the second by squares in simple proportion to each other.)

But where did the “rules” come from, and why were they helpful?  How did the pre-industrial potter (or furniture maker) create his or her pleasing design?

In his book “The Old Way of Seeing” architect Jonathan Hale explores these questions in the discipline of architecture. (A relevant discipline because most furniture is architecture – just expressed at a smaller scale.)  Hale notes that architecture “lost its magic” somewhere between the middle and end of the Industrial Revolution (~1750-1850).  A lot of furniture (and pottery!) “lost its magic” during the same time period. Many, though certainly not all, of the “heirloom” pieces of furniture that we value (or copy) today were created before the “magic” was lost.

Hale concludes that the “magic” was lost when we lost our ability to see and pay close attention to the shapes, symmetries, proportions, contrasts, gradients, textures and other qualities of the natural world that surround us. These are the very qualities that we naturally relate to, the qualities that feel “right” to us, the qualities that make us comfortable and feel at home because our “home” is the world around us.

When we lost the ability to see and pay attention to these qualities in the world around us, we  simultaneously lost the ability to incorporate them into our own work. If we do not incorporate these qualities into our designs, then our designs will never feel quite right.  They may “get the job done”, but they will never satisfy at a deeper level.  They will not become heirlooms that are valued by subsequent generations.

If you want to incorporate these qualities into your own work (as I increasingly do), the best place to start is by paying close attention to the world around you. Look at the overall shapes of nature (large and small, in outline and in detail); note how they relate to each other; photograph them, or better yet, sketch them.  As you do this, the qualities that are present will slowly begin to work their way into your mind, and from there, into your work.  Also, if you have the opportunity, watch George Walkers DVD “Unlocking The Secrets of Traditional Design” (Lie-Nielsen) or check out his website “Design Matters” or read his column in “Popular Woodworking” magazine.  He has much to offer along these lines.

In a later post I would like to bring some further focus to these important qualities found in nature and how they relate to good furniture design.  For now, I leave you to ponder two classical finials and how intimately they are related to plants shapes I found in our backyard. My photoshop skills are not adequate for the task but I think you will be able to see the finial shape and the top flower and bottom leaf (upside down) that make up the first finial.  The finial in the second is remarkably close to the overall or outline shape of the leaf. More often than not, it is the overall or outline shape that is important rather than precisely what is done within that shape.