“A roughly made bench serves the same purpose as an elegant Hepplewhite chair and has its own beauty. But how wonderful that the learned hands of humankind can fabricate something that has real craft and hard-won beauty.”
— Robert Genn
There are many reasons to take up design, but the one that applies to every artisan at every level is quality. In our modern sense, design is often coupled with creating something unique or new. But for much of our history this wasn’t the case; quality was the hallmark of good design.
Woodworkers who craft reproductions seldom think of themselves in that modern design context. Yet one somehow recaptures the light and fire of an original masterpiece, while another builds a lifeless copy. Sort of like the difference between a masterful rendition of a great concert piece and the mechanical sound coming from a player piano. The difference is usually in the design knowledge brought to each workbench.
Regardless of whether you create original furniture designs, interpret masterful works from our tradition, or simply make small changes to make your furniture sing; design is the one ingredient that combines with our toolset and skillset to make a whole greater than the sum of it’s parts. Simply put, design is that final piece that enables you to do your best work.
— George R. Walker
Editor’s note: ‘By Hand & Eye” is now at the printer. We are continuing to work on the very complex cover I’ve devised, which is why we haven’t put the book up for sale in the store. Look for it early next week for $34 and free U.S. shipping.
One of the most important things I’ve ever heard about woodworking was said to my by John Economaki, the founder of Bridge City Tools. When he said it, I couldn’t write it down – we were in a car, I think. But I can pretty well paraphrase it.
When I teach a class on design I ask the students this question: Would you rather build a project that is beautifully proportioned with a few gappy joints, or a technically flawless piece with a design that is just OK?
The students unanimously answer: technically flawless.
When you look at traditional furniture, you can see that this was not the general attitude among pre-industrial makers. Even in spectacular Shaker pieces and world-class objects I’ve examined at Winterthur, the emphasis is more on overall form than on technical brilliance.
Baselines are overcut. The backs and bottoms of drawers look like they came from an Arkansas outhouse. There is tear-out. There are distinct toolmarks – if you know where to look.
But when you back away from your inspection of the joinery, you can see the brilliance of the maker.
When I teach classes on woodworking, I fully realize that I am part of this problem. During my week here at Rosewood Studio we have all been focused on the joinery. Perhaps too much. What is more amazing than the tight joints, however, are the nine perfectly proportioned tool chests that are coming into the world.
This chest isn’t my design – it’s the design of hundreds of woodworkers through three hundred years of work. I only hope that the students can see this when they pull their chest out of their car at home.