In Praise of Careful Readers

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Every so often you hear from a reader who really gets where you’re coming from. This is not to say they’re the only ones who get it, just that they take the time to let you know. (An outstanding example is Dan Clausen’s scholarly essay about Lost Art Press.)

A recent example for me was the following review of my book English Arts & Crafts Furniture by @thewoodprof on Instagram:

A most welcome addition to my bookshelves, @nrhiller’s English Arts and Crafts is simply stunning. If you’ve read any of Nancy’s other work, you already know that she puts as much craftsmanship into her writing as she does into her furniture. And yet this book still pleasantly surprised me in a few ways:

1) The book has the most elegant endpaper of any on my woodworking shelves. An excellent departure from the monotony of the crowd.

2) While there are plans for a few designs inside, the book is not your typical project-by-project guide. Instead, it is an accessible and engaging conversation about the history, aesthetics, and philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, all beautifully interwoven with projects and techniques from some of Nancy’s most recent works.

3) Throughout, the pictures are beautifully human. Archival photos and museum pictures blend seamlessly with portraits of Nancy’s craftsmanship. But the in-process photos from her shop are my favorites. Nancy’s workspace looks humble, mortal. Her lighting is not always perfect. These “flaws” combine to bring the images back into dialogue with the text, to create a harmonious tone of real-world art and craft…. [emphasis added]

What spoke to me most was not the part about the endpapers (credit for those goes to Megan Fitzpatrick; the pattern, based on an original design by C.F.A. Voysey, is by David Berman of Trustworth Studios) or the bit about my interweaving of history with projects and techniques (that struck me as the best way to structure this book and underscore the relevance of particular ideals and individuals related to each of the projects—in other words, a no-brainer). It was the bit about the dialogue between the text and the process shots in my shop.

I have some hang-ups about my shop in this age of studiously curated imagery. Anyone who has visited will be aware that I issue a knee-jerk apology at the door. “It’s really a glorified garage,” I say, “but it’s by far the nicest shop I’ve had in my life.” Both statements are true.

It’s not the building that troubles me. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to work in a converted church, timber-framed barn, or urban horse garage instead of my prosaic pole-barn covered in T 1-11 siding, but none of those is presently an option. My compulsive apology is more a response to the state of affairs inside. Partially finished pieces from magazine shoots (so close to being usable! I can’t bear to cut them up for kindling) preclude anything approaching a Zen vista. Routers and other small machines are stored on open shelves, as are tool bags and boxes, shims, levels, and other equipment for onsite installation work. On the wall above the chop saw are drywall and painting supplies; I’m no drywaller or painter, but some of my built-in jobs require minor drywall repair and painting, and it’s simpler for my clients, as well as more affordable, if I just take care of the whole shebang and save them the bother of choreographing multiple tradespersons. On another wall, more open shelves house boxes of screws, nails, washers, and other fasteners.

Someday I will finish the magazine projects and make doors for all those open shelves, streamlining the visuals and enhancing dust control. (Maybe.)

I am aware of what’s behind my compulsion to apologize: I have internalized prevailing norms regarding how a furniture maker’s shop should look. I personally have no problem with the state of my shop. I work well in a somewhat cluttered environment, maybe because the overwhelming majority of the shops where I have worked, starting in 1980, had a similar, um, “aesthetic.” But when I show the place to new people, I assume they’re judging it against the orderly, dust-free standard published widely in magazines, TV, and social media.

Millside inside shop

Bench view, 1985, “Farmstead Furniture.” Across the narrow floor from my bench was the bench of one of my bosses. Note the stylish sewing cabinet, which was being repaired for a relative; the plastic draft excluder at the window; the stove set firmly in the midst of flammable materials (not something I have in my shop); and the evident lack of concern with appearances. This original workshop (which would later be subsumed within a larger modern structure) was a converted farm building. Some of the loveliest furniture I have ever seen was built in this milieu.

“But it’s irresponsible to have your shop in that condition when taking process shots for a book!” some may protest.

Really?

Call me cantankerous. In this, as in most subjects on which I write, I want to resist the suffocating pressure to conform. As a woodworker, I come from a background populated by those who made things because (a) they chose this way of making a living, (b) they had limited resources, and (c) they did not give a fig what visitors thought, because it was their shop and they were the ones who knew about the work involved. In each case, they had arranged their working space for the kinds of work they did. These people were judicious about how they spent their time, energy, and money. What mattered was how their shop functioned for them. The workplace was for work.

Things are different today. We live in an age when gorgeous imagery of work and the doing of it can boost sales in real ways (especially when those doing the work are attractive human specimens; this applies all the more to females). And still I want to resist.

*

The whole situation puts me in mind of articles that would be the 21st-century woodworkers’ equivalent of the Woman’s Own magazines we used to read at boarding school in the early 1970s, while sitting on the old steam radiators because it was so cold. Rumor had it that sitting on warm radiators caused piles, a.k.a. hemorrhoids, but we were just too frozen to care. “Is there a right way to hang the loo roll?” headlines earnestly inquired, or “Which type of fringe [Brit-speak for what Yanks call bangs] best suits your facial shape?” There’s an increasingly insidious preoccupation today with how we are seen.

Image result for woman's own magazine 1971

Granted, when your livelihood depends on others, it would be foolish not to take your potential clients’ preferences into account. But at the same time, let’s think carefully about just how much we’re willing to let ourselves be swayed—if not downright defined—by others’ expectations. We live in a moment when we can be followed, visually and in other ways, by people all over the world. Maybe there’s something salutary in standing up for what matters to us instead of allowing ourselves to be overly shaped by our desire to be “liked.”

That Brian Clites (a.k.a. @thewoodprof) got this from those process shots tells me he’s a careful reader.

Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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18 Responses to In Praise of Careful Readers

  1. Okay, I read all of that!
    One question: Am I out of plumb in some disturbing manner if I really like what you create, enjoy learning from what you write, and admire the “Who” you are?
    Kent Ryan

  2. calebjamesplanemaker says:

    Nancy, I love it! So well said. 👍

    >

  3. THOMAS OBRIEN says:

    I like your shop photos. They look like human habitation, much more than the old photos of the workmen standing in front of the shop holding their tools – and wearing coats, ties, vests, and hats!

  4. Richard Mahler says:

    Good heavens! My wife describes my shops (one a dedicated block building for large projects and machinery, one a room in my house dedicated to small projects: miniatures, models and the small machines for such work) as usually looking “like a goat exploded!” My answer to this is that no one has to work in these spaces except me, and if someone is concerned about their personal health and safety, they must enter at their own risk. I have been working in them for years and I am in remarkable condition for my 72 years; most scars are not that noticeable and I still have all my fingers and the requisite number of limbs – last time I bothered to check. What is important is what comes out of my shops, not how they look or the clutter in them. I know where things are (usually) and I am of the philosophy that if it my spaces were uncluttered and scrupulously neat that would be an indictment of how much productive time I lost getting something started and finished. But everyone must work in their own manner. I am more concerned with keeping an uncluttered and creative space inside my brain case. I can admire neatness and order where I encounter it, even if it makes me somewhat suspicious. My wife of 50 years would love nothing better than to “organize” my shops, but we think very differently, so if she did I would never find anything!

    No one should feel they need to apologize for work space aesthetics!

  5. I have shop that is clean, nicer than I deserve and paid for by a day job that has nothing to do with woodworking. The drawback? I don’t get to spend much time there. My father was a professional woodworker and his shop was more like yours, drywall taped but not painted, walls festooned with ersatz tool and wood storage and remnants of projects to good to throw away scattered about. Beyond the aesthetics, the careful observer could see that it was well equipped, arranged for efficient use of his time and that the quality of his work was top notch. When I conjure up a romantic vision of what a woodworking shop should be, I see shops like yours and his, not mine. Maybe I should go scatter some sawdust.

  6. John says:

    I can relate to your shop and the condition(s) inside the shop. When you wrote of your shop it almost felt as if you were writing of mine. When I visit other shops and walk in to a pristine space absent of any dust on a picture, or a stray shaving peaking its end out from behind a bench leg. I feel like a visitor. On the other hand when I walk into a shop that has some dust in places where dust should be. I want to pick up a tool and get to work.

    I know everybody is different and each of our shops are different. From decor to tools to space to clutter or lack there of. This in my opinion stems from our personalities and is a direct reflection of them.

    Your book English Arts and Crafts, has been read cover to cover a few times. I have made some notes in the borders. And dog eared a few pages. It does not sit idle on a shelf. It sits within arms reach of my favorite chair.

    Looking forward to your next book!

    John

  7. Tim says:

    As Julia Child says, “never apologize for what happens in the kitchen”.
    nuf said

  8. Tony Zaffuto says:

    Great blog post! Just ordered your book from Amazon.

  9. Jacque Wells says:

    Great article. Great attitude. Don’t change a thing until it hinders you.

  10. Israel Katz says:

    When I was going to Uni and living in residence. Every 2 to 3 month I’d feel guilty of the shape of my room especially my desk and clean and organize it.After it took me two to three hours for the next week to find anything. Of course by then the desk was a mess again.Some organization and orderliness is required where safety and care are concerned (I’m willing to bet your carving tools aren’t piled together at the corner of your work table).Sterile surfaces and squeaky clean floors belong in hospitals not workshops. We are all different. We range from slobs to OCD’s. I stopped apologizing for my messes long ago so should we all.

  11. Jim Stewart says:

    Great article, great book. I devoured the new English Arts and Crafts book the same weekend it arrived several months ago. Hoping to share the joy, I loaned the book to a neighbor who is constantly reminding me that she loves it. Someday I hope to get it back.

  12. David says:

    Love photos of a very professional’s shop. Especially ones that prove one can make beautiful furniture in humble settings. You go girl!

  13. Thanks for the shout out, Nancy. 🙂 I’ll write more some day, when this whole graduate degree thing is finished.

  14. Nice write-up Nancy! I love that others have workshops that look “worked in” :-). Fortunately, my wife shares my garage for her projects so I only bear half the blame for the controlled chaos…

  15. Byron Heppner says:

    “they did not give a fig what visitors thought, because it was their shop” What else is there to say? If you don’t like it, go dust the corners of your own shop:)

  16. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    “There’s an increasingly insidious preoccupation today with how we are seen.”

    I took down my battered old copy of Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” yesterday to see if he had any prescient insights into the modern condition. Turns out he’d taken down his battered old copy of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” for similar reasons, as here’s the quote on the title page –

    “…in the case where the self is merely represented and ideally presented (vorgestellt), there it is not actual: where it is by proxy, it is not.”

    So yeah, there’s Hegel nailing Instagram back in 1807.
    #shelfiesnotselfies

    • nrhiller says:

      Sending you virtual fistbumps and huzzahs. Thanks for this. I hope to meet you in person next late-winter/early spring, when my husband and I are planning to visit your land.

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