Editor’s Note: Publishing books that are simultaneously technical and personal can put you through the ringer. After months (sometimes years) of work, the result is boiled down to a brick of wood pulp, fiber tape and cotton cloth. When I wrote my first book in 2007 I thought that holding it in my hands would be akin to seeing a child being born. For me, it’s the opposite. I feel only dull relief that the project is done. I feel nothing for the book.
Usually, after a few months, I can pick up the book and look at it with fresh eyes. Eventually I make peace with it. I’m in that process with “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” one of the more emotional projects I’ve worked on. Today I opened the book to some of John Brown’s essays in Good Woodworking. I came across this one and smiled.
— Christopher Schwarz
Parallel to this abject disposal of hand skills is the rise of the purveyors of plans. Design is a subject that frightens many woodworkers. There are certain rules which can be quickly picked up: proportions, shapes, colour, finishes, etc. Anyone can design. Look at a child make something from a cornflake box. Some design will function, but look ugly, or it might look good and not work well. The next time it will be better.
The secret is to recognise beauty. Look at furniture. Some will cause you to be excited, so try to identify what it is that excites you. Sometimes the need comes before the inspiration. Don’t hurry! A picture will come in your head and you will be fired to get started. Sometimes the inspiration will come before the need. But, unless you can see the finished article in your head before you start, it is better to wait.
Another good thing is to copy a successful design that you like. Copying is the sincerest form of flattery. Remember, it is always polite, and you will be respected for it, to say where your inspiration came from.
My inspiration comes from all sorts of places. The opening of a book and experiencing that moment of delight when you turn a page and see a fine colour plate which causes you to catch your breath. I am fired by the impeccable hang of well-cut clothes, the style and grace of freshly washed hair over a lace collar, the sweet curve at the nape of a neck, a novel that paints pictures in my head, fine linen or cotton lawn which man-made fibres cannot copy, great architecture, and of course views of the countryside, trees, flowers and weeds, fresh under recently fallen rain.
I am not ashamed to talk about the minute things that fire my imagination. Most of them are totally unconnected with woodwork. They are to do with curves, shapes and texture. These joys, sometimes only momentarily glimpsed, set me off thinking about the next chair. There is no connection with the wonders of my eyes’ memory, but one excitement begets another. If someone says: “Are you a woodworker?” say: “No, I am an artist, I think things with my imagination, then I create them with my hands.” Do it!
— John Brown, in Issue 85, August 1999, of Good Woodworking. Reprinted in “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams
7 thoughts on “John Brown on Design”
The book that is proving to be an endless source of moments like this for me is “Honest Labours,” the Hayward essays. I’m so glad you persevered to get that published, and such providential timing. The relevance of his essays for our current situation keeps slapping me in the face. I read one or two a day, savoring them. That guy was brilliant. Thanks for this one. You’ve published no end of books that I treasure, but “Honest Labours” is special.
That must be the chair that casts the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave.
“Good Work“ was perhaps my most anticipated book in quite a while, which I’m sure you would understand. And yet, I could not finish it. It literally sat half-read for weeks and weeks, I just didn’t want to get to the end as I guess I didn’t want it to end. Kinda like the day when I learned that JB had passed away. I finally did recently (a certain someone kept asking if I had finished it yet!), and I’m so glad I did because I actually got excited to see where the future of all this goes. So not an ending at all, a new beginning, and now I am anticipating again.
The part of the essay on inspiration reminds me of one of my father’s friends who was a naval architect. Sometimes we would stroll through a marina just to look at the boats. I was always on the lookout for the prettiest craft and he would frustrate me by looking at the ugliest pieces of junk. I didn’t understand until he explained why,
“When you see something that is obviously ugly, examine it very carefully to find what was so important that it was worth abandoning all aesthetics for”.
That feeling when your book is done is called Post Partum depression. There are many websites out there with cures. I recommend lots of Lagavulin 16.
I love most of Lost art press books but this one really hit a cord with me. I don’t know why, I live in California and that’s about the same gap between my skills and John Brown’s. I’m already reading this book again
Most stick chairs now days have a sharpness or look stiff. This chair invites you to sit in it with a softness about it. It looks comfortable even before you would sit in it. It shows his attention to beauty that he spoke about.
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