I’m not 100-percent sure, but I think Jim sat in on George’s class, “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design,” which covered how furniture is based on a lot of the same proportions as classical architecture (which is turn based on nature – but I don’t recall if he brought that up in the class, or if I’m interpolating from his columns in Popular Woodworking).
I feel a small personal connection with this one; I was there when Jim Tolpin and George Walker met for the first time, at Woodworking in America in 2009 in St. Charles, Ill.
But it might have been George who sat in on Jim’s class, “Measure Twice or Not at All,” which I believe was a talk on the difference between designing for machines and designing for hand work.
Either way, it was a fateful meeting.
Traditional proportional drawing drafted by hand ignores dimensions. It instead relies on simple geometry and dividers to compose an image that conveys the proportional scheme. It employs a vocabulary of proportional notes that we can visualize internally. Because this type of drawing relies on proportions rather than specifications, it moves another step closer to a pure image in the mind. Proportional drawings can provide enough information to execute a build with simple tools; the drawings are organized in a way that meshes with traditional bench techniques. Even if you are adept with digital or industrial drawing, this type of drawing is not a step backward. Instead, it’s a concrete method to begin making that connection with your inner eye.
Our goal ultimately is the drawing that takes place in your head. This is speaking the language of design from the artisan age in its purest sense. It’s what Vitruvius wrote about when he said an architect could see clearly from the instant he conceives it in his mind. It uses a simple language of visual notes to create spatial music to help you acquire the ability to conceptualize internally. This is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the industrial approach – using that ability to spur creativity and provide a practical means of expression. You may still choose to employ modern drawing techniques and (egads) SketchUp, but the goal is to always encourage the flow of clear images from the drafting board in your head.
Make Your Designs Sing
This concept of clearly seeing a design in the mind’s eye is a learned skill. Let’s do a little experiment. Take a moment, close your eyes and sing the “Happy Birthday” song silently to yourself. You weren’t singing out loud were you? (If you did, start again and sing it just in your head.) Could you hear it? Think about this for a moment. No audible sound, but you could clearly hear it in your mind. Try this: Sing it silently to yourself again but at a slower tempo. Can you still hear it, only slower? Can you imagine it sung in another voice? How about a deep, clear Nat King Cole version? How about a sultry Marilyn Monroe singing to John F. Kennedy? Can you hear the song played on an instrument? A piano? Try a trumpet. How about bagpipes? Stop! Cruelty alert: Step away from the bagpipes. The point is, you have the amazing ability to visualize already.
You not only could hear the song, but you could manipulate it, express it with different voices and instruments. I’d venture a guess that if you thought about it, you have hundreds of songs tucked away in that stereo in your head. Chances are, few of you have ever formally studied music. In fact, most of us could not write down the musical score for the song. It’s not about notes you can write on paper, but notes you can hear in your mind.
Music at its simplest is made up of a handful of simple building blocks we call notes. Musical styles and genres can span a huge range from Bach to John Lee Hooker to ZZ Top. Underneath it all is the same handful of simple notes. Accomplished musicians, including the likes of Yo Yo Ma, practice the musical scales daily. The scales are nothing more than a note sequence arranged to keep a sparkling clear image freshly imprinted in the mind. Do you doubt that a musician develops a heightened ability to imagine music? The reason we struggle to see spatially is that we never learned a set of visual notes.
Close your eyes again and visualize a square. Can you see it clearly? If not, take a moment and draw a square with pencil then try again. Now close your eyes and imagine two squares side by side, one next to the other. Now imagine two squares arranged one on top of the other. Can you see the squares clearly? It doesn’t matter how big the squares are, or whether they float in space. They can be solid or simple line drawings. The important part is that you can see them. Now do the same visual exercises again, only this time imagine a circle. Then visualize two circles, a pair side by side, and a pair one on top of the other. Consider the circle and square to be interchangeable. There’s lots more to say about the circle later, but for now all you need to realize is that they are both easy to visualize. Congratulations. You have just taken baby steps in learning to see. You have just imagined the visual notes that bookend the range of our visual scale. The single square or circle begins the sequence, and the double square or circle completes it. In between are a handful of intermediate notes. The circle and square are the basic building blocks, and though it might seem like a small step to you now, in reality you’ve taken a giant leap toward unlocking your inner vision, and toward making your designs sing.