The following is excerpted from “Honest Labour,” a collection of essays from The Woodworker magazine while the legendary Charles H. Hayward was editor (1936-1966). This book is the fifth and final volume in our series from The Woodworker. The excerpt below is from 1956, and remains, I think, wholly applicable 66 years on.
Many people nowadays are inclined to be a little nervous when it comes to making their choice of furniture and the interior planning of their homes. Thanks to the work of the Arts Council and, more recently, the Design Centre in London, they are growing more design conscious, more prone to recognise that a thing may not only fulfil the use they require of it but may be artistically good or bad. Consequently a nervous: “Ought I to like it” attitude may develop before making a choice or a dubious “I suppose this is all the fashion?”—which is the worst possible way of reaching any judgment at all. The poet’s lament of: “What care I how fair she be. If she be not fair to me,” is plain commonsense when it comes to reminding us that we do not have to like everything, however good in itself the object may be. Our own personal taste and predilection may run counter to any one of the accepted fashions of the moment, and when this is the case we should not allow ourselves to be hypnotised by mass production and the glossy magazines into introducing it into our own surroundings. The magazines, with their colourful pages, can be useful as showing trends and ideas but the editor’s job is to secure a colourful picture containing the maximum amount of interest and novelty to attract his readers, and we shall generally find that such ideas need to be treated with a good deal of wariness and discrimination; otherwise the result may not be good taste at all but howlingly bad taste and something which in the long run we shall find very tiresome to live with. It is just this question of discrimination which is the difficulty. How can I know?
The issue is perhaps at its simplest for the craftsman. The very fact of knowing how a thing should be done makes him appreciative of good work when he sees it. From that point onwards it is a comparatively easy step to observe what qualities in the work, as apart from the workmanship, tend to display it at its best. Where there is a plain economy of line he will notice how good proportions and a perfect or unusual finish turn something which might have been bleakly austere into a piece which a connoisseur might envy. A highly decorated piece, on the other hand, all curves carving, can be just as exactly right and an object of heart-warming beauty, provided the proper degree of restraint is used amid the apparent lavishness. Just how this is achieved is again a matter of careful observation among the best specimens of, say, 17th and 18th-century craftsmanship whenever he comes across them. That is, of course, taking us straight into the first class, which may appear to be well out of the range of the ordinary householder. But the fact is that, wherever beautiful work is found, as it is sometimes in the most primitive communities, it obeys, albeit unconsciously, the same kind of innate law which governs the urbane product. The craftsman in such communities has so much less to bewilder and distract him than we in our civilised world. He is neither confused by the experts and countless theories and discussions, nor bewildered and side-tracked by a multitude of rival ideas. For him the issue is the simple one of being wholly interested and absorbed in making some useful article which it gives him pleasure to decorate in his own fashion, no doubt to the applause of his contemporaries. We, on the other hand, have to do battle with ourselves to keep the issues simple and to convince ourselves that the power to appreciate and create beauty in our surroundings is one which no one can teach us by a set of rules but which we can only acquire by taking thought and observing, making our own comparisons and being prepared to back our own judgments in the things we like to have around us. The most beautiful room I know is in a plain little house in the country where some old friends of mine live. It conforms to no rules. Some of the furniture dates back about sixty years, being the smaller pieces retained from their old home and is good of its kind. Cheek by jowl is a modern radiogram and several easy chairs and a settee ranging in period over the past thirty years and just a trifle shabby. On the walls are ultra-modern paintings by an artist friend, side by side with old family miniatures; over the modern brick fireplace are quaint little pottery Staffordshire figures of a kind cheap and popular in the last century, while ranged round the tops of the bookcases are interesting and valuable pieces of china and silver gradually acquired by home-loving people in a hard-working lifetime. It sounds a jumble. It does not look it. The room, like the house, has a quite indescribably charm, and strangers nearly always halt on the threshold with an involuntary “Oh, what a beautiful room!”
The truth is we have to be content to let our treasures accumulate, to add to them bit by bit, sometimes because they are the things we need for use, sometimes for our own comfort, sometimes for the sheer joy of possessing some small trifle lovely in itself. You can make a home that way far better than by walking into the nearest furniture store and ordering everything on sight, and if we are craftsmen and can put into the things we make something of the spirit of true creation, its patience, its wisdom, its joy in the making, we shall have brought into the home just such another of those intangible qualities which are blessed indeed and which no money can buy nor experts prescribe.