On April 19th, 2013, Christopher Schwartz posted an important essay on his Lost Art Press blog called "On Technical Perfection". It asks the question of woodworkers, "Should we focus on being technically perfect, or should we instead focus on the design?" It's a natural topic for him, since Lost Arts is currently preparing a book about just this topic. The book is by George Walker and Jim Tolpin and will be called "By Hand and Eye". It sounds as if it has the potential to be a seminal work.
But even more impressive than the essay and the forthcoming book, is the discussion that follows his posting. What you can read there is a fascinating (and frankly, astonishing) discussion of the fundamental issues at play when it comes to the tradeoffs between technical prowess and design. Reading through this discussion seems to me to be a bit like sitting around in a room eavesdropping in about the year 1768 on a conversation between James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Locke about what it is about a government that would make it a better sort of government, one that would fulfill the ideals of the Enlightenment. We aren't in a new golden age of furniture design, but if things go the way they seem to be flowing, we may see one flower within the next few years. (I suppose it follows, since we've only recently seen a new golden age of tools and craftsmanship. It's a natural evolution of an Age for the leading lights to go from the questions of 'How do we do this?' to ones of "What then should we choose to do?")
There are several wonderful quotes in that discussion that I'm deliberately calling out here just to keep them in mind in the future. The two most valuable quotes there, although there are many useful gems:
"I’m not surprised that woodworkers vote for technically flawless over beautiful design. Beautiful design is harder." -- Wilbur Pan
"We seek perfection because we have the time and wealth to do so. What I think may be more useful to discuss is excellence, not perfection." -- Don Williams
and the most damning quote:
"I once took a class wit [sic] Mike Speas. He made the following comment “too many recreational woodworkers are making really ugly stuff that is going to last for 500 years." -- Ron Harper
I think anyone who is trying to create a new furniture design should read through this discussion at least once a year. The discussion is valuable in more than one way. The savants that were involved in it also point out their most important reference works when considering design and the importance of craftsmanship. I'm just going to list the books and other writings that they mentioned here, again primarily as a way for me to record a list of the things I need to read and keep in mind in the future:
- Reynor Banham’s “Theory of Design in a Machine Age”
- Ellen Dissanayake, "What is Art For?"
- David Pye’s "The Nature and Art of Workmanship"
- James Krenov's "A Cabinetmaker's Notebook"
- James Krenov's "The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking"
- James Krenov's "The Impractical Cabinetmaker"
- The forthcoming "By Hand and Eye" by George Walker and Jim Tolpinby
- and of course, George Walker’s column, "Design Matters"
I have a lot of work to do. I've never claimed to be anything other than an amateur watching from the outside, but it's clear that there is much to study and much to learn about how to go about designing beautiful pieces of furniture. And I've barely even started the work.