some thoughts on hand-made design

I read in Dwell about a manufacturing process based on a layered digital design. Furniture is fabricated by a machine, which builds up each layer from a composite material until the whole object is complete.  Part of me is fascinated by this technology, and the design boundaries it breaks.  This is beginning to sound a lot like science fiction.  In the Diamond Age, by Neil Stevenson, everything is fabricated this way.  However there is still a small group of artisans who still make things by hand and this almost lost art has become highly valued.

We are in a period when disposable, mass-produced objects are ubiquitous.  From its roots, in the Bauhaus, where craft and design went hand in hand, modern design has become synonymous with mass production.  I am interested in the simplicity and functionality inherent in the design tenets of modernism, but I am drawn to the warmth and energy of the hand-made.  The difference between a factory built piece and a similar design that has been made at the bench, with attention and patience, can be huge.

I want to celebrate the imperfections of materials and use them as design opportunities, rather than eliminate them for a uniform appearance.  Inspiration drawn from the world of images that emerge from the subconscious when the mind is quiet, can play a greater role if we are working with materials while the design is still fluid.   I love the way design evolves.  There is a flash of inspiration.  An image appears, perhaps in the half dream of awakening.  As I am drawing, the image has already changed from the fully formed but unmanifest world of the mind to the two-dimensional rendering in which construction details and material constraints must be considered.

Sometimes, designs that come from strong visual images will change little in the fabrication process.  The work of the hand is to translate the vision into a real object.  Here the emphasis is on fine craftsmanship, attention to detail, and the subtle choices of material and relationships that form a more dynamic whole.  Usually, though, design and fabrication are part of the same process.  I may start with a sketch or a half formed idea.  I will look at my scrap heap or my wood racks for material inspiration.  As relationships within a piece take shape, the design may shift.  A chance cut into a board may reveal a different direction for material use.  This is the pain and pleasure of the design process.  The disappointment when a joint or reveal doesn’t look quite the way it did in the mind’s eye or the quiet joy when parts are assembled and the piece begins to take on a life of its own.  As Agnes Demille put it, “the divine dissatisfaction”.

Working with the organic forms of natural edge slabs, allows me the greatest freedom to bring together the hand and eye (and heart).  Often a design will come directly from the form of a board.  Imperfections in the wood will suggest a pattern of inlays that has the right tension.  Irregularities can be embraced which lead to dramatic design decisions.

The work that I do is making simple, functional furniture.  Inspiration, design, planning, and fabrication are inextricably linked.  Sometimes the process starts in the middle and goes from one end to the other and back again, before a finished piece emerges.

I have said my work blurs the boundaries between design, art and craft, but actually, it just ignores them.  The work is the work and it seems artificial to push it into one box or another.  Is it art or is it craft?  Does it belong in the design art world?  These are the wrong questions.  I am interested in the process.  I am interested in conceiving an object, refining its design and executing it.  I cannot imagine the design process divorced from the fabrication process.

For me this also extends to the sourcing of sustainable materials and the use of scrap as a resource for innovative design. I sometimes see a live urban tree before it is cut. This intimacy with materials informs the design process. I find inspiration in the living tree.

william stranger

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all this, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open.” ~Agnes Demille to Martha Graham.


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2 responses to “some thoughts on hand-made design

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