Note how the mechanism clamps to the beam via a wear plate
I’m a tool user – not a tool collector. However, I do have a soft spot for antique dividers and drawing tools. When some old buzzard moans, ” They don’t make em like they used to” it’s hard to find a better example than vintage drafting tools. Today I picked up these late 19th century German Silver trammel points. The detail is amazing. Like many of these tools the craft of making them grew out of instrument making, so there’s a lot of crossover with watchmaking, surveyor, and navigation tools. Note how they clamp on the beam and have a wear plate to grip without marring the wood. I also like the design in the turnings. I can almost imagine that pattern in a table leg. Anyone have experience polishing German Silver?
George R. Walker
It’s really special when an artisan can design something profound in a tight discipline. In a world where bling draws the spotlight, I’m always thankful for someone who can craft an extraordinary wine, shotgun, handplane, or chair. Here’s a short video about Martin Wenham, a letter carver who offers some insights about design. Take a moment to savor his thoughts and work. I’d like to thank Dave Fisher for sending me this link.
A rainy day in a great workshop
Dave’s workshop is down a few steps from the kitchen, but feels like entering a sanctuary. A place dedicated to creative work. I had the privilege and honor of spending an afternoon with Dave Fisher – one talented, creative, imaginative artisan. Everything in the compact shop space had a purpose, from the razor sharp tools within easy reach of the well worn
shaving horse, to the decorative carvings and pictures peaking out from every nook. Each a reminder that the pursuit of excellence is also a pursuit of beauty. We talked for hours and could have talked for days about carved wooden bowls, design, and how the curves from a Hosta leaf in the back garden can inform the eye. Dave is a great example of a contemporary artisan who is extending our craft tradition by honing both his technical skills as well as his creative intuition.
I’m working on article profiling Dave’s approach to design in my Design Matters column for Popular Woodworking Magazine. Keep an eye out for it.
George R. Walker
eitgeist, the spirit of the age. Furniture designs often reflect the culture of the time they were conceived. Culture itself is a loaded word, that endless struggle between the old oak of tradition and the winds of change. At first glance that 18th century chair may seem like an easy read to a modern eye, and smugly pigeonholed as “old brown furniture”. But a close study reveals a creative work influenced by the opening of international trade routes, social upheaval uprooting crafts and guilds, and sensational archeological discoveries firing the public imagination. And that’s just a pinky dip into the zeitgeist that expressed itself in a simple old brown chair. One of the oddities of zeitgeist is that the artisans of any particular age might have had a narrow view of the spirit of their time, but what they knew was by taste and smell. We moderns look back with the benefit of history yet never able to quite reach back to taste and smell.
While the zeitgeist of past centuries was a series of complex tapestries, the zeitgeist of our age is an explosion. We have labels to describe the furniture of today like green, retro, disposable, sustainable, kitschy, hip, contemporary, edgy, sleek, honest, architectural (if it has one straight line), sculptural (if it has one curved line), one of a kind, industrial, chic, and bling. Often these words are combined to create new genres like retro-industrial-chic.
This AMC Gremlin has a “Sport Package”, not sure it helped.
The string that connects the zeitgeist of our age with ages past, is that every era produced designs that deserved a quick death and every age stumbled on a chord and produced something timeless that deserved living on in designs of the future. Perhaps that’s what we are all searching for as designers.
This ends my journey through the Designer’s Alphabet. Hope you enjoyed the ride.
George R. Walker
Can you see the bones in this candlestick?
An artist and teacher I respect told me that anyone can draw.
He said, “You can pick up a pen and write letters on paper, that’s drawing – you did that in the first grade. Drawing isn’t the barrier people think it is, it’s learning to see.”
This idea of learning to see is at the heart of drawing and also at the heart of design. Look at these images from a 16th century Spanish treatise on drawing and proportions. Note how they show finished detail on the right side and the underlying simple shapes or bones on the left. From a candlestick, to a building, to the human form itself, simple shapes help the eye see beneath the surface. Can you imagine designing something contemporary with those same bones? Could you take the bones from that candlestick and put your own spin on it? If you would like a closer look at the original book, here’s a link.
George R. Walker
Incense burner from a liturgical setting.
This isn’t confined to built objects.
Even something as ornate as this column is made up of simple shapes.
Note how the simple rectangles in this building align with the diagonal.
Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)
orkshire chair, a regional chair form produced in the latter half of the 17th century in Britain. More broadly they fall under the umbrella of Charles II oak chairs (1660-1685). They were also produced in nearby Derbyshire, and sometimes refereed to as Derbyshire chairs.They had a few features that set them apart from the earlier Jacobean chair designs and hinted at some of the changes to chairmaking in the coming 18th century. Yorkshire chairs
An arcade is a row of arches supported by columns. (Bonhams)
departed from the Jacobean perpendicular chair backs with a solid plank splat, and moved to a more open back that tilted slightly to conform to the human frame. The open backs were often crested like the crown of a hill, or arcaded with a series of arches supported by small columns. To my eye the proportions are lighter than the earlier chair designs from the 17th century, perhaps a nod towards things to come in the chairmaking world in Georgian era in the 18th century.
Note: Thanks to Jack Plane for helping me track down some information on these chairs. I originally began looking for an American “York” chair. All roads came to nothing with only one poor example far removed from these English chairs. Sort of a dogs breakfast, cobbled together by committee. If you have a photo of an American “York” chair, pass it along and I’ll post it.
George R. Walker
That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.
“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly”.
I remember a time when a blank sheet of paper had the power to chase away every creative thought. It’s a mind trick. It seemed like a mirror reflecting dead air and silence in my head, with not a whiff or a hint of an idea floating off in the distance. I call it a trick, because if we could ever behold what our imagination is capable of, we would fall down in awe. Imagination is the thing that get’s you wide awake at 3:30 am rooting around the workshop making a racket and having a great time of it. But we seldom tap it in our daily routine, so a little thing like the emptiness of a sheet of paper becomes a wall too high to breach.
Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.
I said “remember” because now it’s my privilege and joy to guide many woodworkers past that stumbling block. That was brought home to me the last few weeks teaching a series of design workshops for the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers and at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. Over and over came the words, “This is awesome! I don’t have to get stuck anymore staring at that blank sheet of paper” , or “This is 1000% better, I can get off square one and get the juices and ideas flowing”.
Sure – the first drawings were shaky dead ends and mud pits. And yes, the trash cans overflowed with crumpled paper and the maintenance guy had to vacuum up a bushel of eraser dust. But ideas flowed, designs took shape, and those designs improved quickly. Best of all, woodworkers who doubted they would ever break free from the blank page came in sleepy eyed on day two, after staying up till 3:30 am.
I’m not sure who was more pleased. Forty six fired up workshop attendees, or Jim Tolpin and myself who had the honor of witnessing it.
George R. Walker