Visit the Design Graveyard…

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With Halloween just around the bend I’m reminded of one of my favorite haunts (no pun intended) for thinking about design – old graveyards. The monuments in all shapes and sizes are like a lexicon of design, sort of a mini museum without the alarms. My last blog post had a photo of an obelisk shaped town marker in Nantucket which inspired Dave Fisher to send me these obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

photos from a nearby cemetery. I had to grin inside at the thought that I’m not the only one strolling through the democracy of the dead, trying to keep my designers eye alive. Dave crafts free form wooden bowls which are featured in the November 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. He commented “To my eye, the most beautiful obelisk in the entire cemetery is the Mathers obelisk.  Much of the reason, I believe, has to do with the base (plinth?).  The quickening curve of the base roots it firmly to the ground, then leads the eye on a ride up to the obelisk itself.  There is still a clear indication of where the obelisk itself begins, but without jarring the eye on the way up.  The whole piece is organic, much like a tree rising from the ground. ”  

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Packard Obelisk

I concur with Dave’s educated eye and would add that several other examples, the Roberts and Packard obelisks, look like they took a standard monument and plopped an obelisk on top of them. Not certain I ever noticed that before until they were side by side with the Mathers example. One is a unified organic composition, the others are just combinations of parts. There’s a powerful lesson illustrated here. How often does a design or a work of art fail because it’s a busy mechanical  assemblage of parts rather than an organic flowering? I’m interested in your thoughts as you compare these different interpretations of a design.

 

George R. Walker

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Roberts obelisk

 

Mathers base detail

Mathers base detail

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Training your eye for Design

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“We need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.

 Shakti Gawain

If you are new to design, telling you to trust your eye sounds like some joke that everyone’s in on except you. How do you know what your eye is telling you?

First of all, those times when your eye feeds your imagination with rocket fuel is a rare event even for gifted artists. So much so that when that explosion of  juice starts to flow, it’s wise to ride it irregardless of eating or sleeping. Magic should not be squandered.

But aside from those rare bursts of inspiration – every day our eye talks a lot. Mostly it’s like that beeper on a garbage truck when it’s backing up the alley. It tells us what it doesn’t like. A crude example of this is plumb and level. Even though we have accurate tools to measure level and plumb, most of us can do a fair job of gauging it just by eye. In fact, our inner eye is pricked when that picture frame on the wall looks tilted in spite of what a level tells us. Our eye is filled with judgments, mostly negative about proportions. We may not think all that negative feedback is that valuable. It may feel frustrating, like we hired a travel guide who tells us all the sights not to  see. But if you realize that this is the eye’s way of guiding, you can learn to listen to it and best of all, learn to train it. I may get a burst of inspiration, a spark of an idea of what I want to design. But the actual design process is listening to a series of nos that gradually morph into yeses.

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by  Author

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by Author

But training the eye? Traditionally this was done by studying masterful work. All the old design guides waxed glowingly about the classic orders. Truth is you may never incorporate a single element from a classic order in any of your furniture designs. Yet, drawing the classic orders gives your eye a reference library of no’s that are inescapable – pushing you, guiding you, until the nos start turning to yes. With a basic understanding of proportions, you can let your eye be tutored by great buildings, furniture, nature, and art.

 

George R. Walker

 

George R. Walker

 

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Get Your Studley on

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There’s only one reason the Handworks 2015 event is going forward. This unique gathering of woodworking enthusiasts somehow caught lightning in a bottle last time around in 2013. That’s no small fete, as that first event seemingly broke all the rules. No slick marketing plan, no big corporate underwriters, and they held it out in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.

Yet somehow it was like that memorable pickup ballgame when you were a kid. The one that went past sundown just for the pure joy of playing. It won’t be easy to catch that magic the second time but the ingredients are there. Most of the toolmakers are returning as well as some new ones who kicked themselves for missing last time. In addition there will be ongoing demos and the chance to pick the brains of some really accomplished toolmakers and  artisans.  If that weren’t enough there will be a unique showing of the iconic Studley Tool Chest in near by Cedar Rapids. Click the link below for details on tickets to get your Studley on.

Handworks

Studley Exhibit Tickets

I’ll be there and look forward to seeing you. Don’t miss it!

George R. Walker

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Interview on The Highland Woodworker

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Last Spring I had an interview with Charles Brock from The Highland Woodworker lined up, so  I took a cue from Ron Breese and deep cleaned the workshop. Ron mentioned that he touched every thing in the shop and I vowed to do the same. It quickly reached a point I call the “Nadir”, with the usual side effects of self loathing and regret. Seventy two trips up the stairs to assemble a pile of junk visible from outer space and everything that escaped execution got scrubbed, scraped, and put right. Why didn’t I do this years ago?

Oh by the way, we had fun filming this segment for The Highland Woodworker and they even managed to make this old snapping turtle look respectable. Take a look.

http://thehighlandwoodworker.com/new-the-highland-woodworker-episode-14/

The interview begins at 25:35

Note: Many of the furniture shots were from some of the fine folks who allowed Jim and I to display their work in our book By Hand & Eye. The curly maple desk and tall clock are pieces I made.

George R. Walker

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What do you do with design failures?

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I’m a firm believer in re-visiting work after some time has passed. Be it writing or woodworking, a few years allows for a more disinterested judgment. If it holds up, you may be onto something. If not, there may be lessons to learn. About fifteen years ago I began to venture beyond printed plans. I built this little maple table for Barb. Although the joinery was solid, the design – not so much. It’s largely a failure in details that add up to mush to my eye. It began with a nice chunk of bird’s eye maple that I glued up for a top and aprons. I didn’t just do a poor job of joining together pieces for the top (cut from the same board no less), I managed to make them look like they were two different species of maple.

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Instead of using a crisp moulding profile for the edge, I settled for a simple round-over that always had a feeling like some rolled out pizza dough. The curved apron patterns were based loosely on some pictures from a book on period furniture but I had no eye for curves and I fell into the mire that plagues so much massed produced “Early American” furniture. It has not the grace of the fine urban originals or the folk of the back country originals. It screams, “ I don’t know Jack about curves!” Finally I topped it of with an oil varnish finish that couldn’t take spilled beverages and hot coffee mugs. Game, set, match.

 

What is one to do?

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Perhaps I can salvage the legs and build Barb another table.

More to come.

 

George R. Walker

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Tools that inspire

Note how the mechanism clamps to the beam via a wear plate

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 DSCN3693have 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

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Thoughts on Design from a Letter Carver

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.

 

 

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