I’ve been hinting about something big in the works for months, now it’s official. A design book tentatively titled “Divide and Conquer” is in the wings co-written by none other than Jim Tolpin and yours truly. It’s an honor to have Chris Schwarz at Lost Art Press share our vision for an artisan’s design guide, there’s not a more passionate champion of the craft. I’m sure he’ll drive Jim and I like sled dogs to write not just a good book but a great one. It’s also humbling to collaborate with Jim. He brings a lifetime of building knowledge and writing experience to this project. Our plan is to couple design theory with woodshop practice, every idea and concept illustrated with shavings and sawdust, an artisans guide through and through. You might like to know how the three of us came together to hatch this book.
I looked out at the packed auditorium and felt a big knot in my gut. Scheduled to deliver the Friday night keynote address at the 2009 WIA (Woodworking In America) conference in Chicago, it suddenly dawned on me this was a big crowd. That dumb inner voice that’s best ignored, started tossing out random thoughts, “DO NOT trip and fall down… Look, some of these guys have saws and sharp objects tucked under their arms…Please, please old laptop don’t crash now… Can I pull this presentation off doing shadow puppets?”
I took deep breath and reminded myself that if the message is solid it doesn’t matter if the messenger is flawed. Everything went great, how could it not? This was a room full of woodworkers eager to learn about design. They chuckled at my story about falling down the grand staircase in the Library of Congress. I could sense the group warming to the idea of a regular woodworker allowing curiosity to lead him where it might go. Off to my right I spied several guys scribbling notes, always a good sign. No one appeared to be nodding off with the occasional neck snap.
Then I spied Chris Schwarz waving his skinny arm,seeking permission to drop a stink bomb, “So George, seems you intentionally omitted any reference to the most holy Golden Ratio in your lecture tonight, what gives?”
That dumb voice in my head chimed in again. “Here’s the part where they start heaving tomatoes and cabbages.”
The guys with notebooks paused to look straight at me. I’m sure everyone was waiting for a polished sexy answer. The truth is that pre-industrial artisans had well documented simple (i.e. quicker) methods that didn’t include the golden mean. It’s not in the historic literature of the trades, and doesn’t get along with other children on the playground. Note: I’ve learned since then, that no amount of evidence or argument can sway the true believers. Luckily I didn’t come off brash enough to cause the faithful to reach for their sidearms.
Another hand shot up from someone I later learned was Jim Tolpin. I can’t recall what Jim asked, but I do know I didn’t have an answer. It was the kind of question I love, just not in front of 250 people. Jim stuck around after the session and peppered me with more questions I couldn’t answer, things I’d wondered to myself. I vowed then and there to attend Jim’s session the next day.
Saturday I broke free and slipped into the back of one of Tolpin’s design classes. He demonstrated how he designs using the proportions from his body as a template to organize a form. Makes perfect sense; we build beds, and chairs to conform to our frames, yet Jim was going beyond using standard measurements to guide the height of a table. I watched him use his two outstretched hands like a yardstick to lay out proportions on a simple footstool design. Instantly I knew the reason behind those pointed questions the night before. I’d been exploring and teaching about the ancient proportional methods, whose roots can be traced back to the ideal human form, and Jim was using his own body as a form to guide his imagination. We were both rediscovering a timeless ancestral design code long lost to today’s artisan.
That was the start of a friendship and two years of discussions, questions, trading books, articles, pictures, ideas, and sketches. Slowly a larger picture emerged of a design language seamlessly linked to the traditional tools, methods, and natural materials of the pre-industrial artisan. Not a collection of prescriptive instructions but rather a body of first principles that enables an artisan to compose music in wood. Also, a bonus we had not counted on, this design journey is a path of self discovery as it awakens the inner ability to visualize more clearly and work more intuitively. Ideas flow naturally from mind to hand at the workbench.
It was only a matter of time till we asked the question. Should we write a book and share this? Both Jim and I agree that this knowledge will be a game changer for the post industrial artisan. The link that re-connects the crafts scattered parts. This design language marries the time-tested tools and joinery into something far greater.
Luckily Chris Schwarz agreed that this is a book that needs written. So for the coming year Jim and I will be pouring over historical engravings, digging out gold nuggets, and refining each concept at the workbench. Our goal always is to equip you with that ability to create your own music with wood.
One final note. I have a weekend design workshop at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking Aug 26th-28th. Actually it’s capping a week working with Jim on our manuscript. My plan is to pour this out on a group of unsuspecting woodworkers and gather some valuable feedback on the best ways to present material. If you would like to play a role in helping “Design And Conquer” come to life, consider signing up. There are still a few slots left.
Jim and I have lots to do, time to get back to work!
George R. Walker