Designer’s Alphabet, Z is for …………….

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durer-latin-zeitgeist, 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.

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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.

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This ends my journey through the Designer’s Alphabet. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

 

George R. Walker

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Learning to See

Can you see the bones in this candlestick?

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

This incense burner from a liturgical setting has these simple underlying shapes.

Incense burner from a liturgical setting.

This isn't confined to built objects.

This isn’t confined to built objects.

Even something as ornate as this column is  made up of simple shapes.

Even something as ornate as this column is made up of simple shapes.

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Note how the simple rectangles in this building align with the diagonal.

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Designer’s Alphabet, Y is for ………..

 

Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)

Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)

 

 

durer-latin-yorkshire 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 colunms.

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

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Break the curse of the blank sheet of paper

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly”.

Lauren Bacall

 

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.

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

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Designers Alphabet, X is for…….

Vintage Mahogony Planks from "American Lumberman November 1908"

Vintage Mahogony Planks from “American Lumberman November 1908″

durer-latin-xylon, Greek root word for wood. I must admit – X had me stumped. Also Xyloid, an adjective meaning resembling wood or ligneous. If I go through the designers alphabet again I may have to double up on another letter and take a pass on this one. Here’s a link to a great furniture grade wood supplier I highly recommend.  Horizon Wood Products. Great people to work with and xylon to drool over.

 

George R. Walker

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Just want it to be done

Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz, 1606-1682

One year ago Jim Tolpin and I were axehandles and elbows in final edit mode for our manuscript BH&E (By Hand & Eye).  I was struck by how much work is involved down that final stretch and I just wanted it over with.  Sort of like a large furniture project. It starts with the excitement of picking just the right figured boards to unleash something beautiful. That excitement gives way to a different kind of pleasure when the shaping and joinery begins, more like a long hike in the woods. Every good hike has a few brambles to muddle through, but the pleasure of building makes up for the hilly spots. Yet, near the end I always just want to get it done, shed the saddle and roll in some clover.

But this was different. After Jim and I high fived and broke some glass, we went right back to the fun of sending each other articles, links to historic engravings, and random thoughts about how our craft might have solved a problem. Rather than moving on, we continued to moving in. We’ve only scratched the surface as much of this knowledge can only be pried loose at the point of a tool. Jim’s still eager to test out every idea at the bench, and I can’t resist flipping over stones in the creek bed. A year later, actually three years later for the two of us, we are more convinced that the tradition has so much to teach us about how to see. And with each piece of knowledge we become more convinced that the traditional tool set is the key to breathe life into it.

I’m headed out to Port Townsend in March to share this knowledge in a design workshop. There are still a few spots left, so if you are game for a week of eye opening discovery, sign up.

George R. Walker

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What’s in your Tool Kit?

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

I enjoy a trip to an art museum. It’s more than a chance to examine great furniture on display, but to see the interplay between art, architecture, and furniture.  There is a craft element of art that applies directly to furniture building – GOOD WORK IS NO ACCIDENT. Painter Robert Genn offers timeless advise to an aspiring artist about what he really needs in his tool kit. You can read the whole thing  here in his excellent art resources website The Painters Keys. I’ve included parts of it below because it applies directly to our craft. My meager thoughts are added in bold font.

“I told him he needed six items in his kit: time, space, series, media, books and desire. This is how I laid it out for him: 

Time: Set aside a time every day. It should be at least an hour, preferably a lot more. Include weekends and statutory holidays. No substitutes for just doing it. Whether it’s learning to execute solid joinery or developing your designers eye. 

Space: Find a space that is always yours–where you can set up and work in continuity. It need not be large, but it ought to be yours. Splurge and make it a secret garden, even if you have to shoehorn it between the washer and furnace.

Series: Do a series of explorations toward tangible goals–say 100 pieces of work in one direction or another. Then start another series. In woodworking your series may be dovetails, or shellac – working the series till you reach a goal of proficiency. Or for design it could be an exploration of a familiar form while experimenting with curves. 

Media: Choose a medium that intrigues you. Realize that the potential of all media is going to be greater than at first realized. Be prepared for frustration. Select a wood species like quarter sawn white oak, figured cherry,  or maple and explore it until you fully grasp it’s potential. 

Books: “How-to” and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction. There’s never been a better time than now when it comes learning resources. Books, videos, on-line and in person workshops. Give yourself a boost (Shameless Plug).

Desire: Know that desire is more important than any other factor. Desire comes from process. Process reinforces desire and desire becomes love. You need love in your kit. Swim in the shear joy shaping wood with your hands. 

George R. Walker

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