Thirty four years ago I started an apprenticeship to become a machinist. The first day they paired me up with a veteran journeyman. Tony was, proud, barrel-chested, with big forearms and fists like Popeye. As a young man he had a promising career as a boxer, even won his division as fleet champion in the navy during the war. His boxing ended abruptly when a bumbling trainer incorrectly taped his hands and Tony broke both his fists on an opponents face. Everyone in the shop respected Tony and when he spoke I knew enough to listen closely. I can remember him cutting a fresh red onion with a pocket knife and handing me a slice. “Kid, I’m going to learn you how to sharpen tools”. I spent weeks under his tutelage sharpening drills, turning tools and all sorts of cutters. It was mostly grueling repetition but a skill set I still value. A few years later I took up woodworking as a hobby and was quick to realize that sharpening is a doorway skill that opens up a myriad of possibilities. I was able to make hand planes and chisels sing as sharpening was second nature by that time.
I searched around for that “doorway” on design for many years. I always had a keen interest in design and strong opinions about what I liked and disliked, but somehow it eluded me. I stumbled on an article in Fine Woodworking (Issue #43) by Mack Headley Master Cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg. Mack wrote about how period artisans used something called the classic orders, a proportional system used in architecture to guide their designs. That sparked in me what became a long journey exploring architecture as a doorway to understanding furniture design. There were many “aha” moments early on. I was quick to realize that pre-industrial furniture is just packed with architectural ornament. Look at the legs on this gate leg table above and compare it to the columns in this altar from the St Peter’s Basilica.
Even more fascinating than the ornament on the exterior, was learning there was a huge pool of design knowledge beneath that ornament. Thousands of designers over many centuries experimenting, refining and re-imagining how to create designs that delight and that we respond to. They left an incredible body of knowledge about proportions that applies equally to the craft of furniture building. If that wasn’t enough, I also came to appreciate how this design approach always somehow traced its roots back to nature. This approach provides a structure to begin with and a limitless and timeless supply of inspiration to pull from and apply to my next project. Those tender shoots poking through the frozen ground in spring can be the seed for a new inlay or carving for a bedside table.
Architecture, it’s not just a small back door to an interesting room; it’s the main entryway to a large and wonderful world of design.