The human scale

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If life’s cadence ever needs a circuit breaker, spend five weeks on a saddle, cycle touring Iceland. The rains will wash the dust of the city from you and the winds will whip free any niggling neurosis – as I found during Iceland’s wettest summer months in decades.

Everyone knows the feeling, it’s something fuzzy between smugness and contentment that you sometimes get when you know something that can’t really be expressed adequately. Well, that’s the closest way of describing the realisation that if you want to tour a country and truly experience it, rather than simply ‘do’ it – then bike it. I’m now a total convert to bike touring and feel that I’ve been initiated into a group that is as much a group as a herd of cats.

The bike connects you with the human scale that has been distorted by the exploitation of electrons and hydrocarbons. The ‘human scale’ is a term I use to describe things that make sense in an intrinsic and visceral sense, something that resonates with our primal biology and instincts.

The desire for this human scale is not derived from Luddite tendencies but from, as Matthew Crawford says, wanting to get an “adequate grasp on the world … in some literal and active sense”. The mountain is not just to drive up, over and around for a photo opportunity, but a leviathan that speaks in contours and degrees, shades and surfaces. It breathes in headwinds, side-winds and tail-winds. The side of the road is no longer a blur glimpsed in fleeting sideways moments, but a tapestry of grasses, mosses and flowers. The sound isn’t the distant, muffled drone of the engine and tyres, but the meditative tinkling of the chain wrapping around chain rings, the chirps of the worried nesting birds flying in mock injury overhead, the sound of a thick swarm of midges hitting your jacket like rain, and the coming and going of streams that blur in, and then out, with the constant sound of wind in your ears. This is the muted symphony that bike tourists chase.

Before the introduction of rubber boots, Icelanders used to measure distance in the number of shoes that wore out on a journey. It’s this type of human scale with which I think people subconsciously seek to connect, but so often miss because they didn’t recognise what they were chasing in the first place. Swiping through photos taken through a bus window on a smartphone while hammering along the highway will always be a poor substitute.

Many great writers have mused on this connection with the human scale. John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath put it plainly yet prophetically when writing about the mechanisation of agriculture and the displacement of human and animal labour:

(From Chapter 11) “The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws clamp on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from.”

The human scale (or human ‘touch’) is what I want to imbue into the furniture I make. It needs somehow to tangibly reflect the story of how it came to be.

I’m fortunate that my soon-to-be teacher David Savage thinks along the same lines. In one of his weekly e-newsletter blogs, he said, “As makers we naturally seem to compete with machine-made surfaces, the dead flat.”  When trying to convince his client of an unconventional finish that reflected his human touch, he was delighted when she embraced the idea. She then said something that has always stayed with him:

“Human beings find mechanical perfection profoundly dispiriting. We look at this absolutely perfect made by a robot creation and feel inadequate. I would love to experience something made by a human being attempting to be as good as they can be but knowing that they going to fail in the pursuit of perfection.”

David goes on to say that; “Since then, I have always sought to put clear water between the furniture that we make and the furniture made by robots. The greater the differences the better. The more I can show the presence of a human being, the skilled hands the knowledgeable workmanship, the happier I am.”

I just hope that I the furniture I make doesn’t look too ‘touched’ by humans…

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