“Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron” – Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
The above quote from author Virginia Woolf summarises the essence of good design, and it prompted me to borrow By Hand & Eye from David Savage to try and better understand the fundamental building blocks of good furniture design. Some might say you can’t formulate good design, but I would say it gets you 90 per cent of the way to creating something that looks less like an earnest 12-year-old creation, and more what you’d naturally expect a strong design to look like.
The book is written by two woodworkers, Jim Tolpin and Geo R. Walker, and it’s meant to be read by woodworkers, so the prose is casual and accessible and, as the editor says in the forward, it “introduces us to the language of pre-industrial artisans, and they discuss how we relate to our own bodies and the world around us in terms of proportion, ratio and scale”.
The book hooked me early on with the idea of “creating frozen music in built objects” – tables and cabinets containing a song, built on the same harmonic building blocks as music, literally! Just as you can go from just being able to enjoy listening to music to adding a new dimension by learning how to read music, so too can you learn how to move from just enjoying looking at a table to actually seeing it.
One of the important insights I learnt is that traditional design is about using this rich history of design observations in new and contemporary ways. As Gustav Mahler (a 20th century Austrian composer) said, “tradition is tending the flame, it’s not worshiping the ashes”. In other words, good modern design is about creating new ‘frozen’ music, rather than imitating Mozart.
In an echo of Matthew Crawford in The Case For Working With Your Hands, the authors also hold up a mirror to modern design approaches. Rather than builder and designer as one and the same, as they were in the pre-industrial age, they now are a “class of separate specialists working out of a fourth floor office”. The authors also point out that the ancient word for designer was ‘architect’ derived from the Greek word ‘architekton’ – a combination of the root words archi (chief) and tekton (builder). In other words, master craftsman. I don’t think that moving away from this increasing micro-specialisation is being a Luddite, as it connects the two ends of the loop and allows a deeper understanding, the sum being greater than the parts.
This book has been immeasurably informative and has shone a light on my own ignorance of design, but in the same gesture has shown the way forward, touching on classic orders, explaining proportions in terms of symmetry, contrast and punctuation, incorporating curves, basic geometric shapes and even providing a whole section on projects for readers to make at home.
However, it seems I may need to read this book yet again, as the most recent design I’m working on – a drinks/spirit cabinet – was described as looking like a bulldog by my refreshingly honest and unrestrained tutor Ed Wild.
Back to the drawing board.