The Things We See

ShipsDavid Pye is frequently listed among the authors to read for woodworkers, famous more as a theorist than an artisan.

It took me a while to get around to surveying his works more carefully; The Nature and Art of Workmanship is the standard text on everyone’s list, with its deconstruction of Arts and Crafts via Ruskin and its formulations of “the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty.” Actually, that’s his third book.

His first was this unassuming little volume from 1950: The Things We See No. 6: Ships. The text on the back is quite instructive. The series introduction reads:

The aims of the authors in this series is to encourage us to look at the objects of everyday life with fresh and critical eyes. Thus, while increasing our own daily pleasure, we also become better able to create surroundings that will give us permanent pleasure. To achieve this in the furnishing and equipping of our homes, we must buy with discrimination and so prove to the designers, who set the machines to work, that we are no longer bound by habit or indifference to whatever is offered.

The subjects range from ships, with their long and brilliant record in design, to houses, which have far too often needlessly marred the beauty of the English scene; and from furniture, in which shortage of materials is making a revolution in design essential, to printing and lettering in which many of us are unaware of the subtle variations in excellence or even of the differences between good and bad.

The British Journal of Photography is blurbed in tiny type, reading:

‘They run to 64 pages, are profusely and beautifully illustrated, and they cost half-a-crown apiece. They are marvels of the printer’s and publisher’s art, and should prove extremely popular. The can also prove of immense educational value. They are aids to informed understanding, can be used as text-books, and to provide subjects for discussions in study-circles, they direct the eye and mind to a cultured discrimination, and all this with subtle wit, based on expert knowledge.’

I was still able to procure a used copy from the UK for about 5 dollars shipped. An excellent educational expenditure, I must say.

I really admire the sheer eclecticism of the choices in this series, which ultimately aims not at creating artisans or craftsmen, but at creating educated consumers who can “buy with discrimination” thereby rewarding good designers of machine products. It’s a bit of a different twist from the arts and crafts/handicrafts explosion that it’s entering on the heels of. It’s not targeted at folk arts, but at industrial arts. Pye’s contribution is summarized in the front jacket by identifying its target audience:

Few things are more satisfactory to look at than ships. Old and new, large and small and of every sort, they can delight the eye as much as anything man has ever made. This book discusses their design; not from the point of view of the naval architect, shipowner, or seaman, but from the unspecialized view of the man or woman who likes to look at them. It is a book for anyone, seaman or landsman, to whom a ship is a work of art: and that a ship can be a work of art, its illustrations will bear witness.

There are also books on “Things inside and out,” furniture, public transportation, houses, pottery and glass, and gardens—a total of seven books were published in the series. Calling them books is being generous, they are more like illustrated essays, inexpensive but nicely printed. Industrial appreciation for a new peaceable kingdom, published by the Council of Industrial Design, founded by the Board of Trade in 1944.

According to one website, this series was about “environments,” and this is a central constituent of what I’ve been discussing in the arena of aesthetic well being. But obviously, coming from the Board of Trade, it is consumer education.

David Pye, 1950Like Morris before them, this new wave of craftsman and designers in twentieth century were in their own way seeking a better life through education. By then, the fracture between craftwork and design seems to be resolving itself in curious ways. Pye’s theories and frameworks which start to emerge from his first published work are a key.

Pye was primarily a wood turner and carver, so it’s interesting that a man involved in tactile pursuits begins with the visual dimension  of objects.

The piece of sand that makes the pearl in Pye’s wit and wisdom is functionalism. That’s apparent as early as this work from 1950:

This book is about the appearance of ships; and their appearance might seem a trivial matter compared to what they do. If they did not do their job we should go hungry, and if we were hungry we should be in no frame of mind to care what they looked like. The same argument can be applied to any number of things besides ships, and it is sound as far as it goes; so it would perhaps be reasonable before writing a book about the appearance of ships to reply to this argument and explain why their appearance seems worth discussion.

Any adequate reply would fill a book much larger than this. A ship’s appearance matters because, as the saying truly goes ‘it does you good to look at’ a fine ship or anything else that is beautiful. Nearly all things men design can be beautiful, and in spite of what is said of modern ugliness, a great many of them still are. It is true that you can live a fairly satisfactory life without paying any attention to beauty, just as you can without ever taking a holiday: but in either case you will have missed something that is wonderfully refreshing and would make life more satisfactory still. A handsome ship and an ugly one may be both equally good at fetching us food, but the handsome one provides us something else besides; which, if not a necessity, is much more than a luxury to anyone with an eye for it.

And any number of people would find they had an eye for it, if they would look, and put their mind to the shape of things as readily as they do to the tune of a song; instead of thinking about the purpose of the thing, or the value of it, or dismissing it from their mind because it is familiar or letting it remind them of something else. Our trouble, surely, is not that ‘we have no time to stand and stare,’ but that we have forgotten how to do it. (3-4)

“More than a luxury” is a concise way of putting it: one can’t really say that we might die from a lack of beauty, or the population would not be expanding; beauty is not a necessity. The idea that looking at something doesn’t necessarily entail having it remind you of something else (symbolism) is also a good way of putting a complex concept in a simple way. And assigning economic worth also impedes sight as well; does it really matter what things cost?

I wish I had read this book when I was first starting in photography in high school; The British Journal of Photography was certainly right to review it.  I simply adore the comparison to music, and while I have no great attraction to ships acquiring this piece of history inspires me to visit the boat museum in Oswego if this weather ever abates.

Pye’s critique of functionalism starts, but certainly doesn’t end there:

There are, then, two widely different modes of design: one where the problem centres on requirements almost to the exclusion of appearance; one where appearance is the essence of the problem, and the designer can take the requirements in his stride. The first is typified by the modern ship or aircraft, the second by the medieval church or classical temple. Both modes— Design by Requirements and Design by Appearance—are equally capable of producing things we call beautiful. There is no great gulf between ‘utilitarian’ design by requirements and ‘artistic’ design by appearance, as though one were a lower order of activity from the other. The two are different in degree, not in kind; and the difference is simply that in one the designer has less freedom of choice than the other.

It has been said that in the first form of the object determined by its function, while the second it is determined by the designer’s ‘caprice,’ and it has been even maintained that the first kind of design is ‘right’ and the second ‘wrong.’ But in practice, the requirements that define the function of what is being designed merely enable the designer to determine the limits within the shape of it may vary: within those limits the designer has no option, but chooses whatever shape his ‘caprice’ (or good sense) suggests. The function of an object may, it is true, be defined by requirements so exacting that as for instance in the hull of a ship, only one form or a few comparatively slight variations of it can fulfil them in each case. But nearly always, as in planning a ships accommodation, or a house, the designer can invent alternative arrangements each of which will fulfil the requirements; or perhaps no conceivable arrangement will perfectly fulfil them all, but several compromises are possible; and the designer, balancing the relative advantages and disadvantages, has to choose between them. In either case the designer has to make a choice; in the hull his freedom of choice is very limited, in the accommodations it is still limited, but less strictly.

If there is one certainty about the arts of design, it is that designers have always prefered to have limits set to their freedom of choice; and they find it intensely difficult to design shapes which satisfy the eye unless their freedom is limited.  (8)

I agree with this completely; as a photographer, I found that I simply couldn’t produce work that I was satisfied with without some sort of constraint, be it practical or aesthetic; some limit, some rule is absolutely essential even if it is self imposed. Pye discusses various constraints throughout the book, and in judging the quality of the designs highlights the mysterious nature of the process:

The designer himself cannot explain the quality of his design. He arrives at a good design by choosing one set of shapes in preference to another, but he may be too much preoccupied with meeting requirements to be conscious that he is doing so; and even if he is conscious of choosing, he will not be able to give any real explanation of the mental process that decides his choice; for just as the mental process of logical reasoning can find expression in words but not in the notes of music, so can the mental processes of designing find expression only in shapes but not in words. It is impossible to give a reasoned explanation of the beauty of design, simply because it is not the product of logical reasoning but of a different kind of thought. Looking at good design will help you understand it more than reasoning about it— or than reading about it. (13)

Meeting the requirements of an objects design doesn’t necessarily make it beautiful; beauty is a far more mysterious thing. Pye  later advances a more complex critique of functionalism (the idea that just because something is functional, it is somehow “beautiful”) than he does here. But this is a hell of a start.

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