Getting Jiggy with it

When I first read Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest I really wanted to like it. Instead, I found myself arguing with it constantly, not because it is filled with bad advice (it’s tremendous advice, actually) but because of its libertarian posturing. Following most of his strictures closely, one would either have to become a collector of vintage tools or a boutique consumer of specialized products. It always struck me a bit like the big Mercedes SUV’s one sees all over Ithaca with “save the whales” or “go green” stickers on the back.

I suppose I wanted to either love or hate the book, and in the end I just couldn’t. I learned from it instead. I learned a lot, though I confess to using Shinwa sliding bevels over  Vesper tools.

I built the old-school joiner’s tool chest he describes. I originally thought that I’d use it to store kitchen supplies and tools in, believe it or not, because I already have several mechanic’s tool chests, including a full on rolling cabinet (not pictured here). What I found was that this tool changed the way I work, and changed the efficiency of my shop much as he described it would. I figured out that it was far too big to use in the kitchen, so I might as well use it somewhere, right? I still want to take a “workshop” approach to kitchen storage, but that’s a story for another day.

I loved using this box so much that I never bothered to take the time to paint it or finish it in any way. As you can see from the picture, the rolling tool cart and small chest next to it are a total mess. Nothing put away, crap just laid everywhere, etc. In contrast, using this chest I almost automatically put my tools away. No mean feat, when you’re as big of a slob as I am. In fact, I’ve become such a convert to traditional tool chests that my next project may be to build one of the Dutch small chests to go next to the big chest, to replace the mess here—so that I can move the mechanic’s chest and cart where it belongs, into the garage.

The trick is that the traditional chest isn’t just a box to put stuff in, it’s a jig that promotes efficient work habits. Schwarz knew that, and I suspect a lot of people who have built them have figured it out too.

Yesterday, I was remembering Matthew Crawford’s discussion of jigs and decided to revisit the book. I never took the time to do reading notes for it, and I keep wanting to do that since I read it in January. Today won’t be the day I start that; I’m still wrestling with a larger octopus. Funny how thinking and writing about kitchens and houses can send you straight back to the shop.

Crawford notes that his definition for “jig” is adapted from “The Intelligent Use of Space” by David Kirsh, and recommends it strongly. This paper, published in the journal Artificial Intelligence in 1995 makes distinct claims about the way that experts function in the world:

  1. The agents we observe are experts, or near experts, at their tasks, despite these tasks often being everyday tasks.
  2. Experts regularly find that enough information is available locally to make choices without having to plan on-line, using conscious analytical processes.
  3. Experts help to ensure that they have enough information locally by partially jigging or informationally structuring the environment as they go along.
  4. The human environments of action we shall be examining, the equipment and surfaces that comprise each workspace, are pre-structured in important ways to help compensate for limitations in processing power and memory.

Crawford doesn’t cite this directly, but using it allows him to argue that a cook in the kitchen structures his environment in such a way to facilitate the tasks he needs to perform. It’s a spatial usage of the term “jig” that is quite powerful when trying to explain how we negotiate the world as agents of change. Following Kirsh’s sources lead me to Philip Agre, who made even more explicit claims about the structure of the world implied by this mode of thought.

In his doctoral thesis from 1988, “The Dynamic Structure of Everyday Life,” Agre summarizes the historical thinking on negotiating everyday life, which he calls “the planning view,” in this way:

If an agent’s activity has a certain organization, that is solely because the agent constructs and deploys a symbolic representation of that activity, namely a plan.

Everyday activity is fundamentally planned; contingency is a marginal phenomenon.

An agent conducts its everyday activity entirely by constructing and deploying plans.

The world is fundamentally hostile. Life is a series of problems to be solved (11)

As an alternative (and a way of breaking through problems in the development in artificial intelligence) Agre proposes “the situated view” thusly:

Everyday life has an orderliness, coherence, and laws of change that are not the product of any representation of them.

Everyday activity is almost entirely routine, even when something novel is happening.

Everyday activity is fundamentally improvised; contingency is the central phenomenon.

An agent conducts its everyday activity by continually re-deciding what to do.

The world is fundamentally benign. Life is a fabric of familiar activities. (11)

In the universe Agre constructs, a plan is simply one possibility among many others in negotiating any activity. The world has an order and coherence independent, and unaffected by symbolic representations. We improvise our way through, depending on what happens. Thus, as Kirsh builds from this, jigging is introduced to control in a limited way the possibilities inherent in a given situation. Jigs either afford or constrain  outcomes in any given set of contingent circumstances.

In the case of my floor tool chest, I put things back most likely because it’s simply the most direct and logical thing to do. I can’t really balance them on the surface of the chest, as I tend to do with the mechanics chest. To put things back inside drawers as you go is counter-intuitive, because drawers do not afford easy access in the same way that trays do. What seems really attractive about my future dutch tool chest plans is the way it can constrain behavior as well;  one really can’t pile anything on top of the sloped lid, or its mating surfaces, the way you can in a mechanic’s chest.

Crawford uses and explains the technical terms affordance and constraint (taken from the visual theories of Jerome Gibson) admirably. From a practical standpoint, Chris Schwarz does a great job with toolboxes, workbenches, and tools in general; the only real complaint I have is the lack of a richer discussion of potential theories as to why they work the way that they do, e.g. what are the particular affordances and constraints of tools, jigs, and fixtures? To be fair, he does (like any good tool reviewer) discuss the good parts and bad parts of particular classes of tools, but he doesn’t do so in anything approaching a consistent fashion.

In the run-up to the release of The Anarchist’s Design Book, Schwarz claims to only have feelings about craft while standing at his bench, rather than when writing. I don’t see that working leads to any sort of feelings that might be symbolically represented, so I suppose he’s essentially justified in his evasion of discussing them.

I’m too busy dealing with contingencies in my shop to have anything remotely resembling feelings, theories, or plans. I do, however, develop theories regarding the best way to jig things to achieve some level of success, before I enter the workshop; I have a lot of feelings and theories in that aspect and I don’t understand why Schwarz insists on being anti-intellectual and evasive in that regard.

My favorite discovery through all this reading is the distinct possibility that “The world is fundamentally benign. Life is a fabric of familiar activities”—this sure beats the idea of a canned response to a hostile world.

Without theories of the everyday world, our understanding of intelligence (either human or machine) is impoverished, and sometimes the simplest theories are the most powerful.


Carl Larsson's upcycled kitchen cabinet
Carl Larsson’s upcycled kitchen cabinet

Carl Larsson could make a work of art out of even the simplest piece of furniture. The very plain cupboard, which was painted in China red, and the door panels were black-lacquered and decorated with growing flowers, in a clearly Japanese-inspired, asymmetrical composition. This piece of furniture expresses much of the young Carl Larsson’s freedom and inspiration.

Carl and Karin Larsson filled their house with old furniture, bought or given at different times. Nearly every room has a piece of furniture radiating a Baroque exuberance and a feeling for constructional clarity characteristic of peasant master craftsmen. Many of the heavier pieces of furniture probably belonged to mine shareholders, well-off land-owning farmers with a share in the local mine and arable land. Several corner cupboards and mouldings on the doors came from farmer’s homes in Dalarna. Such furniture was inexpensive at that time, and Larsson sometimes bought furniture in such bad condition that it had to be restored by his handyman. On the other hand, most of the old furniture bought for his home was well-made, of solid materials and good craftsmanship, stable and intended for practical purposes. These items are a reflection of Larsson’s nationalism, an expression of his pride in Sweden’s period as a great power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (Elizabeth Stavenow-Hidemark,  “The Larsson Approach to Old Furniture,” Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style 187)

It’s very weird to me how the books I read tend to overlap. Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book is filled with a celebration of the sort of workaday vernacular furniture gestured at (with some more ornate examples as well) in the book on Larsson I’m trying to save some snips from. I’ve never liked the word “upcycling” (apparently this term was coined circa 1994) but the practice has been commonplace for a very long time.

In fact, it’s a centerpiece of Mackay Hugh Baillie Scot’s strategy as well. In House and Garden (1906) He repeats exactly the same strategy:

The best way to secure a satisfactory result in furnishing is to have the furniture made specially for its position—a few things soundly and simply constructed which shall seem a part of the whole scheme. In many parts of the country old furniture of a simple type—gate tables, rush-bottomed chairs, bureaus, &c.—may be obtained at a very reasonable cost; and such things, with a few special made furnishings which cannot be obtained in this way, will always be at home in a house such as I have described. This old furniture has a sort of human character about it; and the varied planes of its surfaces, with its strong construction and evidences of careful leisurely work, make it inviting and homely. The modern ” Art” furniture bears testimony, on the contrary, that it is the work of a drilled automaton. Its pretence to finish is a mere superficial deceptive smartness. No human being ever loved or lingered over its completion, and its Art is the bait held out to the purchaser as a substitute for real excellence of design or manufacture. (40)

Schwarz’s “movement” towards home made furniture is not really all that new, and neither is his ranting against Ikea. It seems to me to be Arts and Crafts, through and through. What I wasn’t really expecting was to find that  a bit further on, Baillie Scot comes out in full support of what Schwarz labels as “boarded furniture.” For those who haven’t been following the woodworking magazines, translates to furniture built with nails:

In the making of furniture there are two principal methods of construction in the joining of its woodwork. The simplest is that now used in making packing-cases, the wood being joined by means of nails. The more complicated is that in which the wood is joined by letting one piece into another by the use of what are called mortices and tenons.

It is a foregone conclusion nowadays that the simplest way of doing a thing is necessarily the worst way, and the nail in modern woodwork has been considered a thing to be hidden. While in all other details of construction a virtue has been made of frankness, and while the pegs of the tenon are displayed to view, the nail is sedulously concealed by all kinds of artifices. In the making of the simple kinds of furniture in which the wood is joined by nails of the kind known as clout-headed, made by a blacksmith, these might be shown without shame, and form a feature in the design, and nothing could be reasonably urged against this simple and direct “packing-case” construction for a chest or cabinet. (41)

So there you have it. Not only does he suggest boarded furniture, he also suggests traditional blacksmith-made nails over machine made wire nails. The old cliché about the more things change comes immediately to mind. But, it’s just as certain to say that craftsmanship never goes out of fashion.

Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915
Carl Larsson, Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915. The paneling is inscribed ‘my friend and builder H. Arnbom’

Postscript: In the final essay in Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style, “The Larsson Design Legacy: A Personal View” by Lena Larsson, she tells this anecdote:

When I went into the business in 1940s [interior design], I was often asked where one could buy ‘Carl Larsson furniture.’ ; the answer was that you had to make it yourself. In 1944 Carl Malmsten published a whole set of drawings for general use. (225).

The designer/craftsman Carl Malmsten, who first encountered Carl Larsson’s books in 1907, was apparently very taken by the interior scenes created by the Larssons. James Krenov, a saint to many contemporary builders, was a pupil of Malmsten. The connections are really fascinating to me.


I’ve been obsessed with questions about home as a concept for years. I drift in and out of them, but it always seems to come back around to that. The final section of Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful Home in the World sent me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, to Carl and Karin Larsson. My wife of, of course, had been there long before me in appreciating Lilla Hyttnäs.

Carl and Karin LarssonI located a book, and positively devoured it. I find it fascinating that Carl Larsson’s first job was as a photo retoucher, and that his home began as a sort of country compound not unlike the sort of place I was raised.

Lilla Hyttnäs was a hodge-podge of things cobbled together, both modern and traditional— which evolved into a sort of Swedish National style— a distant though unquestionably genetic relative to the now pervasive Ikea. Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been digesting Chris Schwarz’s latest, The Anarchist’s Design Book.

Ikea has long been the nemesis of Schwarz, who commendably has called for a new furniture movement— the build it yourself movement. Curiously, that’s pretty much what Carl and Karin Larsson did. Schwarz knows that the idea of everyone building it themselves is more than a little utopian, and like all utopian notions is pretty much predestined for failure.

Though Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style is more than a little over the top in its praise, it strikes at the core of why dreams like this eternally return. The foreword of this exhibition catalog from the Victoria and Albert Museum, written by Anders Clason, “Cultural Counsellor” of the Embassy of Sweden, is a perfect crystallization of the character of the book:

Carl and Karin Larsson were children of the nineteenth century, the century of utopias. It was Britain that lead the way in recognizing the great change wrought by industry, and in struggling against the monster of technology. The town had become a living thing, tearing Western man away from the soil that had been the basis of life. The Larssons, in their own utopia, created a permanent dream picture of Sweden and Swedishness, a country idyll bathed in Nordic light.

Certain artists have the ability to spread gold dust on the wintery path of life. The Larssons were such artists. Their vision of Swedishness is more firmly embedded in the national psyche even than the Swedish sense of community. To have a lilac embowered cottage in the country in your family’s place of origin, that is the Swedish dream. To have it light and white, clean and airy, like a summer meadow sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, is the very essence of that dream. (vi)

Though this might be laying it on a bit thick, the concept of home found in Carl Larsson’s paintings is more detailed and useful than Norman Rockwell, at least to me. It’s closer to a sort of space I find attractive. In fact, that’s the thing that always annoyed me about Schwarz’s anti-Ikea tirades; many people really aspire to that sort of middle ground populist design, largely because it looks, well, happy. Regardless whether the construction quality is something to admire or not, it brings good design within the reach of millions.

Scan 1
Carl Larsson in his workshop at Lilla Hyttnäs

Though it isn’t the best quality, this photograph shows a familiar sort of workshop, filled with trees brought in for the winter and assorted projects in process. Larsson painted workshop scenes as well, no doubt with his own children and local artisans as models.

Larsson Workshop

More and more, I’m drawn into the Arts and Crafts movement as a global phenomenon. It was a reaction against technology of a sort, but it was also an embrace of technology too. Not all technology is considered bad, as evidenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere: Morris, in a memorable passage suggested in his utopian future that genuinely useful technologies were embraced, while tech with little to offer was simply left behind to rust. The question of what is a good tech, versus bad tech, was left unaddressed in the novel though he really did attempt to lay out some guidelines elsewhere.

One of the key essays in the exhibition catalog by Gillian Naylor, “Domesticity and Design Reform: The European Context” really gives me some new avenues to traverse. Her essay points at the deeper roots of Arts and Crafts to the social upheavals of the mid nineteenth century. She talks about the contributions of the German author Hermann Muthesius, whose The English House has been on my list to write about for a while, citing a passage from Stilarchitektur und Baukunst (1902) suggesting that buildings might transcend “academic and socially divisive preoccupations with style. The English approach to the building arts, he wrote, was:

nothing other than a rejection of architectural formalism in favor of a simple and natural, reasonable way of building. One brought nothing new to such a movement: everything had existed for centuries in vernacular architecture of the small town and rural landscape . . . Here, amid the architectural extravagance that the architects promoted, one found all that one desired and for which one thirsted: adaptation to needs and local conditions, unpretentiousness and honesty of feeling: utmost cosiness and comfort in the layout of rooms, colour, an uncommonly attractive and painterly (but also reasonable) design, an economy of building construction. The new English building-art that developed on this basis had now produced valuable results. But it has done more: it has spread the interest and understanding for domestic architecture to the entire people. It has created the only sure foundation for a new artistic culture: the artistic house. (78)

The focus, Naylor argues, shifted away from easel painting and fine arts, into design reform bent on reinforcing national identities and bringing fine art to the masses. The passage from Muthesius is really interesting to me on multiple levels, not the least of which being that if you substitute “furniture” for architecture, you’ve just summarized the core thesis of Chris Schwarz’s latest book—at least the aesthetics of it.

Usefully, Naylor brings a more critical eye on the phenomenon:

This was, of course, a middle-class vision: it reflected the prestige and elitism associated with ‘high art’, and at the same time romanticized the role of the working class. By aiming to transform factory hands into creative and contented artisans, and by concentrating on vernacular ideals of workmanship, this generation of design reformers also challenged the policies of their predecessors rejecting any form of training programme based on attempts to control or rationalize the design process. (79-80)

The rejection of a rationalized design process by the Arts and Crafts practitioners includes both Taylorism and factory-efficiency analyses and moves to impose any sort of design grammar (such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament from 1856). I note that Lost Art Press has also been publishing admirable work on pre-industrial design by George Walker and Jim Tolpin  that implies that a grammar of design is at least possible. It stops short from creating a full program, although it does include a new workbook with design exercises.

Such programmes were rejected by the Arts and Crafts generation because they denied the role of individuality and creativity; they were devised to impose rather than generate order, and they isolated the object from the context of making and use. (80)

To be fair, recent work by Jim Tolpin and George Walker does base its design practice completely on the context of making and use. Opposed to a controlled and rationalized design process, Naylor aligns the Arts and Crafts generation with the resurrection of a modified medieval guild system (through Ruskin and Morris) and  “the restoration of the ideal and reality of the home” as “a political as well as social necessity” (80). The political nature of this has unique repercussions in Germany:

Policies to improve standards of worker’s housing had been instigated in Germany from the 1840s, and the association of Wohnugsreform (the reform of the dwelling) with Lebensreform (the reform of life) acknowledged the English celebration of home. In Germany, however, the home came to be associated with the homeland, Heimat, that powerful and politically uncompromised symbol of national unity and continuity. Heimat was (and is) a value-laden concept and therefore difficult to translate; it signified home, locality, and country, as well as a sense of belonging and the inheritance of a shared past. Unlike Morris’s gentle Utopia, however, Heimat was somewhere; its roots were in the German soil and the German homestead, and in the bitter struggles for survival of the German race. (80-81)

Home and homeland are complex topics. Reform through design seems to have spread like wildfire virtually every nation at the dawn of the twentieth century. And not just design in general, but design in the lived environment. It’s wonderful to hope that the same thing might be happening at the dawn of the twenty-first.

Loose canons

I believe there’s way too much focus on tools and technique, with less attention to design, ethics, and finding a common ground. For starters, I believe one of the easiest ways to establish that we share the same basic information is by sharing the books that we have found useful. (We could begin by writing brief reviews of what we consider to be essential or important books, for instance)

Michael Langford

Langford’s call interests me. In the early days of blogging, I really enjoyed conversations with a small group of people about the nature of this newfangled thing call the Internet. Relatively quickly, that productive conversation was buried in a sea of spam and monetization. Since I started pursuing woodworking with a passion, I have been reluctant to even publicly respond to any of the conversations going on for fear of getting too involved in the conflicting and frequently demoralizing agendas flying about.

Nonetheless, since virtually everything I have written in the last few years begins with sharing books, it seems like it’s worth the risk to say some things. After all, I’ve been sharing thoughts on books for years now and no one really seems to notice. Much of what I choose to read comes on the advice of others on the Internet, and by books suggested within those books. To a certain extent it forms a loose sort of canon, and I think discussion of canons is worthwhile.1

After a long hiatus, I’ve started reading again. It began with Michael Crawford’s latest, The World Outside Your Head. I didn’t care for his first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, but after Doug Stowe wrote a little about his second book I decided to give it a try. I feel like the latest book is a huge leap over the first, and in fact it triggered my desire to resurrect my blog. What I find most useful on blogs that I visit, in fact, is references to other texts about design and ethics (rather than technique). In writing about craft, technique is never far away, but the work ethic behind it is only rarely discussed with much sophistication.

I was really looking forward to Chris Schwarz’s new book The Anarchist’s Design Book, but when he actively expressed a disdain for writing about ethics and philosophies of work, my enthusiasm became more muted.2 I’d been following the project closely because I’ve been obsessed with thoughts about the design of ordinary life; to write about them without ethics and philosophy seems downright sterile. I’ll reserve judgment until the book comes out, but it suddenly became less interesting to me.3

Schwarz’s book was previously titled “The Furniture of Necessity” and began with research about commonplace furniture across the centuries; he claims that’s still the core of the book. That’s incredibly interesting to me, and it seems difficult to talk about commonplace designs without dealing with ethics and philosophy. If the needs of the market (furniture built in response to fashion and economics, or to showplace virtuoso technique) are displaced from the center of attention, then what remains? Building the things that everybody needs. Taking ethics at the basic core definition of “doing what is right to achieve what is good” then to write that without discussion of what makes a given design “good” is either a fool’s errand, or pure solipsism.

The solipsism of the individualist approach is taken up by The World Outside Your Head admirably. Crawford also deals with the contribution that capitalism brings to the table too; after all, if it’s “good” then people will pay you money for it, right? The sort of validation that a craftsman achieves by being paid for their effort is an interesting and confusing component though. If craft products are valued on economic terms alone, then most of the activities of individual craftsmen are horribly wasteful and unproductive. There has to be more to it, a more thoughtful way of evaluating what “good” is.

Peter Follansbee has repeatedly recommended William Coperthwaite’s work. I read A Handmade Life a few years ago.5  I’ve been drawn back lately, because of his notions of “democratic design” and “democratic architecture.” Though my primary interest is in building furniture, I can’t help but get sucked into architectural theory as architectonic (in the Kantian sense) to a general theory of ethical design. In fact, a lot of my recent reading has been targeted there.

I read Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski a few weeks ago, and currently have The Most Beautiful House in the World on deck for my next reading. I also recently finished Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, though it meandered far too much to be that useful to me. Part of this reading has been driven, oddly enough, by Crawford because of his short discussion of “jigs.” I think the home, at it’s most basic level, is a jig for living.

Though it’s a post for another time, the way that we manage our “workflow” through our pattern of living is easily thought of as a jig, a way of managing our efforts to a desired end: “the good life.” That’s where Wm. Coperthwaite’s construction of “democratic architecture” is genuinely useful. A sidebar in A Handmade Life  describes it in this way:

It may sound strange to talk of honest and dishonest houses. After all, aren’t houses neutral, material objects? Yet if a house is larger than we can build and care for on our own, it could be regarded as violent, exploitive architecture.

The larger and more complicated the house we build, the more the house becomes a time-consuming luxury, requiring effort that could be focused on areas of greater need and worth.

Balance in this, as in all matters, takes judgment. Some people put in a disproportionate amount of time styling their hair, some spend hours on their car, some are obsessed with their tennis stroke, and some of us are inclined to spend too much time on our houses.

Until their is a decent balance of basic necessities for all people, we are duty bound not to waste time and energy on peripheral things. (70)

To an extent, I can agree. There’s a problem with determining what constitutes “peripheral things” of course; as David Pye has suggested, the whole of human industrial design can be summed up as “useless work on useful things.” Coperthwaite’s formulation of “democratic design” can be roughly synopsized as design that is accessible to everyone, and that seems to me to be a worthwhile goal. A lot of the discourse surrounding woodworking does seem to target that as a goal, although that goal is in constant tension with the concepts of “virtuosity” that are never far away.

That’s why I suppose that Crawford’s latest really set the wheels  in motion. Just what is “good” craftsmanship? I suppose it should be logically correlated with the “good” life, and that’s where the water gets really deep and muddy. It is the ultimate solecism to imply that the “self” is the best yardstick of that.

1 I fondly remember Jim Levernier’s classes in American literature. He used a traditional textbook with all the usual suspects, which he then proceeded to deconstruct and ask the class just why we celebrate them? The American canon is a really barbarous thing. I really wish I would have had a chance to take his class “the alternative American canon.” where he directed attention to the literature that we don’t read.

The only mention I made of his first book was in 2010, but I didn’t say much. Apparently I was following the maxim “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Doug Stowe is quoted in Crawford’s latest, so he felt compelled to respond to it. Doug, and most people I’ve read, were very taken by his first book.

3 Anti-intellectual bias is the worst sin, in my opinion. It’s the equivalent of stating “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like,” which is an evasion of actually learning why you like what you like and perhaps changing what you like in the process. It’s a worthless waste of energy to express thoughts like “My feelings about the craft are evident when I’m at the bench, not sitting on the couch with a book or a laptop.” It just reveals that you’re too lazy or scared to express something seriously considered about it.

4 I have a long history of obsessing over books that irritate me though, and sometimes the more a book irritates me the more I end up talking about it. I spent a lot of time carping about Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, though I only wrote a bit about it.

5 Though I can’t say that it had a huge impact, I was really taken by The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, which I found through Coperthwaite.

The Bricoleur


Never do we achieve a satisfactory performance. Things are simply not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery, and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose yet. Every thing we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But even at that we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance we will have it in appearance.

David Pye, The Nature and Aesthetics of Design (1978, 1964) p.14

I knew that I had run across this concept before, and it finally dawned on me where: Claude Lévi-Strauss. It’s curious, because his discussion of the bricoleur occurs in The Savage Mind, first published in French in 1962, and then translated into English in 1966. It’s certainly possible that Pye’s colleagues at the Royal College of Art were talking about it, but he didn’t arrive there until 1964; but it’s more likely that it’s just the case that there was “something in the air” that drove very smart people to think about the contingencies of human existence in similar ways. Different fields, different languages, and completely different ends in sight.

Lévi-Strauss conceived of bricoleur as a way of contrasting underdeveloped civilizations derivations and deployments of myths. Throughout, he used craft metaphors that I’m just now remembering. I think it really puts a finer point on Pye’s contributions and deviances from the anthropological theorizations  of craft as a model/metaphor for human society. The bricoleur, or as footnoted in the English translation, handyman, is contrasted with the engineer. While much of what Pye is describing and attempting to theorize is closer to engineering than tinkering about like a handyman, it has a curious similarity to Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur.

I’m not sure if that’s just a coincidence; the time-line is just too close to call. For Lévi-Strauss, the designer or craftsman, particularly of modern scientific products, wouldn’t have much in common with the bricoleur, only the “repairman” would. Revisiting The Savage Mind has reminded me why I though his treatment was interesting all those years ago.

Attempting a summary of some key points, it is important to note that bricoleur has the overtone of extraneous motion (not unlike Pye’s assessment of decoration as ‘useless labor’). The label is deployed by Lévi-Strauss to try to quantify differences between the “scientific” and “savage” mind; the savage mind consists of a limited and heterogeneous set of resources that are deployed to meet various needs, whereas the scientific mind has at its disposal groups of tools specifically gathered and grouped to meet human needs.

Pye might argue that the scientific tools are just as arbitrary and haphazard as the savage’s tools; indeed, that’s pretty much Paul Feyerabend’s contribution. Against Method was published in 1975 so it’s fair to say that such questioning was not unusual at that time. I’m not sure if the Pye’s “castaway” passage is present in the 1964 edition, or is added to the 1978. But, accepting for the moment that at least the bricoleur/castaway side of Lévi-Strauss’s formulation has merit, just what does the opposition illuminate?

The ‘bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of the game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains  bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (17)

This reminds me greatly of Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest; Schwarz went so far as to analyze the tool lists across the ages to give a sort of historical weight to his tool selections within a tradition. The “finite and heterogeneous” tool set is contingent, but not arbitrary. Lévi-Strauss’s unusual turn from here is extruding it into a linguistic framework.

He gets there by calling a bricoleur’s tools and materials objects “a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type” [emphasis mine]. Defining tools and materials in this way, as relations, means that they can be used and reused only within limits. In short, their uses are finite, and they are intermediates in a potential transformation, in other words, signs:

Signs resemble images in being concrete entities but the resemble concepts in their powers of reference. Neither concepts nor signs relate exclusively to themselves; either may be substituted for something else. Concepts, however, have an unlimited capacity in this respect while signs have not. (18)

Lévi-Strauss proceeds from here to deploy his argument from analogy with a craft example:

A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal— which would allow the grain and polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as an extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already posses a sense which sets a limit for their freedom of manoeuvre. (18-19)

I’m not interested here in the argument that Lévi-Strauss is making as much as I am the way that he’s making it. Tools and materials for a bricoleur are constrained; the tools of the engineer/scientist are not because he has access to the concepts behind the situation. A bricoleur/handyman is force to deal with things by using a system of predefined symbolic relations—as Roy Underhill would have it, regarding woodworking, it’s all wedge and edge. The set of tools we have at our fingertips as craftsman are defined by custom, tradition, materials, and physics.

In short, like David Pye, Claude Lévi-Strauss is looking to define the function of societies and practices by identifying their constraints. That’s really quite remarkable, given the contemporaneous nature of all this. I missed this the first time that I read it, but then I wasn’t a woodworker then. Instead, I was a photographer looking at the semiotic dimensions of this argument, which are equally fascinating:

Images cannot be ideas but they can play the part of signs or to be more precise, co-exist with ideas in signs and, if ideas are not yet present, they can keep their future place open for them and make its contours apparent negatively. Images are fixed, linked in a single way to the mental act which accompanies them. Signs, and images which have acquired significance, may still lack comprehension; unlike concepts, they do not yet possess simultaneous and theoretically unlimited relationships with entities of the same kind. (20)

In its own way, this excursus on images is also about constraints; One might argue that an image, say Dorothea Lange’s image of Florence Thompson, must sever its fixed link to the person it references to become an open concept: “The Migrant Mother” which is then able to be set in unlimited relationship with other madonna class images. Only by defining itself as not Florence Thompson can the image acquire symbolic currency.