Function and Form

Renato Bialetti
Renato Bialetti, the man known for being the “ambassador” of the Bialetti Moka pot, died on February 10 in Ascona at the age of 93.

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.

Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is ” natural” it should be so. Yet the moment we peer beneath this surface of things, the moment we look through the tranquil reflection of our- selves and the clouds above us, down into the clear, fluent, unfathomable depths of nature, how startling is the silence of it, how amazing the flow of life, how absorbing the mystery ! Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth. Awhile the spirit and the matter fade away together, and it is this that we call decadence, death. These two happenings seem joined and interdependent, blended into one like a bubble and its iridescence, and they seem borne along upon a slowly moving air. This air is wonderful past all understanding.

Yet to the steadfast eye of one standing upon the shore of things, looking chiefly and most lovingly upon that side on which the sun shines and that we feel joyously to be life, the heart is ever gladdened by the beauty, the exquisite spontaneity, with which life seeks and takes on its forms in an accord perfectly responsive to its needs. It seems ever as though the life and the form were absolutely one and inseparable, so adequate is the sense of fulfilment.

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple- blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing nun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages ; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. (Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”)

I have explored the relationship between form and function across a range of readings for a while. David Pye, in particular, was really adamant in his insistence that form cannot follow function in design, largely because of the fact that when we design things, we cannot know exactly what they will be used for. His reaction, in the aftermath of functionalism is rational and well reasoned. The core part of Pye’s thesis is this:

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 Things We See: Ships)

Pye goes on to argue that constraint, far from limiting a designer, is the stimulus to producing truly interesting and innovative designs. Reading the frequently misread source of “form follows function” the positions of Sullivan an Pye don’t seem that far apart. The problem only arises when aesthetic puritans enter the scene, and start laying out absurd manifestos on the subject.

In context, what Sullivan is actually arguing (about tall buildings) is that there are certain affordances and constraints to the design of skyscrapers. They have basements and attics, which are generally best suited for building infrastructure and storage. They have first and second floors, which are easily accessible to people that are perfect for commercial and social applications. Finally, they have all the floors after that, which are usually divided into a sort of cellular structure, not unlike a bee-hive, for more bureaucratic functions. This three part structure follows the function that skyscrapers are designed for.

An example of Sullivan’s 3 area design

He emphatically argues that any concept of an organic design for skyscrapers, such as designing them to grow from the earth like trees, is simply absurd. Buildings change when their functions change, not when designers whims change; until then, the layout of tall buildings will be relatively static. The concept of an organic building, e.g. Art Nouveau, is absurd. This, however, does not mean that Sullivan was against ornament in the same way that the puritans at the Bauhaus later were. It wasn’t an argument for inorganic (brutalist) design either.

Within the constraints he suggests, “form ever follows function” might mean the same thing Pye suggests— that function inevitably constrains design. Design begins, but does not necessarily end, with function.

Or, it also might be prudent that not only does form designate function (Rybczynski) it also emerges from it. I think that’s much closer to what Louis Sullivan initially suggests. The process, ultimately, sounds downright organic to me.

Another key take away is that as the function of things changes, so does their form. The residential home seems to be an interesting example of this. The change is slow almost to the point of being imperceptible.

It’s getting more plausible for me to think that tract houses are actually genetic relatives to the great manor houses of England, not just because of the “McMansions” that exist due to the whims of designers, but because the function of home has slowly changed over time. Office buildings, like Moka pots, have changed much less because their functions haven’t changed.


The Nature & Aesthetics of Design (2)

The Nature & Aesthetics of DesignAs I discussed earlier, aesthetics was added to Pye’s Nature of Design at a later date. That’s a thorny problem, and something that has always puzzled me is: just what makes something beautiful?

I grew up in Southern California, and I was surrounded by industrial design. It resonated with me in a way that flowers, trees, etc., never managed to.

To me, warehouses and refineries, parking lots and shopping malls,  were all beautiful in strange ways— though few people agreed.

This gave me problems as a photographer, growing up in the shadow of the California nature police like Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, et. al.. I just didn’t get it. I remember being so thrilled to see that Edward Weston photographed refineries near where I grew up, as did Horace Bristol.

Bristol is mostly known these days for traveling to the Central Valley taking photographs on the project that became The Grapes of Wrath with John Steinbeck. It’s possible to appreciate industrial beauty and natural beauty; a few people do. But I digress.

To David Pye’s credit (in my opinion) he first describes the aesthetic element as “doing useless work on useful things.” We’re compelled to, and the reason why isn’t as simple as most aesthetes claim, in my opinion. It’s a convergence of forces, social and natural. In the case of practical design, it’s always secondary. So what are the primary elements of design?

Part of what derailed me from continuing to hash through Pye is his first point in his bulleted list of the six requirements of design:

1. It must correctly embody the essential principle of arrangement.

2. The components of the device must be geometrically related—in extent and position—to each other and to the objects in whatever particular ways suit these particular objects and this particular result (Chapter 4).

3. The components must be strong enough to transmit and resist forces as the intended result requires.

4. Access must be provided (this is a special case of 2 above).

These four together will be referred to as the requirements of use.

5. The cost of the result must be acceptable.

This is the requirement for ease and economy.

6. The appearance of the device must be acceptable.

This is the requirement of appearance. (23)

Obviously, there’s a lot here to unpack (a book’s worth, really). Aesthetics comes in dead last in his principles of design, even though it almost seems like it’s first in one respect: Just what is “the essential principle of arrangement”? As far as I can tell, it’s the rhetorical device that Pye uses to avoid saying “function” when referring to useful objects.

One good example of “the principle of arrangement” would be the knife. Knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes and configurations but there is a sort of essential form. Knives have blades that cut, they have handles, they can fold (or not), etc., leaving us with basic forms pretty much unchanged (beyond embellishments and decorations) for centuries. There need not be a platonic ideal form for a knife that we strive for before we can say that knives have essential forms of arrangement. It’s not an aesthetic thing, it’s utilitarian.

The best way justify approaching it this way has to do with the slipperiness of talking about function.  Instead of saying that knives “must fulfill the function of cutting” is that by saying instead, essentially, that a knife must have the potential (in its designed form) for cutting in order to qualify as a well designed knife is that we can’t ever really know what someone will use that knife for.

Perhaps a user will deploy it to pry open paint cans, or turn screws. It may not be well suited for those jobs, but it may be directed towards those ends. Does failing to open the paint can make it  a bad knife? Not really, but since we can’t know for sure that a knife will always be used for cutting we can’t simply assume that it will. For example, a good bush knife might also be used to strike a flint and make sparks; the strength of a thicker blade doesn’t help the knife cut, but it does make it possible to use the knife for other things—even as a pry bar in some cases. It’s impossible to anticipate the entire range of functions that an object might be placed in.

The essential principle of arrangement for knives has evolved and moved through a variety of basic forms each one suited not only to a primary task, but also for secondary purposes which almost form new classes. One example that springs to mind is the butter knife. Is it a knife or a spreader? It doesn’t cut well, really, and yet we do cut with it occasionally and still call it a knife. The categories are hardly static.

Pye’s careful choice of words here is admirable. It makes it hard to parse in some cases, but he has chosen very carefully what he labels as “requirements.” I do wonder if, prior to the revision, he included “the requirement of appearance” at all.

A core choice worth noting: notice that he speaks of a “geometric” relationship between objects rather than any sort of mathematical or axiomatic relation? Think of a pair of scissors; we could specify a specific size or shape for that class of objects, but aren’t scissor’s better described by the geometric relationship between the moving parts? I think that’s just brilliant to say it that way.

I was reminded a few days ago somewhere on the interwebs that the root meaning of “tolerance” when it comes to woodworking is that we tolerate errors of a certain amount because due to shrinking or expanding materials (among other factors) it is impossible to clearly specify exactly what size something is supposed to be. We can, however, insist that for a good design the component parts (a drawer for example) be able to function in a precise geometric relationship with the other parts of a piece. That’s good design.

Pye’s discussion, following his list, doesn’t really address these matters in the same way I have here. To place it in context, the list is introduced following a discussion of the difference between invention and design. For Pye, invention is a concept pretty much culminating in a patent-like description of a potential system. Design, on the other hand, is the embodiment of that concept. Thus, it is required that a design follow the pattern and concept of the patent/description but it can deviate substantially and still fit the need and fulfil the concept.

In discussing the “essential principle of arrangement” of the particular design, Pye chooses instead to talk about the differentiation between the way a designer would approach the “shape” of something compared to a layman. Illustrating several wedge forms, he carefully dissects the idea that there is such a thing as a “wedge shape” because it has so many varied forms that are able to function as wedges; wedging is a function of a shape, not a coherent shape in itself. A wedge can come in many different shapes; it’s not a matter for aesthetics, but rather physics.

The only way of closely defining the kind of arrangement of matter that we call a wedge or a hook would be by referring to the way it transmits forces. A hook will pull. A not-hook won’t pull. Shape, individuality, doesn’t come into it.

Shape, for us, is what gives individuality to things. All of us are extremely expert in recognizing the individual character of shape in closely similar things such as human faces and hands of writing. The individuality of shapes is the stuff of art, whether in design, painting, or in any other field. It is our present concern to find out how far the designer has freedom to give devices a chosen character of appearance, of shape. The essential principle which he must embody in the device he is designing sets limits merely to the extent that if the principle requires ‘a hook’ then not-hooks are excluded. But there is precisely and infinite range of possible shapes for a hook. The limitations on freedom of choice, so far, are nugatory. (24-25)

I think I should start using the term “nugatory” in conversation more. The overall tone and care of David Pye rewards constant reading. In essence, it seems as if he is driven to make it clear that much of what we think of as superfluous in design is actually what design is. It’s about choices, within constraints—and those constraints are a lot less severe than we generally think. We choose pleasing shapes because, well, why wouldn’t we? It’s just natural to make a pleasing choice. That’s where the brutalist machine aesthetics of the early twentieth century seems more like an anomaly than the wave of the future.

Though aesthetics are the last item he lists among the “requirements” it is clear that they can be introduced in many of the choices along the way. The shape of something is its primary ornament, and that ornament is not something that is necessarily “applied” along the way; it can be part of the essential formal arrangement of a thing.

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.


Locating David Pye

As I’ve deepened my readings/re-readings of David Pye over the years, some interesting things have started to pop out at me. He’s got an Aristotelian knack for taxonomies and frameworks, but there are some real prejudices in there that are troubling.

First, he clearly privileges the visual over the tactile; second, he’s strongly biased against his own peculiar reading of the Arts and Crafts movement. I’m finding some evidence from his family history, thanks to this interview in Craft found via his obit in the Independent:

Marigold Coleman: How did you come to work in wood? Was it an accident or did you make a deliberate choice?

David Pye: No, in a curious way it has been in the family for a long time. My father was always making something or other out of wood as an amateur, and my mother’s uncle was a great hand at it, and also a jeweller, as was my father. This was a William Morris tradition. My grandfather was John Brett the painter, and a friend of Morris’s, I believe, and of Ruskin and so on. Though he didn’t remain a friend of Ruskin’s! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing round with bits of wood. There’s a nice story which may come in handy — my great-uncle, Uncle Pat, who was also my godfather, he was in the Dragoon Guards, I think, or anyway a very snob cavalry regiment which he couldn’t possibly afford. He went out to India the year after the Mutiny, then got some leave and went out again in 1862. He went out in a sailing ship and to keep himself amused on the voyage he provided himself with 12 dozen bottles of Bass and a wood-turning lathe, both of which he used throughout the voyage to Bombay, which of course took an enormously long time. I think that that flywheel there is from the lathe he took. A lot of these tools belonged to him, and some to my father and some to my grandfather. One way or another wood has been around all my life.

MC: So this is a middle-class tradition of inheriting what would normally be an artisan tradition?

DP: Yes.

MC: Wasn’t that very rare that early?

DP: It was probably the William Morris idea that did it. Quite apart from that, when I was four years old, I can remember to this day one particular piece of wood my brother brought back from school. I thought it was absolutely marvellous because of its surface quality. I think most artists are made by the age of four — they find out what they’re really interested in at an early age, fall in love with it then and it doesn’t alter much. They go on to think that they’re perhaps interested in an enormous number of things they’re really not interested in at all. There’s really only one thing they can do, and that’s true of most of us.

Note that his grandfather had a falling out with John Ruskin, though he maintained his friendship with William Morris. In The Nature and Art of Workmanship Pye demolishes Ruskin while leaving Morris untouched; this really strikes me as odd given that he is obviously familiar with Morris. The impact of World War II on his life is incredibly strong as well, given the loss of time it entailed in getting started on his life-long project, his “one thing”:

MC: How long does it take to find this out?

DP: A hell of a damn long time!

MC: How long did it take you?

DP: Till I was 30? I had a better chance than most — or my generation did — because of the war. I was out of everything for six years. When I got out of the navy I’d had time to think a bit. Anyway, the thing about wood which has always fascinated me is its surface quality. All the chaps who write about wood write about its tactile quality — well, what I’m talking about is decidedly not tactile, it’s visual. Wood has surfaces that are enormously subtle and varied, and that’s the thing that from the age of four I was really struck with. And then when I was about 14 or 15 1 saw a couple of chairs at a farmhouse, early i8th-century walnut chairs, country-made ones. I was really beginning to look at things for the first time, beginning to grow up, and I thought, that’s what I want to do, things like that. So I suppose that is how I came to be fascinated with it. I was brought up to be an architect, but I spent most of my time as a student building boats, a very eccentric thing to do then. My father was always doing it. That was how I started seriously using wood in a connected way. I learnt more from that than I ever learnt from my training as an architect. At the end of my time as a student and afterwards I started specialising in wooden buildings, inevitably. Then the war broke out. After the war there was no wood for buildings for a long time, so I thought I’d stick to wood and ditch buildings.

Marigold Coleman interviewing David Pye (1976) in Crafts no 217 82-4 Mr/Ap 2009

Note that the surface of wood is a visual thing for Pye, a somewhat unusual twist; nonetheless, it would make sense that he’s also a woodcarver because the play of light and shade is what makes carvings special. As my previous excerpt from the same interview attests,  his perspective is also driven by consideration of end products rather than processes; process is important only in that it is a vehicle to get somewhere.

This would tend to make his theory of work somewhat incommensurate with Morris, who emphasized the satisfaction of doing good work over the products. I begin to see Pye’s perspective as a weakness now, rather than a strength. Pye rightly tries to divorce the perfection of craft from economic constraints, but the emphasis on product I think works against him. One point is well taken though: “Anyone can learn to make things, it’s designing them and getting rid of them that’s difficult.”

Looking over on my shelf I see six bowls that aren’t’ good enough to gift to anyone, and don’t really have much use to me. That’s the problem of learning; there are surplus byproducts.


David Pye
David Pye

MC: Are you that interested in objects as such, or is it the process of making that’s important?

DP: Oh my God no, oh Lord no! The result is what matters. Because if it’s bad, one tries desperately to think of a way of improving it. If you can’t alter it you chuck it away under the bench but if it’s good that — after all — is what you’re there for. And if it’s good it’s going to be around. Remember those chairs I told you about. Well, some old chap, probably from the village here, in 1700-and-something, made those chairs. Who it was nobody knows, but the chairs are still around and they started me on furniture and the number of people I’ve had through my hands as a result — well that’s what they did.

MC: I was being provocative, but there are movements in art currently which claim that the process is all-important. You go to the theatre and suspect that the important moments were those in rehearsal, for the actors themselves.

DP: Oh no. A tree is known by its fruit, not its good intentions. What matters is the result: I believe that very strongly. But I want to say a few more things about wood. You can make anything of it, and one man with a chest of tools can do the whole thing himself. It is capable of being treated both freely and in a highly regulated way. Unlike blacksmithing, which generally gets deader the nearer it gets to highly regulated workmanship. Look at the railings round the Albert Memorial: you’d think they were cast iron, but they’re not, they’re wrought iron, every scroll the spit and image of the next, so regulated it’s not true. With wood you can have the best of both worlds. Another great recommendation is that you can work wood anywhere. I made a chest of drawers — not a bad one either, though I say it as I shouldn’t — on the top of another chest of drawers. It’s upstairs now. From that point of view, for a chap who is stuck with another job, there’s a lot to said for it.

MC: So you don’t have this attitude to the word ‘professional’ that some people have when they write in to Crafts magazine. They say, ‘You show a lot of work by people whom I happen to know are also teaching. They are therefore not professional craftsmen.’

DP: God Almighty.

MC: And they say that the true test of a craftsman is whether he can make his living by his work. ‘Yours sincerely, etc.’

DP: No test of a craftsman at all. The only test of a craftsman is the quality of his work. There is no other test. Full stop. In fact some of the best workmanship is done by amateurs. Probably always will be. But the one thing you don’t learn working as an amateur — that is when you only work evenings and weekends and earn your bread and butter doing something totally different: you don’t learn to work quickly, so you don’t get the chance to make enough mistakes. I’ve never been in quite that position as a teacher. I could work about zoo days a year at making. Doing it purely as an amateur you don’t get much speed into it. Speed in itself doesn’t matter a bit, but it is very very important to make a lot, so that you can make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. The other thing is, unless you’ve had training as a designer, you’re going to do some rather awful things. Anyone can learn to make things, it’s designing them and getting rid of them that’s difficult. But I’ve discussed all these things at length in the book.

Marigold Coleman interviewing David Pye in Crafts (London, England) no217 82-4 Mr/Ap 2009

This interview originally ran in Crafts No.20, May/June 1976

The Nature & Aesthetics of Design

The Nature of DesignIn 1964, David Pye published his second book, a slightly longer (91 page) volume called The Nature of Design.

I haven’t tracked an original down to look at it, though I’m curious about the differences between the original and revised edition. There are references to computers in the revised edition that I’m sure probably weren’t in the subsequent expanded edition.

the nature of art and workmanshipThis was followed in 1968 by The Nature and Art of Workmanship, the canonical text that ends up on most woodworker’s reading lists.

One difficulty in looking at mid-century craft theory is the fracture between design and craft. Pye was a pioneer in theories of both, and because he sought to tease out differences he was instrumental establishing these pursuits as separate. Pye’s writing presents, for me at least, the most lucid and structured attempt at a non-economically based theory of work. However, the division is problematic.

Dividing things in this fashion has advantages over the holistic approach of Morris et al., because it allows for fine grain consideration of various aspects of the problems that artisans and designers face, but it also reifies the divide between modern machine culture and earlier forms of craft.

Most productively though, it opens a space for the popular (not just “professional”) interest in emergent trends in design and consumer products. This echoes his earliest writing. Nonetheless, the division presents problems on where to “sort” certain aspects of the artisan/craftsman skill set. Pye’s final words on the problem come in the revised edition of his second book.

The Nature & Aesthetics of DesignThe book was issued in a revised and expanded edition in 1978 which adds “aesthetics” to the title and contents, stretching it out to around 160 pages. The growth in his theories is apparent from the frameworks he’s established—aesthetics appears not in the volume on workmanship, but attached to design.

Of course aesthetics is present in varying degrees in all his writings—it is after all “the art” of workmanship— but after reading Bernard Leach, this decision makes more sense.

It may be that workmanship is equivocated with technique, and thus skill; this undercuts the core performance of the designer, who has offered his own aesthetic perspective by his choices, prior to the execution of workmen. Obviously they can work in concert, or at cross purposes, but no workman can really rescue or compensate for ugly designs.

Leaving workmanship aside for the moment, what I’d first like to look at is the development of Pye’s thinking regarding functionalism and aesthetics that began with The Things We See No. 6: Ships.

To summarize his early position, design operates by making changes within constraints; design choices are not logical or rational, but represent aesthetic decisions that have their own mechanism which cannot be elaborated using words or logic. Aesthetic experience is what enables and improves the ability to make these choices. Function presents constraints, but does not negate nor enhance the aesthetic viability of a design. Something that functions can be either beautiful or ugly; that depends on the choices made by the designer.

Sleeping on this, I wonder if it might be more productive to think in terms of affordances rather than constraints, but that’s really a topic that deserves its own essay. It’s best to get through where Pye actually went with this first.

Although the importance of design is realized, the essential nature of the activity seems not to be understood except by designers, and they have not formulated what they know. It is not of the slightest use for us to ask ‘what is good design?’ until we can answer the question ‘what is design?’

The thing which sharply distinguishes useful design from such arts as painting and sculpture is that the practitioner of design has limits set upon his freedom of choice. A painter can choose any imaginable shape. A designer cannot. If the designer is designing a bread knife it must have a cutting edge and a handle; if he is designing a car it must have wheels and a floor. These are the sort of limitations which arise, as anyone can tell, from the ‘function’ of the thing being designed.

Little is ever said which touches on the fundamental  principles of useful design, and what is said is often nonsense. Most of the nonsense probably starts at the point where people begin talking about function as if it were something objective: something of which it could be said belonged to a thing.

The dictionary defines function as ‘the activity proper to a thing, the mode of action by which it fulfils its purpose’. What on earth can that mean? Surely if there were activities proper to things, and if things acted, and if they had purposes, Newton might have been relied upon to take note of these facts? ‘Function will not square with physics. And if function is a fantasy, what of functionalism —the doctrine that form follows function? (11-12)

The point of departure, that useful design is born from constraints is unchanged, but the assertion that there is no “activity proper to a thing” is new.

What is the activity proper to a straight cylindrical bar of steel a quarter inch in diameter on cross section and four inches long? What function is this form following, or ought it to follow? What activity exclusively or distinctively belongs to this thing, is in other words proper to it? There it lies on the bench, what are we to say? ‘Well, it isn’t active. You could make it active if you heated it enough. Otherwise it will not do anything unless the bench happens to collapse. Of course you could use it for an enormous number of different purposes, but then for nearly every one of them you could use something different equally well . . .’ the question still has to be answered, ‘what is the function of this thing?’

Now plenty of people do really believe that form can follow function; that if you thoroughly analyze the activity proper to the thing you are designing then your analysis will provide all the information needed, and the design can be derived logically from the function. Plenty of people still believe that ‘purely functional’ designs are possible, and believe that they themselves produce them, what is more! But none of them has yet divulged what an analysis of function looks like and what logical steps lead from there to the design. All you will get from them is talk about the purpose of the thing, which, as we shall see, is a statement of opinion and can never be anything else. (12)

Pye writes this so forcefully and convincingly that it is clear that he hasn’t stopped thinking about these issues since 1950. The clear development here is that function is framed as an opinion; opinions are not logical— they are rhetorical, function is an instance of endoxa, commonplaces that we accept that are not necessarily true or false. It is important for designers to have a clearer sense of what is happening when we evaluate designs. These issues are also interrogated in courts of law with the legal commonplace, “fitness for purpose.” It can be litigated in contract law, but ultimately it is an opinion, not a physical fact.

Someone will reply ‘This is all pedantry. Think out what the thing has got to do, design it in the simplest form which will will do that and there you have a purely functional design; and what is more it will look right.’

This sort of question raises three questions:

  1. How do you determine what the thing you are going to design ‘has got to do,’ and what ‘activity is proper to it’, what ‘it is for,’ what ‘its purpose is?’

  2. Having done so, does the information you have gained govern the design and determine its form, or does it merely guide it, restricting the choice of a form and setting limits within which it can be  varied at will?

  3. What does purely functional mean? (12)

The initial answers that Pye proposes are “arbitrary,” for the first question, “it merely guides it,” to the second and for the final question his answer is a bit more flip: purely functional means “‘cheap’, or else ‘streamlined’, or else more rarely ‘light’.” The implications of these answers are treated at greater length in the remainder of the work. The core sentiment, and point for this excursus is to propose something quite remarkable:

Whenever humans design and make a useful thing they invariably expend a good deal of unnecessary and easily avoidable work on it which contributes nothing to its usefulness. Look for instance, at the ceiling. It is flat. It would have been easier to not make it flat. Its being flat does not make you any warmer or the room above you any quieter, nor yet does it make the house any cheaper; far from it. Since there is a snobbism these things flattening a ceiling is called workmanship, or mere craftsmanship; while painting gods on it or putting knobs on it is called art or design. But all these activities: ‘workmanship’, ‘design for appearance’, ‘decoration’, ‘ornament’, ‘applied art’, ’embellishment’, or what you will, are part of the same pattern of behaviour which all men at all times and places have followed: doing useless work on useful things. If we did not behave after this pattern would indeed be poor, nasty, and brutish. (13)

What a powerful description of the human condition: “doing useless work on useful things.” That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve read in a long time.

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.

a civilization ‘outside in’

Ceramic tile screen  by Bernard Leach
Ceramic tile screen by Bernard Leach

The art forms of a community are the crystallizations of its culture (which may indeed be a different thing from its civilization), and pottery traditions art no exception to the rule. In the T’ang period it is not difficult to recognize the Chinese genius for synthesis, here reinterpreting Greek and Buddhist ideology in terms of contemporary need, and combining these elements within the native framework of Taoist and Confucian concepts, thus fundamentally modifying and extending the boundaries of their ideas of beauty and truth. In the greatest period, that of the Sung dynasty, all of these different influences are welded together in one, for unification was then supreme. Until the beginning of the industrial era analogous processes of synthesis had always been working amongst ourselves, but since that time the cultural background has lost much of its assimilating force, and the ideas we have adopted and used have been molded into conformity with a conception of life in which imagination has always been subordinated to invention and beauty to the requirements of trade. In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself, and has thus justified the Chinese criticism of us as a civilization ‘outside in’.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1976) p. 14 (originally published 1940)

I first became interested in Bernard Leach because of his relationship with Yanagi Sōetsu. He introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to William Blake’s works and Yanagi later wrote a book on Blake. He also introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to the western world.

What is most compelling to me about this particular quote is the dual ideas of imagination subordinated to invention and beauty to trade. Another curious thing about this bit is that productive tradition is framed as a process of assimilation, whereas most “traditionalist” would see assimilation as destructive of tradition, a diffusion of cultures rather than a focusing and synthesis. There is much to unpack.

The idea of imagination destructively being subordinated to invention is counterintuitive to the standard definition of imagination, which is frequently defined as the “invention” of new ideas from old, or the creation of new data beyond existing sense data. In either case, these definitions of imagination necessarily entail invention. What sort of imagination can exist without it?

It seems to me this can be answered without resorting to too many contortions through William Blake. One of the first things we read in my undergraduate seminar on Blake with R. Paul Yoder was his letter to Dr. Trussler from 1799, which begins:

Revd Sir

I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World Especially if I should have to answer for it I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other. namely Visions of Eternity You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato

I still remember those days fondly: “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care” was a great way to start my first formal training in a poet which I had read since I was a teenager and barely understood. Of course it wasn’t easy: it wasn’t supposed to be. You’ve got to admire the balls on a guy who can write a letter to a guy who rejects your work that opens this way. What is most important about these contradictions is that they “rouze the faculties to act.” The key section in the letter, however, comes just a bit later:

I percieve that your Eye [s] is perverted by Caricature Prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do. Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth–I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. (Erdman, 702)

Too much fun is loathsome; happiness is better than mirth, and to see the world imaginatively is the greatest happiness. The happiness that Blake speaks of here is seeing the world itself, not something foreign that has been invented and brought into it in the conventional sense— “Nature is Imagination itself” . To see things as they are sounds a bit like Bacon, whom Blake loathed, but Blake doesn’t fit into the empiricist frame. For Blake, “As a man is, So he Sees”—the man of inspiration and imagination is not the same sort of man as the man who refuses to see. Reverend Trussler had clearly fallen out with the spirit world: to truly see the world, for Blake, was to see God in the world.

Thus, the modernist impulse towards “making it new” sits  uneasily against Bernard Leach’s more Blakean view of imagination as nature. The subjugation of imagination to invention moves in lockstep with the dissimulation of beauty to the requirements of trade in Leach’s construction of the state of the arts, no doubt under the influence of William Morris: “In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself,” here, again, the modernist celebration of new and better machines seems to chafe in the mid century. Morris saw the structure of society as an unavoidable matrix which art emerges from: if society is shallow and obsessed with surface character, then so goes the arts. Leach references Morris, as the my leading quote continues:

Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the reaction started by William Morris has been taking place mostly outside industry and has culminated in what I have called the individual, or artist, craftsman. Beginning in protest against the irresponsible use of power, it came to an end in pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national work and life. Thence has arisen the affirmation of the mechanical age in art—functionalism. This, through let us say, Picasso, le Corbusier and Gropius of the Bauhaus, is having its effect on all crafts. A movement which however is based by its initiators on a new and dynamic concept of three-dimensional form, tends among those who attempt to carry over the idea into industry to an over-intellectual effort to discover norms of orderliness and utility. Such a process limits the enjoyment of work to the designer, and overlooks the irregular and irrational element in all fine activity including the making of pottery. (14-15)

It is important to remember here that Blake rebelled strenuously about conventional, mechanized regular typesetting choosing instead to write backwards in etching fluid to create his plates for his poetry. Both Blake and Morris tend to harken back to the earlier tradition of illuminated manuscripts as an antidote to industry. Though I do think Leach rightly indicts the degeneration of Morris’s arts and crafts movement to nonsensical medievalism. Interestingly, Leach’s attack on functionalism is picked up again by David Pye in 1962, which is where I have a mind to turn next.

The relationship/definitions of beauty and imagination play a key role in defining “happiness” in this pursuit of the “simple life” that I’ve been on about for the last bit. That’s the reason for these monumental digressions. Eventually, I’ll get back to William Morris: I really believe that his approach, and its fracture across the twentieth century, deserves a closer examination.

Talking Shop

9780813931210You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.

It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:

“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940

I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.

Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.

I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.

I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.

Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.

There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.

I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.

Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.