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.