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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother; Chapter 11: Turning And Carving A Duncan Phyfe Bedpost

It’s easy to be impressed with manual dexterity. Play a piano. Hit a curveball. Pick up dumplings with chopsticks. Whatever. When you see a practiced hand do what it’s practiced a million times, fascination enters into it.

But there’s more. The fellow in the video is a scholar. What you’re doing is as important as how you do it. He’s copying another’s design — Duncan Phyfe was scads more scholarly than someone that can reproduce his designs, of course, but it may very well be that old Duncan couldn’t make the things he designed as well as the guy in this video can. Most all the big furniture design names people might recognize — Hepplewhite,  Chippendale, Sheraton, Phyfe, Belter, Stickley — they were designers and directors and businessmen. They decided. Approved or rejected. They would seek out helpers whose skill exceeded their own to produce objects whose design was beyond the hands-on people’s ability to conjure.

Our hero in the video isn’t designing anything. But I imagine he could shake his sleeve and out would pop a ball-and-claw Chippendale leg, or a fumed quartersawn white oak mission table, or maybe a veneered Sheraton card table. He is a juke box, not an orchestra. It’s a different sort of skill, and a very important one. It’s not design.

Everyone thinks they’re qualified to design things. I hardly ever met an owner of a home that didn’t think they were qualified by their pulse to design a home. They’d ask you to produce bizarre and unlivable surroundings, and then excoriate you for listening to them. “That’s not what I wanted.” No, but it’s what your ordered. You went to McDonald’s but sent your meal back because you wanted Chinese food.

But the average person is capable of understanding good design in homes and furniture and soft goods and clothes and so forth. The problem is there are rules. You need to understand the rules before you can produce variations on them. The approach of understanding the rules first, and then using your understanding to work within the framework they produce is an alien concept, mostly because of the public school systems’ approach to learning. Drill in fundamentals followed by more sophisticated use of what you learned is verboten. You’re just supposed to morph over time into a good speller dropping subjunctives subordinate clauses here and there like a Rockefeller handing out dimes. They treat you like you’re a single-celled learning animal when you start, and the same when you end — you’re just bigger.

The idea that if they don’t treat you like you’re Shakespeare when you’re in Pre-K, you’ll never be able to become Shakespeare, is nonsensical to me. You need to learn to write properly first if you’re ever going to be able to write at all, never mind transcendently. (It’s useful to note here that the spell-checker for the utility I’m writing on doesn’t recognize the word transcendently I just used, and importunes me to spell it some other way)

Duncan Phyfe was an extraordinary person. Furniture makers whose style is definable enough to carry their name long after their death are very rare. And Duncan didn’t really invent anything. He was simply a very highly skilled syncretist (oops, confused the spellchecker again) of neoclassical forms. But there is no really new way to make furniture after a short while. If you’re making entirely new designs, they’re bad designs, because human beings have certain physical needs that vary very little. A square wheel is original, for instance; but it achieves its originality by being a bad wheel.

The turner and carver in the video isn’t making any square wheels. Good for him. The world’s chock full of square wheels just now. And they vote.

5 Responses

  1. "I hardly ever met an owner of a home that didn't think they were qualified by their pulse to design a home. They'd ask you to produce bizarre and unlivable surroundings, and then excoriate you for listening to them. "That's not what I wanted." No, but it's what your ordered."

    I trust that after the first one, you made them put it in writing. And you've met many of them, I'm sure.

  2. And with cnc controlled lathes and routers getting cheaper by the day, this skill is going to become as obsolete as manual typesetting.

    Life's harsh.

  3. I have been sawing 2' wide quarter sawn red oak boards out of a neighbor's tree. It was a huge tree, too large to be sawed into boards by normal mills, so I saw mine using a chainsaw. But I rarely fume about it.

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