The Nature Of Quality

I want something shorter he said……a bit less like a chapter in a book and more like a magazine article, more pithy…… I can do pithy I said, its all about quality.

But what is quality? Each of us here in this workshop have different levels of experience attempting to make objects of quality.So its something that concerns every one of here, but attempt to pin it down, to define it and it becomes a bit more slippery. We know where quality might reside, it might be on the sports field, people like Beckham or Sampras are undoubtedly quality sportsmen. That we say was a quality goal . Quality it is said may reside in the detail, in the small careful stuff but depending on where you find your quote, both God and the Devil also reside in the detail. Quality is said to reside in the last 10% of effort required to manufacture or realise any object. So by that we can understand that it requires effort, sometimes superhuman effort, to realise the quality.

It can be quality either in an object or a performance. Beckhams 30 yard pass or direct free kick into the top left hand corner of the goal may be done with consummate ease, grace and effortlessness, but it will have been the result of years of grinding practice. It reminds me of the story about a tennis pro who was sharing a room with another buddy on the circuit. His buddy woke up to see this guy skipping in the corner of the hotel room. What are you doing? he said. Its ok, I just want to be the best, you go back to sleep and carried on skipping. Now that is what I call work rate, yet that paradox is that what he is wanting is an effort less performance a game where his head is away in the zone and he is barely concious of even hitting the ball.

Its easy to consider quality as being simply quality of workmanship, and yet I would dispute this. Many years ago I was judging an exhibition staged by one of the magazines in which amateur woodworkers had submitted pieces of work. Many were beautifully made. One in particular was a low coffee table in which inlaid in to the surface of the table was a Monopoly board. The board was the creation of many hours of careful painstaking work, but the question that occurred to me was not wow, what an object of quality but Why?. Why had this guy spent so long and displayed so much skill making an object that meant so little. Showing off, the consumate display of skill is not enough without a good enough reason for doing it, the object has to be worthy of the effort. Its easy to suggest that here Im just being subjective and snotty and should never be allowed near amateur woodworkers, though that maybe a good idea, but it seems to me that the quality of the design and its realisation combine together to make something more powerful than each of these elements in isolation. Yet conversly you can have good design being used to elevate the product in the market yet failing to create a quality object because the quality of manufacture is still missing. It all has to fit together.

Its easy to suggest that quality is a subjective judgement, an emotional response, and Id suggest that its this, the emotional response, that gives us a clue to not just where quality might reside, but what quality might actually be. For it is the nature of quality that we enjoy it. Its wonderful watching Sampras or Beckham strike a ball. I love to bits my quality motor car, its great just shutting the door of an Audi A6. We enjoy quality it makes us feel good. I have a simple hand made pot on my studio shelf. It was made by the late David Leach about 20 years ago when he was at his height of his powers. Its a simple pot I use it to hold water for my paintings and I also use the central point in the lid as a mobile vanishing point when Im constructing a perspective drawing. The pot slides around on my desk and enables me to put a vanishing point way outside my drawing board. So its useful. The decoration on the lid is simple. Its a rhythmical pattern moving from a central point out to the rim of the lid. You can see within it David Leachs struggle to make a repetitive mark. It is clearly skilled because he comes so near to achieving it , but its not quite perfect. There is a richness of surface around this simple clay pot. The pale greeny grey glaze gets darker on one side, where its been fired slightly hotter on one side than the other. This gives the surface a richness and a quality. I enjoy this pot every time I pick it up. It reminds me of how skilled hands can, with the knowledge of a lifetime, achieve so much yet fail to be perfect. It tells me a lot about humanity, and, perhaps more important it helps me to understand who I am. Without doubt this is a quality item. Yet I know nothing about pottery and my judgement may well be subjective. However, I doubt it. This pot is extra ordinary, outside the ordinary. Just as Beckham or Sampras are extraordinary and that extraordinariness is at the heart of quality.

I would say that if we regarded judgements of quality as a subjective matter we would make a mistake. We would be simply wrong.Your view being as valuable as mine, that is correctly democratic veiw and politically correct it may be, but, dear reader, you may not be as well informed as me, and, I may be totally ignorant in your area of expertise. So, I would argue our view points are not of equal value we cant both be right unless that is, we agree. However I believe that Quality, like Art is not a subjective judgement it objective. It is out there and is not subjective. In my effort to prove this I call as my witness for the prosecution Robert M Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

On page 242 of my copy he says
He noted that although normally you associate quality with objects, feelings of quality sometimes occur without any object at all. This is what led him at first to think that maybe quality is all subjective. But subjective treasure wasnt what he meant by quality either. Quality decreases subjectivity. Quality takes you out of yourself, makes you aware of the world around you. Quality is opposed to subjectivity. I dont know how much thought passed before he arrived at this, but eventually he saw that quality couldnt be independently related with either the subject or the object but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is at the point at which subject and object meet.
That sounded warm. Quality is not a thing. It is an event.

So if Pirsig is right, and I think he is, and quality is an event, then quality is a response to a combination of our senses. It is a response to a design well executed, to forms that fit and work well in the hand, to functionality, to doors that close nicely, to materials chosen with care and consideration. To Cedar panels that fill the room with an aroma of Arabian Nights. To burnished surfaces that glow and gleam with the light as we move them around them. All of this is quality. But more than that, Quality is helping us to understand who we are. Quality is the pursuit of the human being when functioning at their very best. In whatever field of endeavour, it being running a marathon or fitting a hand made drawer for the very first time. The action, the objective, is to excel and that is an act of human quality.


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