Usually, when I sit down to write these articles, I know what I’m going to say, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of how I’m going to say it. There are occasions, and this is one of them, where what I want to say is so complex and ethereal that I fear my powers of expression will fail me. However, I shall try. This month I want to write about the process of creating new shapes. We have been doing this for the past few weeks of teasing out the shapes on a particularly complex pair of chairs. Specifically, I am going to talk about the arms of these chairs. There are two chairs involved and four arms. The middle pair of arms have got to fit together and complement one another. They also need, for reasons of my clients brief, to have some kind of visual reference to a swans head or neck. The swans don’t have to be too realistic, just a reference to the shape of the swans head would be sufficient. This is important to my client, and I am anxious to comply if I possibly can. The basic shapes have largely been developed already in quite square, blocky forms. Most of these components are laminated to enable us to create curves without running into the problem of short-grain so we can make these forms quite thin and light and delicate without them becoming weak.
They also need, for reasons of my clients brief, to have some kind of visual reference to a swans head or neck.
As we develop the designs of the chair, we take our courage in our hands and move from these very clean 2×2 square forms to something much more complex and lighter and more difficult to control. Michelangelo when carving a block of stone used to describe the process as releasing the form locked within the block of stone. I wouldn’t quite call myself a sculptor and the forms I am releasing are nowhere near as complex as anything Michelangelo carved but the process is similar. The shapes and forms I am looking for here have an organic bone-like sinuous quality and how we find them is often shrouded in myth and mystery which is why I had always wanted to write something about this. Basically, most of us who do this don’t know how we do it, and we fear understanding the process in case we make it too rational, too front of the brain. Creativity and we are all capable of creative work is different from the front of brain logic. Creative thought demands an intuitive response to a kind of instinct that creative workers of all types develop over time. The “small quiet voice within,” “back brain thinking,” people have called it many things. The essence for me is to respond to the undeveloped form in front of me, in this case, chair arms and develop them step by step, inch by painful inch, in the direction I feel and it is a gut feeling, in the direction they should go. I don’t all ways have an image in my head of what they should look like, or, if I have it comes and goes, what I do have is the original drawing and the incomplete object. The drawing tells me always where I thought I would go the object where we are now. The journey is always interesting.
The essence for me is to respond to the undeveloped form in front of me ,in this case chair arms and develop them step by step, inch by painful inch, in the direction I feel and it is a gut feeling, in the direction they should go.
I am greatly assisted in this process by my colleague Nick Chandler. Nick approaches the problem from a very different angle to me. I wander in and out as the artist, but Nick has the task of releasing these forms and actually cutting the timber away to expose the shape within. I realized some years ago when I gave myself the task of making a chair for an exhibition that a maker approaches this stage of the work very differently from a designer. A maker is there approaching it incrementally, shaving by shaving, saw cut by saw cut. Each piece is removed with great care because if Nick were to slip up, then it’s his time that would be wasted by remaking the component all over again. Makers are very conservative, very cautious. The job of the artist or designer is to wander in unfettered by those natural constraints of not wanting to have to do it again. And so I’ll say let’s take a risk here and lop those 6 inches off. The dialogue between Nick and myself is usually interesting, especially when it comes to points where Nick needs to include some form of joint or fixture.
David – “I want to take this thing right back to there”.
Nick –” are you sure”.
David – “yeah, yeah, I think it’ll work”.
Nick – “you realize I’m going to need a fixing in there”.
David –” what kind of fixing”.
Nick – “well at least one screw and preferably a dowel as well”.
David – “which side are they going to come from”.
Nick – “I’d like them to come from the front”.
David – “no, you can’t have that can’t they come from the back”.
Nick – “Oh, all right”.
David –” You realize I may want to cut that right back to the bone and expose your fixing.”
Nick-“that’s what’s worrying me.”
David – “Fear not Mon Brave.”
Nick – After some thought and head-scratching – “are you quite sure, Captain Mainwaring that you want to take it right back as far as that.”
David – “Yeah! Well, I think so”.
Nick – “well shall I do it or not”
David – “Hell, cut it off at the knees.”
Nick – to the sound of much sucking of teeth “well, OK.”
This whole process is greatly aided by our use of a long strip of sprung steel which I used to bend to create curves and shapes that enabled Nick to draw a line where two facets might meet. These lines are terribly important for these are absolute points. The only things that Nick has to go on when I say well shave that off a bit there. These lines are absolute. It’s not a bit; it’s not a lot, it’s dead on the line. When a designer is working in this way with a maker, it’s essential to have a maker with a creative sensibility. It is possible to do it with somebody who hasn’t, but that’s about as pleasant and time-consuming as extracting teeth. With Nick, there’s always some bounce. He’ll always have some idea and some response that will help us to keep the dialogue going.
I use dialogue and the process of describing what I want in shape as a way of also clarifying my thoughts, having to describe it to someone helps me to understand what it is I am actually looking for.
I realized some years ago when I gave myself the task of making a chair for an exhibition that a maker approaches this stage of the work very differently from a designer
You should bear in mind all this time that I don’t really know what I am looking for. It’s like those terribly infuriating clients that come along and look through your portfolio and say “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know when I see it”. The image is there somewhere in the back of my mind; I know the shape is there. If I’ve done my job properly, it will be a shape that’s never been seen before yet has been seen so many times as its rooted deep within our sub-conscious experience. If I’ve not done my job well, then it will not be a shape that’s a derivative of somebody else’s work or so common as to become boring. We need shapes that are both new and familiar at the same time. The familiarity is that of rightness, the shape is good, it feels right, it has the right feel, it has the right look, it works well, it looks calm, it looks exactly what it could be. There is no element about this shape from any angles that could not be anything but what it is. Yet it is something a little surprising, disturbing, worrying, interesting. It’s not something that been picked from the pages of a style magazine, pulled wholesale from another makers work, it’s a form developed, filtered through ones own experience and subconscious so how do we do it. How do we unlock these forms, and the answer I must say is I don’t really know. I potter around doing a bit at a time. Taking a side off here a shaving off here creating a line on the top here pulling another line underneath there. Each time making these curves taut and tight. Making these shapes work from this angle or that angle. Curves can either be flaccid and floppy or tight and tense which is why I use the sprung steel to draw curves that give us a line in tension rather than something that’s flopping loosely between two points.
Every curve, every surface, every element that matters. One is seeking complex interesting forms that don’t appear complex. They appear simple and clean and comprehensible, comfortable. This is where the problem of explaining this comes in cos everything I am saying sounds a paradox. It’s both simple and complex, both comfortable and uncomfortable. Both new and timeless, yet what we’re doing is not unusual, creative individuals have done this kind of work since man starting scratching animal forms on the cave wall with bits of burnt stick and coloured earth. We do it to understand better and enrich ourselves. We do it to make our object more expressive, make, in this case, our chairs more in tune with the simple complexities of the people who sit within them.
But that’s being philosophical, and when Nick says I’ve got to have a fixing here, then I’ve got to make room for a fixing or two. But they had better not show through when I take a whole lot of wood off the front of that component. Nick and I always have a battle about fixings; that’s why I try to keep the joinery on these chairs so simple. Screws, especially modern screws, are incredibly strong. We’d only use this kind of technique with very, very dense hardwood into which the screws can tap there own thread. This enables us to pull the components up yet take them apart several times before final assembly without damaging the integrity of the joint. The beauty of screws with a construction such as this is that they are a mechanical joint that pulls up without the addition of cramps. For those occasions where we can’t quite get a screw in there, Nick will usually put a small dowel to prevent the component from twisting while the glue dries. I always like to have the screws going in from a less visible vantage point, but I don’t worry too much because the screw heads are very carefully plugged. Nick uses a matched pair of drill and plug cutter. The plug cutter cutting a slightly tapered plug that leaves no glue line around the plug so if the wood is carefully chosen for colour, and the figuring of the plug is chosen it can almost invisibly blend in with the colour of the chair.
One is seeking complex interesting forms that don’t appear complex. They appear simple and clean and comprehensible, comfortable. This is where the problem of explaining this comes in cos everything I am saying sounds a paradox.
An alternative for this would be what is called the Parnham fitting A joint if not invented by John Makepeace then certainly developed by students at Parnham. This is another variation on the dowel but utilizing instead of a dowel a piece of threaded bar or rod with epoxy glue to give a mechanical grip on the threads. If you can also get a thread into the timber as well, that’s also to your benefit. The threads shouldn’t be matching as what we’re looking for here is a push-fit with the gaps between the threaded steel and the threaded wood filled with epoxy. The epoxy dries within the thread to create a mechanical joint again, giving immense strength. The benefit of the Parnham joint is that it requires no plugs, so the fixing is therefore invisible. The disadvantage is that it requires very careful clamping as there is no mechanical joint until the epoxy has set. I have also used threaded bar with epoxy within very thin wooden chair components to give them greater strength and rigidity. It may seem like a bit of a cheat, but if it enables one to give that structure a little touch of surprise and tension, then I think it’s a valid technique in bespoke furniture. It wouldn’t work, of course in production because it would be too costly to manufacture.
It seems like at the moment we’re all making chairs in the workshop. John Markovitz is making a prototype for a batch of production chairs that he’ll be showing at a forthcoming exhibition. Buz is making a production prototype for a wood and steel chair which if it comes off will be very beautiful, but we still have worries about how he’s going to achieve the result he wants and whether it will be viable as a production chair. Henry is making a chair for his dad. Just a wonderful sun-lounging, low slung chair destined for a villa in the south of France. Lucky chair!
Having created and jointed up a very satisfactory chair, he now has the problem that we faced at the start of this article. You’ve got nice square-shaped components, Henri wants to make them more interesting. He’s threatening to attack the thing with draw knives, and mechanised wire brushes. I hope he does, the journeys always interesting if at times a little scary.