Designing and executing something creative for someone is a curious process. Stressful and curious.
Being still relatively new to woodworking, most of the stuff I've built has been motivated by needs I have or my own whims to create. Often there is both a pragmatic bent into which I convolve some decorative and technical elements of woodworking. There's little fear of getting things too wrong since as long as it functions in the end and looks better than Target or Ikea furniture (sorry, canonical examples...) I'll call it a success. Similarly, there's little pressure if you have something built and someone takes a look at it, likes it and offers to buy it. But when someone is going to invest money in you, your ideas, without ever seeing something first, well that's a bit of a different story.
Considering furniture, thus far I've built a couple of tables, a "desk" (the computer desk on which I'm currently writing this), a headboard, and am halfway through a chair. The only thing I've been paid to build was the headboard, which was also the only thing that I didn't design from the ground up since Ally knew very clearly what she wanted. The headboard was also far enough outside of my normal "style" of woodworking that I wouldn't even add it to a portfolio. Everything else I'm incredibly pleased with, would be happy to show to anyone, and the general feedback I've gotten has been very positive. So it's all good right?
I've been wringing my hands lately over the design of a bookshelf I offered to build for a friend. Ok, not just a friend, the woman who I've been seeing and am quite taken with (but don't tell her I said that...). I think part of the hand-wringing can be attributed to *really* not wanting to screw things up, but the bulk of it is just having to face the reality of disappointing someone or failure.
Quite a bit of time has passed since I've engaged in a truly "creative" endeavor where my creativity and skill were being laid on the line for someone else to evaluate. What's more is that I've never really done that with money involved, which, while I wish it didn't, adds a pressure that is just a reality that exists. In fact, I don't think I've ever quite done anything like this, and of course, the person for whom I'm building it doesn't add ANY pressure to the situation... right? hah!
I am not a designer. I hope one day that woodworking and design flow very naturally into one another for me, but up to this point, I'm still very fresh faced and just trying to find my way. When I survey across the landscape of woodworking that I see right now, it's staggering how many beautiful pieces and talented folks there are. Since I am neither an accomplished woodworker or designer, I find myself asking "what can I bring to the table that no one else out there can?" Sure I can cook up decorative designs, simple and streamlines pieces, heavy and rustic tables, but just building a piece of furniture isn't really what drives me to want to be involved in this world.
Wharton Esherick was a sculptor, artist, designer, furniture-maker who worked primarily in wood that I think really got it "right." While there aren't particularly many pieces of his furniture I would want in my home, he made many of his pieces with not only the space into which it was going in mind, but also the person for whom it was meant and purpose for which it was intended. The pieces were unique, artistic, creative, well-executed and well-built. While my particular tastes in furniture aesthetic may be different, those are goals that I would like to achieve in the things I build.
In trying to come up with a design for this bookshelf, I have vacillated between simple, complex, asymmetrical, precise, live-edge, straight boards, joined, mitered, and any other adjectives you can possibly come up with to describe a bookshelf. Mostly, I just want to build a solid, beautiful piece of furniture that would feel right in most spaces. Truthfully, at the same time I really want to try and capture the person for whom it is intended, as well imbue it with a little bit of my own "personality" in furniture design.
At this point, you're definitely thinking "he's overthinking it," but truthfully, I'm going to push back and say no. Ok, well, a little, but not entirely. One can go online these days to Etsy or Pinterest and find a thousand pieces of furniture that will serve your needs and are well built, but there's no inherent character or personality in 95% of them. I could churn out furniture (ok, not "churn" out since I have two other jobs, but could make a lot more than I do) if I just bough slabs of wood, finished them and then screwed some metal legs into the bottom of them and called them rustic, reclaimed, hand-built, live-edge wooden furniture. But what's the point of grinding through like that when I'm doing it for my enrichment as much as anything else? For me, that would rob this whole process of value and I'd rather quit than do it.
If I'm building something for someone I can't help but ask what I can give them that no one else can, and also, what can wood give them that no other material can? What are the properties of the woods that get used and how does that affect construction and meaning? Are the joints unique and what personality do they have? Are all of the angles in the construction square; if not, why? Not all of this needs to get relayed to the person receiving the piece (and most likely won't lest I truly sound like a crazy person), but I believe that it affects the final product. In the stuff I build, I would like the details to have intent, whether pragmatic, construction-related, or decorative and while I don't want to kill folks with artificial levels of "meaning," I do want there to be a depth they couldn't get from anyone else. Even if it doesnt necessarily get seen, I believe it gets felt in the finished product.
Daniel Miller is a metal smith and a close family friend whose work is astonishing. On top of the pure aesthetic complexity and beauty he achieves, there is also tremendous skill and mastery of his craft. Everything he does has incredible levels of meaning and depth and to hear him discuss his work is to truly appreciate a piece that has had thought put into every detail present. His work is my ideal, albeit in a different medium. I won't talk too much about it, but I hope that you'll go check it out to get a sense of what I'm talking about. I will add that even the grain of the metal he uses is intentional. (Did you even know that metal can have grain? :-)) Search the names of some of his pieces too to get a little more information about the story each one tells.
Finally, since just about this whole post has been about woodworking, here's a little sculpture I finished up the other night. I give it a 3.5/5. I'm happy with it, but it's not quite as well executed as I had hoped. I've photographed it from the side I like the most, so it's a somewhat biased representation of the actual piece, but yeah. Hope you like it. :-)