Monday, June 05, 2006

Disregard the Man Behind the Curtain

I realize that it's not readily apparent from reading my paeans to seventies pop musicians, but I make furniture. It's a tangible art, like architecture, and has certain limitations, which to me make it more interesting.

You see, art isn't supposed to have limitations any more. Limitations are considered stultifying and constricting -- square. And so we have stories that tell you nothing -- comic books are now graphic novels; movies are just a bunch of stuff that happened, with explosions and murders to hold your attention; television is nothing more than a catalog of human discontents; the painting world has decided to hang the dropcloths on the wall; and the man on the corner muttering to himself isn't a bum any more, he's a performance artist.

But it's the limitations that define the accomplishment. If your only limitation is your own mind, then you easily slip into the most constricting of modes: I'll shock everybody! I'll say doody poopy! at a funeral. I'll wear my underwear on the outside of my clothes. I'll eat the paint and puke it on the canvas. There will be religious icons smeared with bathroom offal, oh yeah. I will scream singsong expletives at a volume that will make the microphone superfluous --in a love song.

Yawn. If your approach is simply a sort of artistic palindrome -- by that I mean you just do the opposite of the people you consider squares, you're just as square as they are, but you've added another layer of being derivative; that's it.

Furniture shouldn't be a kind of joke. It has to function in the real world. There is an enormous industry of Art Furniture loose in the world. They make furniture that looks hostile -- and is-- or alternately, looks supple and sinuous, but hurts your butt endlessly anyway. The entire industry seems to be entirely made up of both producers and consumers trying desperately to empty out their trust funds. It is a closed circuit, however; the money keeps going around and around, never achieving the thrust necesssary to escape the gravitaional pull of the atelier. They all wear funny glasses however, maybe that's where the real money is to be made. But I'm not an optometrist.

But the "citizen soldier" of the tangible arts is hard to find too. If you are unaffected by the urge to call yourself an artiste, you are likely prone to making gun cabinets out of nasty stringy oak and stained early american; nothing stylish please. So they're of doubtful utility too. When I visit the furniture stores, where real people shop for things to plop their butt on, the utmost facet of the design process always seems too prominent to me: the furniture has pastiche postmodern affectations of a certain style, or several styles mixed together, but the overriding concern with the needs of the factory not the user shape the furniture to the point where it looks more like the box furniture should come in than the furniture itself. And for all these reasons, people like me plug away at making things that aren't a sort of thing, they are the thing itself.

It wasn't always this way. Pattern books were published by the directors of furniture making shops, outlining their approach, along with copious examples of what they were doing. Proportion, style, method of construction --it was all there, and even if you didn't read very well, you could take the measurements right off the drawing and get to work. I still have and use many of these pattern books, written by men whose names you instantly recognize: Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Sheraton, Stickley. You can learn a lot by pawing through architectural books by the likes of Vitruvius and Palladio too. The aforementioned furniture designers certainly did.

I stick to Vitruvius' three legged stool of design elements, the three things that must be satisfied if you are going to make a piece of furniture that's a success: Commodity, Firmness, and Delight.
By that he means: ask yourself: Is it comfortable enough, is it strong enough, is it beautiful enough?

One leg of this "stool," sometimes two, is missing from your average piece of furniture. In the Art Furniture world, occasionally someone hits the trifecta and misses wide of the mark and mucks up all three aspects. He or she usually gets showered with awards and has really unusual frames on their glasses. Someone that lives in a Corbusier house writes them a big fat check, and the circle of trust fund life is unbroken.

I'm going to design a piece of furniture this week, as the catalog is getting ready for more items. I thought you'd be interested in how that happens. What the hell else would I write about anyway? Do you want me to link to a video of Eric Carmen and the Raspberries from 1975? OK, maybe next week.

Anyway, I'll tell you how I do it, and show you how it turns out; and when it's done, you can tell me: Is it commodious, is it sturdy, and is it delightful?


Pogo said...

Wonderful description. It remiinds me how Tom Wolfe had decribed modern art: if alot of people (the masses) just hated it, well, it must be great.

A friend of mine who teaches at a school of graphic design tells me about the "hand wavers", as he calls them, the artists who no longer make anything at all, but simply talk about the concept alone. In fact, they have begun to separate themselves from those lowly beasts who actually create a painting or sculpture (having long past shed themselves of -ugh- craftsmen).

How inferior were the Athenians and their stupid temples. Why, for years to come, we're sure to discuss the performance artists whose oeuvre belong to the ages.

SippicanCottage said...

"Hand wavers" is a wonderful image.