Before embarking on a career in architecture, I worked for many years as a cabinet maker, creating traditional pieces of domestic furniture from a variety of timber species ranging from the softwoods of spruce, pine and redwood through to the more challenging hardwoods of oak, ash and cherry. My father was a joiner before me, and built the most amazingly elaborate staircases, quarter panel doors and traditional sliding sash windows for local period homes. I grew up in awe of his creativity, at the process of assembly and how a pair of hands could turn a once living tree into a masterpiece of construction.
As an architect now it is perhaps not surprising then that an inspiring thought for me is one of the ideals promoted by John Ruskin, which is that the ‘designer’ should make and the ‘maker’ should design. This idea is as pertinent for me now in our established modern world of digital technology and mass production as it was for the Romantics of Ruskin’s generation at the dawn of Modernity and the Industrial Revolution. For me, creativity is enhanced by a physical understanding of the material, and this is best achieved by working with it. Of equal importance to this statement is the counterpoint, which is that an academic understanding of the philosophies of design will also enhance the process of making, and I think that when these two approaches align, a synergy of ‘design’ and ‘making’, something magic happens and truly beautiful things are made.
Perhaps one of the easiest fields in which to see this in action is that of furniture design, and with this in mind we recently took a trip to the workshop of Ooma Design (http://www.oomadesign.com) and met its proprietor, John Griffiths, an architecturally-trained furniture maker working out of a beautiful workshop in Corsham, Wiltshire.
What I enjoy about the work of people like John is this unification of ‘design’ and ‘making’ as expressed through one person, the ‘designer-maker’, very much akin to the ideals of Ruskin I described earlier. As architects of course, we are all too familiar with the division between design and construction, but perhaps furniture is the closest medium to our profession in terms of scale, where we can witness at first hand the unification of these 2 processes. The ultimate function of furniture is to serve the ergonomics of the human form, and as such will always remain human scale. With this scale comes the ability of the designer-maker to take ownership of the entire creative process from design through to completion via material selection, fabrication, assembly and finishing. The scale of furniture, as opposed to architecture for example, allows one person to ‘create’ something in its entirety. Unlike the making of buildings, in the world of furniture the division between design and construction is not strictly necessary.
As a result, and what I find interesting, is what happens creatively when the ‘designer’ makes, and the ‘maker’ designs in one process. By physically working with timber for example, the human senses connect with the material during the making process, and the designer-maker takes on a deep and profound understanding of the physical properties of that material. This physical understanding inevitably informs the academic design process in a circular loop of information exchange between the various stages of creation. ‘Weight’ is a good example. Constantly lifting and moving different timbers around the workshop, the designer-maker becomes acutely aware of the relationship between material, scale, density and weight. So when designing, the designer-maker is aware of the relationship between the thickness of a door or a lid, it’s size and the associated ‘feel’ of that component. Other human senses such as sound, touch and even smell are also informed by this connection with the material through making. The sound of knocking a piece of oak, or the feel of fingertips over course end grain versus smooth tangential grain, or the range of smells that emanate from different species of timber and applied polishes or finishes. It is direct, not abstracted, relationships like these that I think inform and enhance the creative process and benefit the end product as a result. Separate the design from the making, and the lone designer can only understand these qualities through an abstracted academic understanding of the material that lacks a physical connection, and the end product risks dilution as a result.
John’s workshop was fitted out with the most beautiful items of bespoke fitted furniture that clearly demonstrate this meeting of architectural thinking and furniture making; sliding doors that reveal hidden staircases to mezzanine levels, flush cupboards and drawers that reveal homes for a vast array of well-loved tools, all laid out like a surgeon’s table before an operation. The whole lot so clean and tidy that you could be mistaken for thinking it was primarily a design studio, not a workshop, and perhaps this is not surprising given John’s background. His workshop represents the meeting of these 2 worlds; a collection of furniture-scaled pieces of architecture (or architecturally-scaled pieces of furniture?). For me, this synergy represents the meeting of the body and the mind; the academic process of design combined holistically with the physical process of making. As a result, John and his amazing workshop represent for me the ideal metaphor for the process of ‘creating’ in the truest sense of the word.