Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Lot Can be Learned from a Single Miniature

Note; all images in this blog were sourced from the web, Their present location is noted, when known

A couple weeks ago I did an article on chairs; one of the images featured in that article got me to thinking about a lot of other things besides chairs which were revealed in that miniature. This blog posting will examine that one tiny "historiated initial" for some of the many things we can learn about the Middle Ages from it.
British Library, Egerton
MS 809 fol 17r c1100
This post is in a different writing format to that which I am accustomed to using, in hopes of making it easier for the "too busy" people to still have time to read it.

A medieval miniature is not something to be interpreted in a literal way, they are not photographs, nor were they meant to show 20th century viewers what life at the time of their creation "was like"; they were visual cues to the original viewers, who would readily understand their references. In this little illustration are found many examples which can demonstrate this fact.

According to the story, there were 12 disciples present at the Last Supper, yet here only ten are portrayed. From this point alone, we can infer that the artist was not overly concerned with exact details.
Only 10 of the twelve disciples are depicted, but...
Medieval artwork is filled with both symbols and symbolism, Here we find the image of the halo, which was an emblem that evolved over the middle ages, from an emblem showing the sacredness of Christ, to one showing holiness of saints in general. Although there are only 10 disciples portrayed, the artist did include 12 halos to represent all the disciples present; there simply was not enough room to fit them all into the picture.
... there are 12 halos representing all 12 apostles.
Symbolism in art was a semi-fluid phenomenon, what was portrayed in a particular way in one era gave way to a different format in another. In the later middle ages, Judas was always portrayed without an halo, symbolizing his lack of 'saintliness', yet in this miniature we see he has one, at the same time, two other disciples do not. The fact that Judas sits on the opposite side of the table from the other disciples is this artist means of portraying his true outcast status, this became the general formula for most other depictions of this scene in all succeeding centuries of the Middle Ages.
Black arrow pointing out Judas's Halo, two other disciples
with no halo pointed out in yellow
Although Judas is portrayed with an halo,  (Other illustrators had already began omitting his halo by the 12th century) there is a black raven which further symbolizes the evil spirit of Judas's heart. This is, again, a non-literal object in the illustration.
A raven is a medieval symbol of evil

Interpreting the physical objects in this miniature in a literal way also poses many difficulties. 11 men cannot fit on a straight bench and all reach something on a round table, it just is not physically possible. Two dimensional images allow many 'optical illusions'. At the base of the table, we can see the apostles feet on a straight footrest, yet even those on the end are shown as able to reach to the centre of the table.
The arrows point out the footrest which is in front of the
(not pictured, but implied) bench.
(Other versions of this picture actually show a bench too.)

Another difficulty we encounter by trying to use the elements in this image in a literal manner to reconstruct actual objects, would be the chair which Judas occupies. Medieval artists did not have a sense of perspective as is generally now used in artwork to give an illusion of three dimensional-ism, thus we encounter all sorts of problems with arranging the various parts of an objects in a realistic way. The problem this artist got into was one which many artists even today encounter.
By attempting to make the chair fit the form
of the seated occupant, it was necessary to
depict the seat at a slanted angle.
There is an mental conflict of fighting the form we know something has, versus what it appears like when drawn on paper. in this case, the artist knew that a chair seems to slope 'uphill' when viewed, but at the same time, he knows what the profile of the chair looks like, and he knows that it and the table behind it, both rest on a floor which is flat and level, thus he is confused as to how to merge those three concepts into one image. This is a common problem throughout the medieval period, and has tripped up many modern persons attempting to interpret what they see in a painting.
The artist knows that the floor is flat, but he also observes
that the chair seems to slope upwards when viewed
This image of a chair from the website Blood and Sawdust is of very similar form to the one depicted in the miniature, but its legs are thinner and less artfully turned, and the finials are much simpler.

Another interesting point to be made from the observation of this illuminated initial is in reference to the table. Most books and websites referring to medieval furniture will give some version of the idea that "tables were boards set on top of trestles" (many of them were), but here we see a round table with artfully turned legs. Again, this is not a 'plan' to use to make a table from, but it shows a type of table, and the basic form of the legs. The little dots may refer to additional carving or other ornamentation. If we wish to have a better idea of what a table such as the artist had in mind might have looked like, we would need to consult sculptures, columns, relics, and other three dimensional objects with similar forms.
This view points out the turned legs of the table
The following illustration comes from a Carolingian ivory panel, depicting St John, perhaps this is the sort of foot the artist had in mind for the table.
From an ivory panel in the Metropolitan Museum
of Art
Another actual medieval object with this knob and plinth foot detail can be found in the  Residenz M√ľnchen Schatzkammer. This is a late 9th century portable altar from the time of King Arnulf.
Notice that it even has little beads as ornament

The fact that this table is not an anomaly is shown by examining another slightly earlier (and lest artistically accomplished) version of the same scene from a manuscript of about 1050, held in one of the medieval libraries of Switzerland. (from e-codices website Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium Cod. 83 fol 6r)

In this illustration, the legs are
of straight turned  form, but they
also show a swelled foot, very
much like the 'bun' feet of
much 17th century furniture
It is very useful to consult medieval artworks for clues to a bygone age, but it is also very important not to view things with a modern sense of photographic depiction in mind. They must not be interpreted literally, or as 'plans' and 'illustrations' of exact objects. The key here, is that they are only one part of a complex puzzle, and, like a murder mystery, unless one finds all the clues, he will not have a clear idea of "who done it", or in this case, "what it looked like".








Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Advantages of being an artist

This blog site is intended to be about many things related to me and my work. So far I have shown the process of creating a piece, and the various stages of that process. I wrote an article about making things by hand because that is something I am very passionate about; I wish to help spark a larger awareness of the importance of such things for others to share in as well. Last week I wrote about one little element in connection with the subject of furniture in the Middle ages, which is another great interest of mine. This week I want to have something a little less intellectual than that, and decided to share a new project I have, as well as some more about my artistic approach to designing things in general.

Many people who work with wood need plans and even full scale drawings, and if that is what works for them, then that is what they should use. Other people who create historically inspired pieces go to museums or books and copy as best they know how, the piece they have in mind, keeping the original measurements to the millimetre . As an artist, however, I feel a sense of liberty and freedom to be able to do as I wish without having the bother of consulting plans and diagrams in many of my works.

To be sure, if I am making a large cabinet with many parts or a library or some such thing, I will make a scale drawing of the elevation, and perhaps even some of the details, but in simpler projects, such as a box, a chest, a table, or a hanging shelf I may draw nothing more than a sketch or a template for the cut-out shapes I wish to use. Some projects, I have completed with no drawing at all. Below is the sketch I made for the box which is my 'icon' for this blog site, and also the sketch made for the hanging shelf featured in my first posting. (As I showed there, paper templates were also used for the sides and shelves; the carving elements were drawn free-hand on their respective pieces.)
Quick sketch inspired by a box seen
in a photo on the internet
Notice that my "sketch" is actually more of a scribble. I have more than a dozen proper sketchbooks in my possession, but it inevitably seems that none of them are to hand when inspiration strikes! If I am lucky, I find a notebook, otherwise the back of a bank statement or even a piece of wood has to stand in for the sketchbook. (the spontaneity of inspiration!)

The actual box which resulted from the above sketch
Here you can see the process of working as an artist. The sketch was the product of a moment of inspiration, then reality and necessity took over. The proportions were worked out based on the width and thickness of the piece of timber I had available, and were then refined by my own sense of aesthetics. (The entire body of the box was carved out of a solid block which measured 260 x 140 x 70mm thick. I plan to use the core I cut from the centre to make another one at some point in future.)

A similar evolution took place in the making of the hanging shelf.

The original sketch done on the same day
as the previous one
.(hence in the same book)
The sides remained remarkably accurate to my sketch, but at this point the idea of carving a bead around the entire perimeter had not yet occurred to me. There was an addition of a small moulded finial at the bottom of each side as well. The big difference came when I got to the back rails.
Not much about this looks like what
was initially sketched...
(the weather was much more pleasant then!)
This illustrates even better than the box, the artistic license I have, by not being bound by a piece to be copied or by having a full size plan laid out which I must follow. I noticed just now, in comparing these pieces, the same process at work which I use when doing paintings. I get an initial idea, but continue my creative process of refining it as the work progresses. If you look carefully you will also note that in the original idea, the shelf was to have had a square front edge; as work progressed, that seemed too boring, thus the carved edge was added. No carving was intended for the lower rail in the beginning, but by the time all the other enhancements had been done, it was obvious it wanted an upgrade as well.


 This brings me to the topic of my latest commission which has been in the makings since right after my show. A client from Annapolis is in need of a very specific table to suit a particular position in their house. When I visited their home, it was obvious to me that they would need a curved table; not something one encounters on a daily basis. I was happy for the challenge, as I thrive on doing things I have not yet done. Simple and ordinary just doesn't work for me, the more challenging the project, the more I relish it. This table will be a lot of fun
.
So far, we have agreed on the basic dimension and form of it, and also on the overall elements of ornament. I made a life size template of the top, which is shown below. The table will be of renaissance 'draw top' form, which means to say it will have two leaves under the main top which will pull out to extend the length. These extensions will have the same curved form as the main top and therefore I will be making a steaming box to bend the stay bars. Stay tuned...

The template rests on an heart pine table,
one of my 16th century style
 benches rests underneath.
The table will be supported on two vase shaped columns, with carved transverse feet. Because of its curved shape, a conventional 'trestle' stretcher would be quite a challenge to make from timber, the solution occurred to me in the form of Spanish renaissance tables with iron stretchers. This way, the stretcher can be shaped to follow the curvature of the table. I hope the blacksmith sees my vision as clearly as I do, or I will have to put on another of my hats...
From the book; The Encyclopedia of Furniture,
 by Joseph Aronson
This quick sketch below shows the basic idea a little more clearly.
the general form of leg and stretcher
The foot will be carved as a scroll with acanthus leaf on the top and channel gouge carving to the side. The sketch below shows the basic idea for that. Notice again that sketchbook issue of mine.
Foot design
In all, this is a very exciting project and I will enjoy it tremendously, thank you for the commission! 

Stay tuned for updates as it progresses over the next few months.









Sunday, February 8, 2015

Revisiting the chair in history

A couple weeks ago I began re-reading an old book of mine about the "history of English furniture" (which, as usual, begins with the end of the 15th century) by Percy MacQuoid. In book two, The Age of Walnut, chapter IV he commences with the topic of stools in the context of both English and French societies during "the reign of Louis XIV". He states; "Even in ordinary households, (in the context of this book, that would refer to the bourgeois) the use of a chair was by no means yet extended to the younger members of a family". I am constantly coming across publications which express the same basic sentiment in one way or another, but since I have Mr MacQuiod's book here in front of me, I will quote a specific statement from him again. This is from page 29 of book one, The Age of Oak and here he is speaking of an even earlier period. "The number of chairs used throughout the fifteenth and greater part of the sixteenth centuries cannot have been many; settles, benches, stools, and the tops of chests were the most ordinary form of seat, and that the occupation of a chair conferred a considerable amount of authority and caste, is certain. In addition to the personal chairs in a room, it is probable that one or two others were introduced for important guests." Perhaps to a large extent this was true, but there is quite a bit of evidence to bring the notion of that being an empirical truth into serious doubt.

I actually began a paper on this topic several years ago, but it seems that a USB storage device is a lot less reliable than a parchment manuscript, thus my work has apparently become "irretrievable". I do still have most of the images I collected for that paper and wish to make a brief summary of some of my findings in this installment of the blog. You may be surprised at what we uncover!

I have been interested in history and furniture since my teens and was 'brought up' so to speak on the notion that chairs were invented about the end of the middle ages and that until the 18th century few people possessed them and they were always reserved for the most important people of a household, Imagine, then, my surprise when some 20 odd years ago I bought a book on the works of Rogier van der Weyden and discovered this drawing.
Scupstoel, From Masters of  Netherlandish Art
Rogier van der Weyden
2nd quarter 15th c
This was an eye opening revelation because, as you can clearly see here, right in the midst of the heap of three and four legged stools and folding 'X' chairs is a very ordinary looking high backed chair with a form quite similar to that of a "Shaker design", save for the lack of horizontal slats in the back.

From this time I began examining medieval paintings in earnest, looking for clues to furniture designs and found other renderings of chairs as well. In fact, there are so many examples in manuscripts, sculptures and paintings, as well as a few still existing actual pieces, that we can find at least one image of a chair from every century since the 9th. In this article it would be impossible to go into all the types and styles of chairs which came and went during the thousand years of history which we call medieval, nor could we try to sort out the distinctions (if any can actually be drawn from the surviving evidence) of 'chair' versus 'throne' but for the purpose of this argument we will be focusing on unadorned, simple, four legged, high backed chairs of a form than any modern person will readily recognize as such.

As with most types of furniture, we can find the origins of our humble chair form in Egyptian,Greek, and Roman culture; they all apparently had versions of this type of seating, The earliest examples I have found, so far, from the middle ages, are these chairs from an illuminated page in the Bible of Charles the Bald dating from about 845. There are earlier artworks, including various depictions from the 6th and 7th century Insular Gospel evangelist illustrations and Spanish Beatus works, which show chairs of this form, but since these persons are to be considered contextually of the highest esteem, we can not consider their furnishings to be of the 'ordinary' sort. What I am looking for are examples of more important people not in chairs, whilst in the same scene, those of lesser social stature are seated in them; a tall order perhaps, but such examples do exist.
Upper section of an illumination depicting King
David with guards and musicians in a 'Roman Revival'
style. BNF lat 1 fol 215v
In this illustration, King David plays his harp whilst dancing between two of his body guards; four other members of his 'band' (only two are shown here) sit in simple chairs playing their respective instruments. Quite obviously, none of them are of a higher social stature than the king himself. It is also worth noting that these chairs are not large or ornate and therefore should certainly not be construed as "thrones".

As we work our way through the manuscripts from the 9th to the 13th century, we find an abundance of chairs with this same basic shape, The detail of the ornament and construction varies with the times, and the line between 'chair' and 'throne' from our point of view is quite often blurred. As we come to the 12th century, we  find a few actual remaining examples of this form of chair; doubtless they have survived because they have an association with some important historical figure. These existing chairs, then, are not necessarily of the 'common' sort, but that is not to say that simpler forms did not exist, even though some of these so called "bishop's chairs" seem quite simple to our eyes. Many of the manuscripts depict much more ornate examples than those that do survive, clouding the waters of distinction between ordinary and importance further. It is quite probable that what was considered common and rudimentary in a more urban setting was a luxury item for someone in a less materially advanced society such as that of a small town in medieval Sweden. Another point to note is that in later centuries, when we are able to observe multiple levels of refinement in the same basic form, we can see that one could have a very basic, or an highly ornamented version, with the same overall shape. After the 13th century, when there are enough illustrations to give us a wider range of decorative options within a given form, we see this same concept already in effect.
So-called "Bishop's Throne"  from
Husaby Kyrka (church), Sweden 12thc
As previously mentioned, the idea for this study is to question the conventional notion that a chair was always reserved for the most important person in the room. No better illustration can be found to bring that point home than this one from a 12th century German bible in the Egerton Collection of the British Library.
The Last Supper BL Egerton
MS 809 fol 17r
In this scene we find the apostles seated around the table; Judas is depicted occupying a chair, of a very similar design to that of the previous example, on the opposite side of the table away from this companions; this was a convention for illustrating disfavour of him in the eyes of christian culture. The convention of depicting Judas without the halo seems to not yet have occurred to the artist, but he does show a raven, which was a medieval symbol of death and evil, entering the mouth of this ill fated disciple. This scene depicts the moment when Iscariot is preparing to embark on his infamous mission of betrayal. Not exactly a first rate guest to depict in a chair if they are only reserved for the most important.

When we start finding answers, inevitably, we only create more questions; this search for chairs has raised many. Often times it is difficult from the surviving artwork to determine with any certainty the intent of the artist or the implications of the things he depicts in the context of societal norms. It is also impossible to say why any given artist chose to either place an object in a painting, or to leave it out.

 No one knows how many paintings Giotto produced, but there are a fair number of them surviving, mostly in the form of Frescoes. On examining all of the works of his I could find, I noticed only one work in which he portrays an ordinary sort of chair. Why did he not use it more often? or perhaps, why did he use it at all?
Christ washing Peter's feet
Giotto di Bondone c1304

In this painting, depicting an event at the beginning of the same evening as that of our last example, we find Christ kneeling at a basin in the act of attempting to wash Peter's feet, as he sits in a chair. Is the chair here depicted to show the eventual importance of Peter as the founder of the church? One must realize that each of the other disciples would also have their turn in the same chair if we are to think of this as a 'snap-shot' scene. We must realise, however, medieval illustrations are not constructed with our modern sense of illustration in mind, and it is possible that this work contains some deep theological or sociological implication, or it could simply be a matter of the artist's taste and whim.

It should come as no surprise that taste could effect what an artist produced. Taste has always been a driving factor in society, and medieval persons were no different than their modern counterparts in this matter. Just a quick couple of anecdotes to illustrate matters of taste; one can read in the biography of St Eligius that he was fond of adding all sorts of ornaments and jewels to his garments, but we read from the biography of Charlemagne, some 100 odd years later, insisting on simple clothing "not in the Roman style of dress", which, in his time, would have been what we term Byzantine. People have likes and dislikes, and some things interest them more than others, these factors could also have an impact on the elements which an artist decided to put into his work. There is no easier way to see the individuality of an artist's input than to compare many works depicting the same subject. No more widely illustrated subject exists from the medieval period than that of The Annunciation,
Annunciation; Cima da Conegliano
1495
There were thousands of variations of this theme produced in which the Virgin is depicted sitting or kneeling at a desk, a lectern, a cabinet, a bench, or sometimes at no piece of furniture at all. She can be a commoner, rich noblewoman, or a Queen, and the event has been depicted in a bedroom, a vestibule, a courtyard or even in a church. Doubtless some of these elements in certain paintings had ulterior implications, but in some cases, it is my opinion, that it was nothing more than taste, and/or economy on the part of the artist.

 One of the most beautiful paintings from the end of the medieval period is in the National Gallery in London; it is an annunciation scene by Carlo Crivelli. The colours and the architecture of the work are simply exquisite. Through an open window, the Virgin is depicted as a rich noblewoman in a bedroom suite filled with luxurious fabrics, furniture, and domestic objects. The second floor of the opulently decorated house looms over her with its fluted columns and carved capitals, rich Persian carpets drape over the balusters, further emphasising the wealth and status of its occupants. Crivelli did several other versions of this scene and depending on the scale of the scene he was painting, her surroundings tend toward less ornate. A tiny scene in the predella of one of his altarpieces simply shows Mary kneeling before a four sided cabinet of unfinished nailed planks.

Perhaps the use of a chair partially fell to the matter of the sitter simply not wishing to use such a piece of furniture for a said function. Notice in the above illustrated work that no one occupies the chair. It would appear that Mary sits on a bench whilst the chair stands to the side unused. there are several other versions of this scene, by various artists, which also portray an empty chair so this is not an exceptional occurrence. In the aforementioned history of furniture, there is quoted a letter from some two hundred years after the end of the middle ages in which the writer is recalling an incident when the king and his courtiers sat on the floor "because there were no chairs" but earlier, the writer mentioned them all having consumed a dinner but there was no mention of a lack of chairs in the dining hall. It is possible that the writer was actually saying that there were not enough chairs for everyone in the room they were occupying at that moment, so no one used them. In another instance, again from the same book, MacQuiod cites another source from the beginning of the 17th century in which King James I "orders" his chair removed and a bench brought in "like that of all the others seated at the table" Is it possible that people simply liked sitting on benches?

In an early 15th century French miniature Christine de Pizan is depicted presenting her book to the Queen, several of the Queen's ladies in waiting are also present; the scene is set in a bedroom, which was a very normal place to have such a gathering at this time. All the women are either seated on benches, or possibly the cushions are directly on the floor for some of them; the queen sits on a day-bed, which does show some seating hierarchy, but notice that at the back of the room, against the wall, is a chair. This is not the sort of chair we are referring to in our discussion here, but it is a chair, and of a type which apparently could be found in the late medieval bedroom of anyone from the king to the yeomen and burghers. (Many of this type of chair can still be found surviving to this day.)
Christine de Pizan presents her book
c1410 (taken from the web)
No one uses the chair; is this because the arrangement would be too formal were the queen to be seated in it, or does she, like the recently mentioned king, just wish not to use it? As I said, the more answers we get, the more questions we raise. It is also worth pointing out, as I have before, that these illustrations are not "snap shots" and the chair may have been placed there by the artist, simply because it was part of the usual furnishings of a bedroom.

Coming back to our 'ordinary chairs', we find them depicted most often with round legs until the 14th century, after which time they are often (but not always) depicted with squared timbers as in the following interesting illustration. This is an Italian miniature which comes from a treatise on medicine, so it would seem that the two figures in the scene are engaged in the production of something for the apothecary shop. This work is notable for several reasons, not least of which is that it depicts a negro woman who could just as easily have come from Tom Sawyer as from the 15th century. She sits on a chair stirring a pot, whilst the man straddles a bench pounding something in a mortar. The building is quite simple, with unfinished walls and a straw thatched roof; the occupants are quite obviously not well-to-do, yet here sits the woman in a chair very much like our first example and the one from the annunciation; the man occupies a bench.
BNF lat 7939 fol 48r
1458
At the beginning of this article I mentioned the passage from MacQuoid's book in which he was specifically saying that younger people were not permitted to sit in chairs. I took special issue with this statement because I happen to know of at least a few 15th century paintings that show children seated in chairs.


Predella scene; Giovanni Bellini, from the
San Vincenzo-Ferreri Altarpiece
c1464-8
In the above work, an entire crowd is depicted milling about as they listen to an out-of-doors sermon, we see people sitting on benches, the ground, a chest (so yes, people did use chests to sit on if nothing else was conveniently to hand) and there are also depicted, two chairs. Only one person is actually sitting in one, and he is a child. The second chair is being carried by a man, but it is quite obvious, by its proportion, that it too, is intended for a young person. let me repeat; there are two chairs in the entire scene, and both of them are for children.

 Hieronymus Bosch, in his Seven Deadly Sins, of c1501 depicts in the scene of Gluttony, a man seated in a chair similar to these others and a child with his soiled trousers half undone seemingly having just vacated a small chair fit with a pot. It would seem that children had chairs even if Mr Mac Quoid and many others, repeating after him, were completely unaware of the fact. 

How common were chairs? we have no idea, Did people prefer to use benches and stools to chairs? We have no clear answer for that either. Short of coming up with a time machine and going back with a video camera, there will be no way to positively portray most aspects of life and society during the Middle Ages, therefore, few things can be proven with certainty. We have, however, demonstrated that regardless of the prevalence of ordinary chairs, they did exist, and, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, it was not always the most important person who sat in them. The more research we do on the Middle Ages, the less "dark" they inevitably become. 

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Here are a couple more pictures which I had intended to use, but wanted to shorten the article so they are not included in the main text.
The Holly Family, from the Hours of Catherine
of Cleves. c1440 Morgan Library
In this miniature, Mary nurses the infant Christ in a very homely scene set in a Flemish burgher's interior. (18 years ago I constructed a cabinet inspired by this illustration)
Scenes of the life of St Nicolas, Gentile da Fabriano
c1425 (sourced from the web)
In this scene we find almost the exact same chair as the previous example. Notice that both of these are of even lighter construction than the other examples used in this article, Also note that one illustration is from the Netherlands, the other from Italy, showing a wide distribution of such form.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Why hand made objects are still relevant in today's world.

Cornice carved from the solid
In a world of computers, electronic gadgets and an "app" to do just about anything, many people probably wonder why anyone should care about those who still insist on making things with the slow and deliberate art of hand-craft.I often encounter some version of the following statement; "Hey, this is the twentieth century, there are machines which can do that in half a minute, why would you want to take an hour to do it?" 

I will use this posting to make an argument as to why, with all the gadgets and robots making nearly everything we use, hand crafting things is now more important than ever before.

Once upon a time, everything was made by hand, and the manufacture of those things was very labour intensive. In fact, many tasks were so time consuming that people very quickly conceived mechanical means to assist them in the work they were doing, thus the lathe and the potters wheel were invented long before recorded history could tell us anything about their origins or early development. As time progressed, people continuously developed new methods to improve both the quality and economy of producing objects. The plane is an invention which made the smoothing of timbers much faster and more even than could be achieved by an adze, hatchet or chisel in a much more efficient means. No sooner the plane was invented then people set about devising new ways of making it work better.  

This brings to bear the first argument for the retention and promotion of handcrafts long after anyone needs to use them strictly for the purpose of utility. Every tool and machine in existence today has a very direct and continuous evolution from the stone age to our own, and owes its being to the manifold generations of artisans and craftspeople who, through the constant grind of the millennia, have slowly developed upon the work of their predecessors to arrive at what we call today "modern". I have lived long enough to see things which i once thought to be so spectacularly modern, to the point of looking futuristic, now being rather dated and outmoded. The Audi 100/200 series from the early 80's would be a classic example of this, along with the CD which, though spectacularly 'modern' in 1982 is nearly obsolete (sadly) now. (Hey, one good thing is that vinyl is having a come-back!) By maintaining the use and existence of hand tools, future generations can gain actual experiential knowledge into that long and slow evolution, and can visualize the impact it has had on the shaping of our world. By observing things from the past we can better realize that what we call 'modern' today will also pass into the world of antiquities in time. At no point in history have people ever really thought of themselves as anything but modern!

My second argument for the retention of the handcrafts would be that in a world where everything is so automated and digitized, having a personal encounter with the art of creation is perhaps akin to a spiritual experience. We have all heard of kids who, in answer to the question of the origins of our food, have only the answer of the supermarket. To follow in that trend, doubtless the origins of furniture, then , is Ikea. People would benefit greatly from watching a traditional cabinet maker at work at his bench, To see the shavings curling out from his plane, to observe flower and leaf emerge from their hiding amongst the grains of the timber under the skilled carver as he wields his gouges, or to see the whorl and curl of figured wood spring to life with the careful rubbing of the polisher leaves an experience never to be forgotten. 

Machine carved broken pediment

Hand carved broken pediment
notice the subtle faceting which
lends character to the piece


Things made by hand have character, character leads to personalization which lends intangible value to an object. A chest bought from the corner furniture store is nothing more than an exchange of 100 or 1000 dollars; a chest made by uncle Hans is something special to be shared with others and passed on to future generation. If you were lucky enough to watch that uncle create said chest, then you also now have a story and some great memories to go along with that very special piece of furniture. At a time when people need constant change to keep their attention, i have seen kids stand watching me work until the parent pulled them away. There is a natural internal connection we humans have with the art of creating something, because this is something unique to us as a species. Watching a CNC machine spitting out parts at five per minute does not connect with our psyche in the same way.

My third argument would be on a more subjective note, but one which i still believe has great merit; this is to address the aspect of appearance. A tree has a soul, (in my opinion) and that soul can still live on under the care and guidance of a skilled artisan. Though the tree no longer grows, still the wood can remain alive and impart its warmth and charm for generations to come when worked with skill, heart and spirit. No tree grows with laser strait lines, and dead flat surfaces; furniture which has these characteristics, in my opinion at least, are completely devoid of character. (All the thousands of cherished antiques around the world seem to back me up on this as well) A piece of furniture with subtle undulations and inconsistencies gives evidence of someone taking up the challenge of creating a piece of lasting beauty from an ambiguous piece of raw material and mastering his skill and control of mind over matter; the minor imperfections remind us of the human condition that though we can never attain perfection, we must always strive for it or our work will seem inconsequential and devoid of lasting worth.

So, my fellow woodworkers who share my love of the hand-made. Here is to many more years of teaching the world there is something of value beyond a gadget which is destined to be obsolete five minutes after it was purchased! Keep the faith! 
Hanging candle-box
oak with inlays