Writer’s Block

April 23, 2009

Design is a curious animal. It is part ape and part peacock. Made up of disparate elements like the griffin or the minotaur. A dash of beast, a dash of human. Part inspiration, part intellect. It looks for the muse and yet feeds off history. It requires fresh thinking and needs the compost of experience to thrive.

So much of what we do as designers revolves around this paradox. I think perhaps the paradox is the cause of the writers block or the blank canvas. How in the world do I create something new when all I can think of is all I’ve seen or heard or read before? I am the culmination of my experiences and therefore must by definition spit out something old, something borrowed. And how can I do this and put my name upon it and call it my own? I think the block comes from a sense of shame that not an original thought has ever emerged from one’s head. It silences one.

This blockage comes as well from a sense that A) Sister Mary Aloysius was the seed of all my thoughts about literature or was it B) James Joyce and his buddies thus making it doubly difficult to say to the world: look at what I have wrought. It is almost impossible to do this without at least a smirk of recognition or a sigh of resign. And yet, and yet it’s the best of the artists among us who do this with no sense of impropriety but with the bravado of the narcissist. They truly believe they are original and act without a sense of self-consciousness. This is freedom.

This notion of freedom then is one that we think is so important for creation. A creative mind needs freedom to express itself. Freedom to do whatever it wants and call it one’s own creation. But consider a contrary notion: that creation actually thrives better under constraints. That a fecund mind works better when given limits, boundaries, difficulties, obstacles to overcome, than when given unlimited freedom.

For with freedom comes a certain terror. It is the mockery of the sketch book, limitless with its whiteness. The steppes at least have oceans to bound them. A blank page, the white canvas, is a rebuke, a taunt, a gauntlet thrown down before an unworthy adversary. How do you fill up something this potent with your meager thoughts?

I know I have trembled before the thought: do whatever you like. Don’t say this! Don’t give me freedom! Point me somewhere, tell me not to step off the ledge, give me some purpose to this meandering. Set me straight, tell me to fix on that tree in the distance, keep the river on your left, or make it fit that space but give me three drawers.

Creation needs boundaries sometimes, restraint. Only in this way does it find its pace, its willingness to play. Coltrane needed The Sound of Music to riff off. A bass line to lay down a pattern to stand on and a melody to take off from. “Play anything” and you push from shore and you drift. Oh you may make something that has merit to it, but often it’s aimless, it’s formless.

Give the designer limits and now these boundaries free up the mind. In discussion with one of my Mastery students, I posited that in designing a piece of furniture you had more of a sense of freedom if you were given some restrictions. Some limits to the canvas rather than saying: do whatever you want. Evocative prohibitions is how a writer I know put it. Try a design with nine legs this time or a pedestal base. Does it work better? Does it make you work harder? This is good. Does it perhaps give you other ideas? This is it then. This is the purpose of constraint. It forces us into a canyon. It pushes us, volume and pressure working together, it pushes us one way and while we’re doing that, we see the other side of the wall. Somehow we can imagine the greener grass better by virtue of the fence. It pushes us in strange ways, these restrictions. They push us to work in one manner, one fashion and by doing so, allow us the freedom to imagine what if.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at www.northwestwoodworking.com.

Published in: on April 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm  Comments (3)  

The Studio’s Bail-out

April 1, 2009

I am sorry. Sorry for fooling you in the past. Sorry for taking up your valuable time and eyeball energy. It was selfish of me and I now apologize. For your time is quite valuable. There are only moments before you will grow old and here I have helped you waste your time reading trivialities. No more. This I promise you. No more. From here on I will waste no one’s time reading trivialities on a screen. You have better things to do than that. Surely.

No, my time won’t be spent in trickery any longer. No you won’t be fooled again as that famous philosopher, now philanderer, once put it. You have been played for a fool and you won’t be fooled. I am the fool to think so. And so there is no fooling you this year. I fool myself if I believe I could fool you and so I must tell you that I could not fool with you. It is not the time for foolery. We are embarked on a rare journey and nothing short of cold hard honest facts will do. No trickery, no chicanery. No, no, no. Just the facts ma’am. No foolin’.

As we, the royal Studio and its inhabitants, enters its 13th year of existence, first we must stop to gasp at the thought. It is frightening yes? So much time, so quickly passed. Didn’t this just begin? But it’s been a good run filled with hours of delight as we watch students put clamps back in odd positions. As we see them putting blades on backwards on the table saw. [The billowing smoke during a cut is always a sure give away.] As we spy knowledge growing, we reflect that it’s been a good run.

It gives us time to reflect, time to pause, time to count our many splinters, our blessings and again our splinters, because we spend so much time reflecting on our woes and not our happy ways. Our way is clear today, to make way for the new. So it is time to introduce our new efforts, our new direction. When the going gets tough, the tough generally head to Congress for help. But not the Studio. Oh no. We are made of far sterner stuff.

Now these are difficult times. We all know this. We all know too that only the largest companies will be bailed out. Only the greatest fools will get help from our elected fools. The small concerns will remain just that. Concerned as to how to pay the rent and how to keep the machines running and how to keep people working and how to stay in business. But we ask for no hand-outs here. We will take no hand-outs. We will certainly be given no hand-outs.

I have instead devised a plan. When the students dry up, when education becomes a footnote, when all else fails, I have a plan. New work! A line of furniture certain to please, certain to sell, and certainly noteworthy. Take note.

A reader once wrote in and asked me about a bed design I had made some years previous. He wrote: “Your Arts and Crafts bed uses 1″ slats, and if I recall properly they were poplar. Have they held up over the years? Any bowing? Would you just flip them over periodically?”

“I’m making beds for the boys and they don’t have box springs, just mattresses. Now you would think that two well-behaved boys such as these would rest gently in their beds. You would be wrong. Thoughts?”

I did give this considerable thought before replying. But in the reply I realized that I had stumbled across something far bigger than a mere reply. I had come up with my own bail-out plan. The plan to bail out the Studio! It was fool proof and so appropriate for me. Children’s furniture has always been a market to investigate. In my unwitting answer, I had found the wit to help save the Studio. Here it twas: Steel Rebar!

I replied thus: “In my opinion, concrete unless properly reinforced with 1″ rebar is just sufficiently stiff enough to handle two growing boys. Oftentimes we suggest, live bamboo shoots growing up through a mattress as they provide the boys with that element of danger so important for a quiet night. But in the end only the parents can determine how many forests of poplar they are willing to destroy in order to keep their boys off the floor. For my own use, I have found 1″ poplar a sufficiency, but 1″ rebar is a far better solution particularly where young and growing boys are involved. If you want true strength, then you, my friend, want rebar!”

I had hit upon it, furniture for youth! Perhaps even the young at heart or the acrobatically inclined in the night. Unbreakable furniture! Indestructible! Of course my epoxy bill would go sky high, but what matter? I would be making furniture that would last three lifetimes. In the year 2250, they would be admiring my work still, the rebar unbent by use. Hidden inside pillars of wood, these stalwart rods would support my work, thwart heedless furniture restorers, and give work to thousands of steel workers around the world. We would make all our furniture with steel rebar and quality would be our backbone. We could hide the rebar deep in the legs and aprons of tables, hide the rebar in the backs and sides of cabinets, stealth the rebar in the bottoms of drawers and in the arms of chairs. Our rockers would rock on steel rebar bent laminated with walnut.

Now, I know this may sound a bit strange coming from a woodworker and all. But in truth it is merely an evolution. A recognition of value, of strength, and of limits. What bed could withstand two bouncing boys except one built with rebar? Wood alone is not sufficient. Double half gainers with a shove by a brother require more than wood. They require Rebar! Therefore our class offerings will reflect this new approach and I believe soon to be national trend. Do I see a magazine in the offing, in the distance?

Classes will be offered in identifying and drying rebar, carrying steel rebar, where to place your feet when dumping a load of rebar on the floor, tying off rebar, and rebar lore and history. These are fascinating and useful skills. And I see new areas, new pathways open up to the Studio like never before. We could be working with imported rebar and locally made or reclaimed rebar! Green rebar, sustainable rebar! Rebar knickknacks and carvings reinforced with rebar! It is truly a new era. A new dawn. How to hide your rebar so it looks feathery light. Where to place rebar for the best effect. Chamfering rebar, bending rebar [oh this one will fly], creating rebar structures to be covered by fabric or! Rice paper. These are ideas that will help the Studio and build furniture for the ages. A new way! One filled with steel rebar but shining brightly. I hope you’ll join us in this new endeavor as we build for the future and beyond.

To think. All this from a simple letter. And yet inspiration can strike whenever you’re bending over and not looking.

Signed, Your April Fool

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at www.northwestwoodworking.com.

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 4:17 am  Comments (4)