Japan Crime

Do not be fooled, I’m a Japanophile. It’s as you suspected. I haven’t been caught yet, though. I’ve been lurking furtively behind the facade of all these other design styles.

“That small, still space at the core, that’s a Japanese style!”, you accuse. “No!” I cry. “It’s Prairie. Can’t you see? That’s the starkness of the high plains you’re looking at!” That unadorned plank, flat and featureless, without ornament, you say? No, silly, anyone knows that’s Mission. That salt-of-the-earth peasant simplicity? Nope, sorry. Shaker. The perfect trio of tall-thin, middle-round, low-flat rocks? Look again, buddy, that’s Craftsman style. That reverent homage to history, to tradition? Nope. Colonial, dude.

It’s worked pretty well for me all these years, too, because every one of these other styles has one aspect or another that points across the Hokusai waves, often with that same reverent homage, to the Land of the Rising Sun. That’s true whether the style was influenced by contact with the Japanese or not. Maybe this is because in their separate attempts to assault the pinnacles of function, truth and beauty, most design styles begin at the base of the same mountain: mother Nature.

The art is not beautiful to us in spite of the fact that it’s also functional, but because of it. The function is the generator of the beauty. The perfect fitting of the thing, into its purpose, is indeed what makes it so much fun to behold. The Maserati that fits like a sports glove, the hand-comfortable ink pen, the perfect tea pot, only make us say “wow” in artistic delight because they friggin’ work. Even the ornamentation is in thrall and reverence to the purpose of the craft, the boat, the vessel: that of being a companion. Anything further is preening, pretention or bad salesmanship.

It may be that I can live in hiding here for years, if I want, and the authorities will just have to build a case. Anytime I can be linked by DNA back to the Japanese, I’ll point to one these other bad guys. No one will ever know. But always, probably, there’ll be these little hints, tantalysing glimpses of the Japase style in some honey-colored molding on the corner of a drawer, glinting in a laser of sunlight like a sprite, then darting off to another focus before it has fully registered on you. But you know you saw it. When you look back, you find it has melted away into the fastness of forest and you’re alone in the clearing, looking at the same Craftsman style dresser you’ve had for thirty years.

Perhaps it’s because Japanese isn’t so much a style as a set of principles. As they say in the military, you can fight an enemy but you can’t fight a tactic. If somebody wants to pick up a style and use it, who am I to object? If they want to borrow it, it’s only because it works. So the Japanese have been honing this stuff for five thousand years? They deserve a patent? I could be jealous of all they’ve created. Or I could just borrow some of their magic and start using the wand myself.

Oh, my editor here says, “Don’t leave out the Swedish! The English?”. What about them? Louis IV, Chippendale, California Craftsman, Bauhaus, post-modern, early American…they’re all great. I love ’em. They’re all just religions, and they’re all saying the same things. And they’re all correct.

Just listen.

So please don’t turn me in. The bounty money’s great, but think of the greater community. Think of the children, widows, elderly, who will never glimpse the incredible flowerings of the Japanese spirit, or discover the satisfaction of distilling the very essence of nature into their craft — or experience the simple joy of having such nice stuff around the house. Think of the future, and let me live.

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Thankful Memorial Day

I think this Memorial Day of my father. It’s not only because of his Navy service during World War II, though that is the usual reason. He survived the war and came back home to have me and my sister, and to bind his life with ours. Many of the most memorable times I had with my dad involved one form of building or another. An engineer during the war, he stayed in that field after he left the service.

His favorite part of engineering wasn’t the math of stresses and loads and materials (though he did love that), or the thoughtful application of engineering to make everyday products for retail or industry, but the sheet delight of building stuff. He had an intuitive sense of how the materials behaved, how the physics applied, how things interacted, and he just used the math and experimentation when he needed them to confirm his own suspicions. And when something didn’t behave the way he expected, he didn’t get mad or frustrated, or spend any energy in dead-end solutions or kick-me-I’m-stupid recriminations.

The secret? When something didn’t coincide with his expectations, that was actually the very very most funnest part! When the system broke or wouldn’t start, he would apply his math and his science and his intuition to figure out exactly why the furschliginner thing was misbehaving. He kept at it doggedly until it yielded up its reasons. And once he found them, that solution, and the deeper understandings that it led to, were what truly lit his fire.

I know he he passed much of this on to me, before he passed on himself. In my shop, I’m lucky enough to a have a bench with tools that he used, and I use it every day myself. Sometimes when I do, I feel as if I’m placing my hand on his, and letting him help me, with his childlike wonder and his fascination and his impatience to go have some fun, figure the furschliginner thing out.

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I don,t make mistakes

Or, as I’ve heard it said, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. So I guess I only make opportunities.

Regardless, mistakes seem to me to be a fact of life. We might do all we can to avoid them, but here they come, anyway.

There are different types of mistakes. The most obvious is what I’ll call a mistake of idiocy: you use your best skills to do the wrong thing really well. In other words, a mistake of planning. You meant to put the door on right-side up, plumb and level, and you did. But while you attention was on that, you forgot to check that the correct side was facing out. A mistake. Might as well start repairing it now.

Then there are the mistakes of execution: a slip of the wrist for a carver, who then bites a little deeper with the gouge, and cuts into some of his “shape I see in my mind” within the stone. He can’t put it back. Or a hand plane hits an unexpected change in grain direction, and tears out a neat little irreplaceable divot in the perfect surface of a tabletop. You meant to do one thing, but through your fault, or another’s fault, or no fault, the universe decrees that, lo, this other thing shall instead be done. And there it sits staring at you. Might as well start repairing it now.

Those are my least favorite mistakes.

There are all kinds of ways to “repair” mistakes, and the more mistakes you make, the more ways you get to learn. You realize it’s a gradient, from the lucky easily-fixed mistakes, all the way up to doing over the entire piece from the beginning. The good news is, at least there IS always a way to repair them, even if it means total replacement. There’s a grim sort of satisfaction in that: you can’t possibly fail.

Might as well start repairing it now.

But it seems to me there are other kinds of mistakes that do not to fall into these categories: I’ll call them mistakes of intention. The work is going perfectly well, everything is going as planned, but you suddenly realize something’s not right about the whole project. I don’t usually realize I’ve made these kinds of mistakes until halfway through a project. Perhaps I planned to make a comfortable desk for writing — but suddenly realize I’ve made the size too small to fit a chair underneath the desktop. Is the project ruined? Well, kind of, sort of…well, yes. if it makes the desk uncomfortable to use.

These are my favorite kind of mistakes. This is not because I like them, but the mistake, if it does its job, demonstrates the way to improve the design…you step back and look at the larger picture, and realize that if you just proceeded THIS way instead of that way, the design would work. And work better. And you’d entirely avoid the situation that led to the mistake. You correct the system instead of applying lotion to the symptom. You re-think the whole process. You’re more efficient, more productive, and the whole experience is just a little more fun.

But here is my all-time favorite type of mistake: you think you really screw up doing some part of the job: you ruin a special panel, or accidentally cut a joint backwards, or cut a piece of wood the wrong size, and you think: “That’s it. It’s ruined.” But then you step back. You look at it again, in light of what you’ll have to fix, and you realize you just made it better! Maybe the panel didn’t look as good as another one you had in reserve. Maybe the piece looks better with the joint facing the other direction. Maybe the wood size is actually more pleasing than the size you would’ve used.

Maybe I subconsciously wanted to make the mistake, knowing it would improve things. Who knows? But this has happened to me, about one in a hundred mistakes. A gift from the gods.

Just in time. Now you get to make whole new mistakes!

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Father’s Day

I was thinking about my dad this last Father’s Day. It is always a bittersweet day, because he’s not here to share it with me–he passed away in 1993–but I know that I got my love of building things from him. He wasn’t a builder by profession, instead a physicist; but he had a love of building things that found outlets everywhere else in his life. He was often to be found in his shop creating some unique and interesting thing, from metalworking to fiberglass and epoxy to woodwork to machining–or to a vintage “gangster” car with the full round seats in the back, that he restored to better than new. We called it “The Grey Ghost”. I remember him pointing out to me how he’d hollowed out the dashboard where the letter “O” from “Overdrive” was imprinted, and how you couldn’t tell unless it was lit, but it now housed the oil pressure light. He upgraded the mechanics to the modern day but, by golly, he didn’t change the look of that old vintage sedan.

I was about twelve when he helped me build a lightweight balsawood helicopter. He told me a secret: build the thing as light and flimsy as possible, and don’t worry about strength. Then test it out–fly it. Whatever breaks first, repair it. Then fly it again. Repair what breaks from that; then keep testing and repairing, testing and repairing, until nothing else breaks. That was his way of evolving the best design. It strikes me that it has a lot in common with nature’s own methods.

Over the years he hand-built several houses, and I don’t think it ever occurred to him to live in a house that he hadn’t built himself. I inherited that from him too, and wound up doing the same..

He built lightweight balsa wood gliders most of his life, and flew them wherever he could find a place, country meadows or fields, the seaside, or athletic fields.

Dad Launching his Bird

 I went with him once, watched him hammer a stake into the ground, attach a long thin rubber band to it and clip the glider to the other end, then walk backward the whole length a local football  field carrying his delicate balsa wood plane above his head. Then in one deft movement, he launched it: it whoozed its way towards the stake –which I thought it would surely hit–and jipped in a dizzying curve up, straight up like a rocket. He guided it by radio-control, and levelled it off, flew  it around in patterns for five or ten minutes. It was beautiful to behold, this frail bird swooping and turning and diving through the crisp cobalt sky. But then a freak gust of wind caught the craft and flung it to the ground. From across the field we heard the heartbreaking crack of the balsa wood wing snapping in two. My heart was in my throat. Surely he would be crushed. Discouraged. Defeated.

But no! My dad simply walked over, picked up the frumpled plane, and said, “Oh, great! Now we get to repair it!” He wasn’t being sarcastic. He seemed as excited about that prospect of fixing the horribly mangled mess as he had been about flying it. 

And so that’s what we did for the rest of the afternoon.

I still have some of the tools that he used in my own shop, and they are a comforting presence. I probably haven’t yet seen or felt all the ways that he’s influenced my work, the way I live, the way I view the world. But it’s nice to have that to look forward to.

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Design As You Go

In this age of instant gratification (if that’s what it is) there is no reason to wait on satisfying our desires.  But I was reminded of the usefulness of waiting while working on a recent project. We were trying to plan a kitchen make-over, and the owner and I were having a hard time visualizing the whole project.  No matter how much thought we put into it, we couldn’t come up with ideas that we knew were going to work.  So we wound up just doing one thing at a time.

 So the idea is simply this: don’t do it all at once.

 Instead, just do one part of the idea, then live with it for a while before diving in to the rest.

The idea is not for everyone, of course, or every project. But in this case, we had little choice. We could see that until we had some information about how the first part looked and worked, we’d be unable to visualize an idea for the rest of the makeover. The cabinet doors were the bottleneck in the design. Once they were in place, we would be able to decide what was next, but not before.

My wife and I inadvertently followed this philosophy…though we never intended to…when we built our new home and woodworking studio. It was a consequence of running out of building cash. The basic structure got built, a sympathetic building inspector let us move into the house with the basic safety essentials, but many of the other things we wanted–bookshelves, kitchen cabinets with real doors, a window seat, a fireplace, bedroom doors–had to be postponed.

Although frustrating, we discovered that the constraints had an unexpected benefit: by the time we did get around to finishing the kitchen doors, the bookshelves, the window seat, we had been living in the space for a few years. The time and experience being in the house without all those things, taught us much better what it was we wanted. We realized that many of the ideas we started out with would have been expensive mistakes, had we managed to get them done.

Sometimes design is linear, and you can’t know what Step B will look like until you can touch, feel, and live with Step A for a little bit.

It requires more patience, and being willing to wait. But the results are usually a better fit.

This isn’t my idea. I encountered it in a book that I will highly recommend, whether you’re currently involved in some type of design or building project or not:  A PATTERN LANGUAGE by Christopher Alexander. This is a classic work, a compilation of what he calls “patterns” that he and his co-authors have discovered in the course of Architecture careers, in the designing of things from rooms to houses, to entire communities. The collaborative work finds these patterns, discerns which ones work and which ones don’t, then describes fixes for the ones that don’t.

A few of the patterns: “Light on Two Sides”;  “Cascade of Roofs”;  “A Room of One’s Own”;  “Zen View”, and my personal  favorite, “Site Repair”.  (Briefly: when placing a home on a building site, avoid the temptation to put the house on the nicest part of the site, but instead build it in the very worst spot.  Once you read the pattern, you will probably agree.) This book is an eye-opening read whether you are in the throes of construction or not.

But if you’re looking for inspiration, trying to figure out what will work best for the next idea, do things the easy way: just wait it out. When the time is right, it will happen.

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