Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pursuing Beauty in the Shop

The late Saul Bass, an accomplished and recognized graphics designer, said in an interview in 1987:

"Aesthetics are your problem and mine; nobody else's.  The fact of the matter is, I want everything that we do, that I do personally, that our office does, to be beautiful.  I don't give a damn whether the client understands that that's worth anything, or that the client thinks it's worth anything, or whether it is worth anything; it's worth it to me.  It's the way I want to live my life.  I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares."

I've been "noodling" and "futzing" with a wooden plane I've been building for the past few weeks, and am now searching for an acceptable plane iron for it.  It's been a fun project, and it's all part of a wooden bucket blog on the Lumberjocks website.  The carvings are my attempt at acanthus leaves, a very common detail in early Greek architecture, traditionally used to symbolize enduring life or immortality.  The scrolling form of the acanthus leaf has become a very popular decorative feature in wood carving and one I've been anxious to try, and this was a perfect opportunity to bring something a little extra to an otherwise simple project.

The tradition of decorating hand tools is something that has been sadly lost to our generation but was very common in the earlier centuries.  Often the workman's tools as well as his tool chest was considered to be a testament to his craft and proudly displayed as his ability to create beauty in his work.  One famous example of this is the amazing tool chest of Henry O. Studley (1838 - 1925), a piano and organ maker that worked for the Poole Piano Company in Boston, Massachusetts that is currently part of the "Tool Chests, Symbol and Servant" display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington DC.  It held an estimated 300 tools and is an incredible display of his pride in fine workmanship and quality. This would have fit well with the philosophy of Bass, as the appreciation of beauty is clearly present, regardless if the client had any appreciation for it or not. 

My attempts of individuality through the pursuit of beauty is nothing compared to the caliber of Mr. H. O. Studley, but a little of the pleasure and commitment is still there.  And as someone once said,

"Working with a beautiful tool is like dancing with a beautiful woman - it doesn't help you dance any better, but it sure is a lot more fun."

And to me, this new plane will become a beautiful dancer indeed.

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