Freedom, constraint, and design

Mike Darlow, in his book Woodturning Design, writes:

Perhaps a major reason for the popularity of bowl turning is the belief that you can produce a good bowl without having to do any formal design in advance. The wood is supposed to “speak” to you and thus empower you to free the wondrous bowl hidden within the unpromising blank – I may be deficient in the necessary spirituality, but wood doesn’t speak to me all that often or all that clearly.

Darlow is not exaggerating about the mythos of wood “speaking” to the turner. Many “artists statements” accompanying gallery turnings contain similar language – so-and-so follows the natural properties of the wood and is never sure what is going to emerge in advance. The remainder of Darlow’s book argues that 1) good design is critical to avoid a lot of wasted time (and wood), and 2) the only way to become expert enough to “listen” to wood is to have spent a lot of labor turning out well-designed turnings.

I start with Darlow’s quote because I turned out a very unsatisfying bowl earlier in the week. The sides were too steep, and took a sharp curve into a non-footed bottom.  The shape was, frankly, dumpy.  Too deep for its width, too.  Sadly, I used a really pretty block of rosewood and some uniformly black ebony in the construction – good material gone to a “learning opportunity.”

The shape that I turned out was not the one I intended to make.  I actually did lay out a design and thought I’d dimensioned the critical rings of the bowl blank to fit. It turns out (no pun intended) I made some technical errors in constructing the rings that limited the amount of material I had to work with. Once I knocked the corners off of the wood, I didn’t have a lot of extra thickness left with which to slope the sides. That, and I probably just wasn’t paying close enough attention overall.

So today I decided to start over, and rather than construct a segmented bowl, I’m starting the “old fashioned” way with a solid block of wood (well, actually 3 layers face-glued together – two thick slabs of rosewood topped by a 1/2 inch of curly maple for the rim).  Even for designs where segmentation isn’t used as a decorative feature, I’ve been trying to use a segmented (stacked concentric ring) design in order to save precious wood. The “traditional” method entails using a solid block (or just half a log, sometimes from a freshly fallen tree) and hollowing out the interior on the lathe (as opposed to “designing in” the hollow by building the rough bowl up from concentric rings). This generates an impressive volume of shavings, and when turning large bowls, there’s often enough wood in the interior to create a whole new smaller bowl, if it could be salvaged.

But at this point I’m tired of taking a week to cut and glue the rings (with several overnight drying steps in the middle). I’m going to start with a solid block.  This way I can shape the outer contour to exactly what I’m looking for, and then hollow out the middle to match. I’m not exactly going to let the wood “speak” to me (I know what shape I’m roughly after), but there is going to be some fine-tuning as I look at what I’ve wrought and tinker with the proportions.  It’s also true, as an artist/educator once told me, that one never approaches the canvas with a completely worked out idea of what the painting will be. The partially finished painting “talks back” to the painter, and through this dialog the artist discovers what s/he really meant to be putting down on canvas.

This experience has led me to think through these concepts of design, constraints, and freedom.  By starting with a single block of wood, I’m imposing minimal constraints: the overall diameter and height of the bowl. Wide rim, narrow rim, S-curve, concave, out-flowing… there are a gazillion design choices available with that block. When I sketch an outline and plan the rings of a segmented bowl, I’m pretty much freezing in place the profile I’ve sketched. This is fine, as long as 1) I’m sure the profile I sketched on paper will look good in 3 dimensions, and 2) I don’t make any technical mistakes that result in an altered profile.

Another way to think about this is to ask “when do critical choices get made?”  If I sketch up front and construct rings to match, all of my design choices are locked in before I’ve started to actually see the 3-d product.  If I start with a solid block of wood, I’m making a series of micro-decisions every time I shave a little more wood off the bowl.  Like sculpting marble, this is a “subtractive” process – we can’t add wood back on once we’ve shaved it off. In fact, if I’m puzzling over a particularly important cut, I can stop the lathe, stare at it, or even go take a break and come back.

The price I pay for leaving lots of options open is to waste extra material.  In a sense, I have the wood available to make an infinite variety of bowls, and with each cut, I cut away some of those possibilities until what’s left is my final product. This, then, seems to be the trade-off:  leave my options open, but possibly waste a lot of resources.  Or, plan for efficient use of material, but constrain my choices down the road.

Somehow I feel like this touches a life lesson.  I’ve seen similar issues come up in software design – when do you lock down design choices?  In the early 1990’s Apple and IBM combined forces to create a new operating system by co-founding the Taligent corporation. Taligent eventually folded without ever producing a product, and some of my friends at the time suggested a big part of the problem was that nobody was willing to constrain design decisions. All of the code was to be “object oriented” and fully extensible, to a fault. By leaving lots of room for flexibility in the design, they never actually produced anything (of course, that’s not the whole story, but a relevant part).

In my current work as an education researcher I often see a tension between pre-specifying research questions and a design on the one hand, and desiring fully open-ended exploration on the other. Sometimes when we lay out questions, instrumentation, and samples well in advance, we only discover mid-way through that we should have been asking a different question, or talking to a different population, and by then it’s too late to change course. On the other hand, were we to keep all of our options open, we could potentially waste a lot of money chasing down dead ends, talking to the wrong people, and ultimately never publishing any findings.

So – my thought for the week. Awareness of design choices, constraints, and trade-offs. I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about this – just that I’ve experienced it in art, engineering, and research.  It’s feeling like one of those “universal truths” that needs to be condensed into a pithy nugget (which means somebody has probably already done so).

Design is hard

I’ve been tinkering with a design for a pair of candle holders based on the symbol for the Tao (or the “yin-yang” symbol). The two parts are of a light wood and a dark wood, with tea light candles occupying the smaller holes within each half. (By the way, while drawing this out I discovered that I could construct this with only a compass and straight-edge, a la Euclid — the symbol can be drawn entirely with circles and half-circles). There was a bit of a technical challenge in constructing a template for each half so that they mated perfectly in the middle, and having accomplished that, I made a prototype out of some sapwood cherry (light) and walnut (dark).

I showed the prototype to a friend and the verdict came back quickly:  kind of boring.  I should know better than to be attached to an initial design, so after my little flash of defensiveness, I concurred.  The wood itself was not very interesting (no pretty figure or pronounced grain), so what I essentially had was a bare-bones yin-yang.  From a minimalist design perspective it was fine – the plainness of the wood left only the form as an aesthetic quality. But I wasn’t satisfied.

Then the frustra fun began. I thought about sandwiching layers of contrasting veneer to the top (a light layer on top of a dark layer for the light piece) – when the edges were rounded over the dark layer would show through as a dark accent outline. Great idea in theory (and I’d used a similar technique on a guitar head stock a long time ago), but when I ran the prototype through the router it just didn’t look right – the stripe outline wasn’t that pronounced.  The top piece, for one, was too thick (I didn’t use actual veneer, but some left over material from my dining chair splats).  Plus, the color of the top layer didn’t match the main piece exactly – I could tell they came from two different sources.  It was time to put the work down and do something with a higher probability of success, so I turned a nice pen out of synthetic turquoise.

So now that I’m relaxing on the sofa, what do I think of this process?  For one, I’m remembering why group critique is helpful.  I can only have so many ideas, and having a group both criticize and suggest improvements can carry the process forward when I’m feeling frustrated.  There are web sites out there devoted to crowd-sourced critique of each other’s work, and maybe it’s time to bite the bullet and try one.

Another difficulty for me is that this is essentially an aesthetic design challenge, not a functional one. I’ve written in a previous post about how I can feel “aesthetically challenged” at times.  When I’m engaged in functional design (say, a piece of software or even a research paper), I have somewhat clear criteria for what makes it “work,”  even if I’m not always sure of how to get there.  Sometimes on the 3rd or the 9th draft of a paper it just clicks and comes together. If an illustration I’ve created doesn’t convey the right information, someone can tell me that and I’m usually pretty clear on what to do next.

How do I turn something from “boring” to “attractive?”

I thought of drilling a series of decreasing diameter holes trailing the curve of the shapes, perhaps filling them with a mineral inlay. Pyrography to decorate the surface. Those don’t work for me though – the yin-yang’s elegance is in its simplicity.  It’s actually an iconic representation of an idea.  Decorative frills totally detract from that representation.

Hmmm… staring at the image again, I see that the lighter half of the image still has a dark outline – it would have to on a white background, or one would lose the shape.  I don’t think I need to do that in wood… one possibility would be to cut both shapes in dark wood and just add a thin light veneer to the light half…

No, I think I’m going to stick with simplicity.  I’ll try this again using “prettier” woods.  I’ve got some Wenge that is both darker and more dramatic than the walnut I tried, and I think I have some left-over curly maple – it polishes up to a nice, wavy reflective surface. Then, swallow my pride and ask for more critique. How else am I going to learn?

I was totally fascinated recently by a furniture design instructor who told his students to design 3 chairs over the weekend. Not 3 variations on a theme, but 3 totally different designs.  “Why?” the students cried, “It’s hard enough to design one chair!”  The instructor noted that if they only worked on one design they’d become too wedded to it.  Like Golum’s jealous pursuit of the Ring, they’d be clinging to “my precioussss” and defending against criticism. Having 3 different designs allows a degree of detachment from them. Perhaps it’s time for me to move onto other ideas for candle holders.

Design phobia

Bowls.  This year’s autumn project is going to be a series of large serving bowls.  That somehow “feels” right and I’m motivated.

That is, until I start sketching designs. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Raffan’s book The Art of Turned Bowls, a treatise on bowl design. I’m learning to see the effect that different profile shapes have on the overall impact of the form, the different uses of rims and feet, and detailing. And now I’m paralyzed by the thought that my designs will be “dumpy,” “turgid,” or other terms of derision he uses for awkward looking forms.

Another author on turning design (Mike Darlow’s Woodturning Design) takes a slightly different approach, more of a “aesthetics is largely personal taste, with some good design elements helping” attitude. After a whirlwind history of aesthetics through the ages, he suggests some general heuristics for sound design principles (focusing mostly on spindles, not vessels). But then again, he shows before-and-after examples of forms that could stand some improvement, and the result is unmistakably better.

So now I’m petrified that my first large bowls won’t measure up somehow. I’m not giving myself any permission to be a beginner and make mistakes – whatever comes off the lathe the first go-around has to be at least satisfactory. Clearly I “know” better – intellectually. I know I need to stumble and make mistakes and learn those lessons viscerally. I’m less worried about technical errors than I am about aesthetic ones, though. What if I can’t conceive of a beautiful design? What if I’m missing that gene?  For the educational psychologists out there, I feel like an entity theorist with respect to my artistic abilities – the ability is largely innate and can’t be improved through practice.  Again, I know that’s BS, but the fear lingers that I’ll just confirm my own worst perceptions of myself.

So, what might I advise a student to do in a similar situation?  Something like “commit to turning 10 bowls – all with different profiles – that will never leave the shop. In fact, plan on cutting them in half to study the thicknesses.”  That is, practice with the planned intent of trashing the bowls afterword for study.  And plan on variation, not 10 attempts to get the “perfect” design.

I was reading a blog by a teacher of furniture design, and he had a great assignment to get students “unattached” to their design ideas. (The full blog posting is here on Fine Woodworking). This teacher demands three different design ideas for a table.  Not three variations on a theme, but three completely different designs.

The problem with having just a single idea is that as more and more work goes into developing it, the stakes grow higher. It becomes harder and harder to turn back, because now so much is invested in it. All of their eggs are in one frail basket.Their precious little design becomes something that must be protected at all costs.  Not necessarily because it is good, but because it’s all they’ve got.

Ah…  Now I see what might help.  Three different bowl designs, all radically different from one another. Execute them. See what I like.  Rinse, repeat.

Yes, that’s the ticket.  Planned, radical variation. As with biological evolution, the better ideas will stick around to appear in subsequent designs. But variation is crucial to the mechanism of biological evolution; perhaps it is to the evolution of design ideas, too.