In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.
-“Delight in Disorder,” by English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
I recently started making a new table. And, as is often the case when I buckle down and start something that requires attention—whether it’s a tricky piece of furniture or a short story or a diplomatically worded response to panicked student email sent to me in a Mountain Dew-fueled haze at 2:30 the morning before a due date—I thought of an old joke. It goes like this:
“How do you make God laugh?”
“Make a plan.” (Rimshot.)
As Mike and Joshua discussed in a recent M&T podcast unpacking David Pye’s concept of “workmanship,” our common conception of craftsmanship is tied up with skill, sensitivity, attention, and practiced ease. They also talked at length about the dangers of construing good craftsmanship as a Cartesian, mechanistic process—think of the “world’s best cabinetmaker,” able to eerily render a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional object with cold precision. There’s not much difference between this sort of guy and a Shaper Origin that has attained self-awareness and is planning a Skynet-like takeover of the electrical grid.
I am not, to be clear, defending furniture or house framing that has irredeemable, uncharming flaws. Or mistakes that hamstring its basic function. Or that make the object an actual danger to human health (like the IKEA Malm dresser, if you don’t anchor bolt the thing into a wall). There are good reasons why we care about square reference faces, tight-fitting joinery, and level foundations. There are also good reasons why we draft plans and try to anticipate everything that can go haywire.
To Mike and Joshua’s list of the hallmarks of “craftsmanship,” though, I’d like to add the “openness to serendipitous mistake.” What I mean by that pretentious mouthful of a phrase is that you’ve got to relinquish some of the illusion of control over the process. When Pye writes that the “workmanship of risk” implies that “result is not predetermined,” he’s not just suggesting that mistakes are possible when making something, but that you’ve got to be open to experimentation along the way. You can’t let the ends steamroll the means, or else you might not catch a glimpse of a more interesting, different design or ornament or element than the one you intended.
This suggestion, of course, is reminiscent of some of the most shopworn, cliché, and—yes—perennially useful writing advice I give students struggling with a first draft of something: that you’ve sometimes got to write a first draft to figure out what you want to say in the first place. It’s also why I really like prototyping, riffing, and modeling furniture designs if I have the time (whether it’s the hillbilly way with bent coat hangers standing in for legs, like Chris Schwarz recommends in The Anarchist’s Design Book, or via a CAD program for the STEM crowd.)
The halls of history are cluttered with this kind of “happy accident,” the sort championed by Bob Ross in his public television painting. (The microwave, potato chips, popsicles, and even Botox are unintentionally hilarious inventions produced while someone was supposed to be working on something else, or by sheer happenstance.)
Here’s an example. About six months ago, I borrowed my dad’s old 35 mm film camera, a Nikon from the early 90s. It’s nothing fancy, but I wanted to get back to shooting more film, something I loved doing when I was a teenager.
It’s both more expensive and more inconvenient. Both of which I keep telling myself are somehow selling points as I pick up an old camera, rather than snapping yet another pic of my old diabetic housecat to be lost forever in the ether of my iPhone’s photo roll. But there’s also a reason I sometimes like the “inconvenience” of ripping an 8/4 board by hand: it slows me down, sharpens my focus, and allows more things to go “productively amiss.” A couple weeks ago, my family stopped by the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora, a historic ranch that helps educate Coloradoans about the unique prairie ecosystem east of Denver. As my kindergartener ran ahead to check out an old sod cellar, I quickly framed up a shot and pressed the shutter. I also didn’t realize that I hadn’t advanced the film, and the accidental double exposure created one of my favorite photos from the trip. I couldn’t have possibly planned it, suggesting that there’s more accident in artifice than we sometimes assume.
In the Herrick poem up top, the speaker values the “wild civility” of art that dares not to be too perfect. Can you engineer this kind of calculated things-gone-slightly-astray into a mass-produced design? Well, sure. Etsy has gotten pretty good at craftwashing products that have the veneer of a manic pixie dream craftsperson making something “quirky and handmade,” but which are produced under potentially nightmarish labor conditions on the other side of the globe.
Taking an interest in the origins of the industrially manufactured objects around us is, of course, good practice, particularly casting a skeptical glance at anything marketing itself as peculiarly handcrafted when it’s not. I’m, however, more interested in how we change our attitude towards accident in our own work as people who make things for ourselves. As Lou Reed put it, “between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” Dwelling in the space between concept and final product is always where I’ve found the most fulfilment and experienced the most creative growth. It’s worth keeping your eyes open to those flashes of unexpected opportunity that aren’t in the original design, nor ever could be.