Beauty & the Handmade Aesthetic

As a theoretical exercise, imagine a machine that processes furniture parts to that hundredth-of-an-inch level of precision. What would happen if we dial that machine back to wider tolerances? It would begin to spit out parts with greater variability across the board, maybe mill out dovetails with slightly uneven angles or generate chair-leg turnings that weren’t exactly identical. Let’s say that we can even program the machine to produce the parts with even more extreme local variations, perhaps leaving coarse milling marks on the underside of a tabletop or generating a drawer on which the sides are of differing thicknesses. These parts might be assembled with some difficulty, forming a piece of furniture that, on paper, matches the typical variations found in handmade furniture. Would we find here a summation of the handmade aesthetic? Would these random features encompass what we find so compelling and graceful about furniture that was produced by human hands?

In his seminal 1753 work, The Analysis of Beauty, William Hogarth explores the definition of “beauty” across multiple fronts, including simplicity, intricacy, and proportion. Perhaps the most important aspect of beauty he discerned, and the trait that he chose to inscribe on the base of his book’s frontispiece beneath his “line of beauty,” was variety. He writes: “How great a share Variety has in producing beauty may be seen in the ornamental part of nature… All the senses delight in it, and equally are averse to sameness. The ear is as much offended with one even continued note, as the eye is with being fixed to a point, or to the view of a dead wall.”

….This variety is not random and chaotic, like white noise. It was generated in a thoughtful pursuit of context-appropriate workmanship. Hogarth, again, states that “Variety uncomposed, and without design, is confusion and deformity.”  

My conclusion is this: the “liveliness” and variety that a handmade object displays within its appropriate tolerances are the qualities that establish the handmade aesthetic. The presence of these variables, though small, gives life to the object and lends to it the warm human touch irreproducible with machines – in short, this variety is a singular virtue defining the grace and beauty of the handmade.

– Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “In Pursuit of the Handmade Aesthetic,” in Issue Four


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