I’ve spent over 50 years living with beauty. It’s not the stuff taught in schools by schools but it is learned mostly by seeing it in contrast with the unlovely. Unloveliness is the stuff local authorities and standardisation of things put together by government produces where utilitarianism dominates and justifies the creation of ugliness. Schools themselves generally project utilitarianism because they know little of loveliness and beauty and therefore the curriculum of loveliness remains mostly unwritten. But the stuff of the unlovely creates the marked contrast that makes the lovely stand out from the rest. It makes it easier to spot when you see it and this is often what makes beauty so awe-strikingly exemplary.
I don’t think loveliness is necessarily taught but somehow, almost in obscured ways, it is indeed learned by many but not all. I think I learned about craft loveliness, to really look for it in work and workmanship, mostly from a mother who spoke of such things when she saw exemplary workmanship in the passing of her day. I saw her once look at a man’s sewing of hand-stitched buttonholes and she had nothing to say because the work seemed so perfect to her. I sensed the impact of the work on her because of the way she stopped and the work held her. I remember the time she herself took performing the same task hand sewing wedding dresses, making silk-covered buttons and such, her work was exemplary too, but she always felt she should improve. So I look for loveliness in handmade because in handmade is skill and in skill is lifestyle and in lifestyle, if loveliness has its place, and it does, a man’s work ethic and a woman’s work ethic revolves around kindness, patience and love in which loveliness then can coexist protectedly.
My working with loveliness emerging from the edge of a finely sharpened chisel and plane, the curve of a fine gouge and the spokeshave, has been my way out from mass making and the mass making methodology surrounding it. It, my lifestyle creating lovely things, has been the way of life it was for my mother and other people who influenced my searching out the beauty in the well designed and well made of beautiful things. Sharing loveliness with others in the making of things then becomes the vehicle by which relationships flourish. Working with hand tools allows for continuous conversations whereas working solely by machine markedly stymies it at best. I think my constant search for loveliness usually means looking to the past and perhaps less and less the present or future, which often saddens me because I see an acceptance of utilitarianism in design. That I don’t look to modern makers very much for lovely handmade work has become a symptom of modern output. I see mostly utilitarianism is all the more accepted as the distance between the organic of hand made grows ever greater; the sad reality of a shifting culture in modernity. I walk past work and see all the more the domino effect of our time, the upgrade from biscuits that unite box-like forms of ply and MDF. Many dominoes make light work in many ways to replace the single tenon of the past that to me seems so simple and easy. And then, too, you must add into the equation some very odd configuring for dominoes to work, which can indeed take longer than the basic tenon.
I’m far from convinced that some work is good when utility prevails so. I wonder if in a hundred years time the dismantling of work in MDF and pressed-fibre board will be pass muster or at all considered exemplary. I somehow doubt it. But the mechanical formulas mostly lack the organic vibrancy I have seen throughout my life. This element, loveliness, seems all too often acceptedly missing. So, for me at least, loveliness missing meant utility prevailed. Loveliness for me always becomes defined by the organic refinement handwork brings in three-dimensional realms and this then pulls me into a fourth-dimension.
I am however always encouraged by the wonderful and lovely writing of a USA writer, Jonathan Binzen who writes for Fine Woodworking. He discovers workers of fine workmanship and brings them to light.
When I work with some certain tools I am naturally pulled into realms of skilfulness. My body muscle, mind and tendon searches by nano-seconds for precise direction and pressure. I’m translated into a sphere of creating loveliness by the doing of it and my searching apprehends what cannot be bought without my willingness to sell it. I have spent my entire working life searching out loveliness. This would be the work the wealthy who did little bought from the ones who made everything but owned almost nothing—the era in which people of success were admired and measured by what they owned paying others working for them very little. Of course they made so very little themselves, and manorial homes testify to that fact of life alone. I am sure we have forgotten how that era in British history worked and its a funny thing that the loveliness in workmanship saw two principle elements of culture exist side by side. Loveliness against unloveliness—poor crafting artisans created loveliness for the wealthy to luxuriate and revel in.
So, mostly I do find loveliness in what was made in past eras, mostly over a century ago. I saw a leather glove folded in two along its length and draped softly over the rim of a wicker basket. Two buttons, lightly braided with the same thin leather accentuated the whole and the composition was picture perfect and then handcraft perfect. Hand stitched, hand woven. Two crafts reflecting the age when beauty was made by the have-nots for a few pence and the have-all’s lived in all-entitlement. Perhaps, truth be told, had the have-all’s not procured such works of art to be made we would be without such beautiful crafts, but the disparity was indeed too great. When I look at some hand tools I see the same beauty in the tools made by the have-nots mostly for the other have-nots. This elevated the makers of tools to places of higher respect. Even the have-all’s cherished such things made by the have-nots, but I look on a certain era of tool making where the ultimate levels of loveliness became such that they were truly priceless.