I’m standing beneath a giant skeleton of a dinosaur staring from its immense framework at another less dominant presence made by a man’s hands some decades past and respecting his design skills in the form of what appears at first glance to be a simple oak bench seat. Though I may not be speechless, as I might be, thinking about a Tyrannosaurus rex, I am quite impressed by two impressive but far from obvious elements that pulled my mind from bone structures and mass naturally formed, towards a different kind of framework made from wood with joints that are fitly framed together. On the one hand, the joints are held together by glue and with some mechanical resilience, the joints were designed for. On the other, the joints would have been held in union by muscle, sinew and tendon yet with equal consideration of longevity. One consideration was the ability of its designer to create something unpretentiously simple that constrained the design with several hidden complexities that transferred stress and strain from one part to another to maintain integrity. Another perspective is the evident consideration in the comfort it exudes before you sit that expresses ergonomic form before your body is embraced by its built-in curves. Much more impressed me with the design. There they sat unpretentiously around the museum, like punctuation marks in human design, with people milling about around them who seemed to me to be totally unaware that the seats could also warrant their considerations and much admiration as the replicated stegosaurus they stood admiring for 20 minutes. I suppose in many ways considerations are perhaps tied more to the imagination as the huge giants command attention by sheer mass, imagined mobility and fictional films. I admit that I am often surprised that visitors rarely consider simple designs to be works of art expressing ergonomic design qualities that are all too often unseen. These bench seats express skilled design work that then evidenced crafting artisanry. I sat, relaxed, allowed my body to collapse, and allowed myself to become absorbed by a manmade frame I just loved.
Pockets of surprise often remain unsurprising to many. A hand-woven basket from split bamboo, a sieve cut from a coconut, bored with holes and tied cleverly and intricately to a handle of wood to serve for decades. I think perhaps that that can be because we no longer know what to look for, how to look and how to consider skilled work by men and women of old working silently and methodically using their hands. Perhaps we might also be living in an inconsiderate generation to whom such knowledge is now lost. Just how and why do we fully understand the complexities that cause surprise in design?
Engineers don’t just build bridges of iron and stone, motorbikes, aeroplanes and metal fastenings that make life easier. Crafting artisans have been designing and engineering an outcome for centuries to make life work and work well. I was surprised by the beauty I saw in the bench seat because I knew of the hidden considerations in physical properties surrounding the way the joinery was completely concealed yet retained an admirable integrity of workmanship.
Later the same day I saw another compilation. It was radically different and buyable from a supermarket forecourt for a couple of hundred dollars. When I say different, I don’t mean different as in different to the bench seat. I mean different into drawing attention sufficient to sell it. Three items stood in front of me and I was bemused by the ugliness of two outdoor chairs and a swing seat made from two by four construction wood stained burnt-brown as yard art, yard furniture. I was surprised by the reality that some designs have a cultural influence where Texanese has steadily become more an established form of state subculture. Yard art? Certainly. Ceramic pots decorated with watermelons and cacti reflected a summer message as a statement for outdoor living, yard decorating, yard eating and then a yard playfulness I haven’t seen so nationally and universally accepted in the UK. It made me wonder in what ways do evolving and existing cultures within the constructs of any social environment predispose certain individuals to join the more delinquent subcultures?
I found myself being awkwardly refreshed by a certain type of vulgarity of texture, shapeliness and evident discomfort while asking myself at what point did such an offering become desired enough to become actually saleable. I had become gradually accepting of it through my living in Texas for two decades. Even now, after leaving my second homeland of Texas for over a decade to date, I was unsurprised by what I saw whereas if I took these pieces and put them in my UK garden it would cause quite a stir. But then I looked up at a 6 metre by roughly 3.5-metre fluttering, flapping and whip-cracking flag of statehood rippling in the high breezes above me that interrupted a blue sky spanning from sea to shining sea and thought to myself, “America the Beautiful!” It’s through diversity that I reflect so much on cultures that manage to somehow define who we are. Culture never ceases to change the whole of our being. As Olympians and those exponents of extreme sports roar at their own wins instead of just the admirers surrounding them, I see new cultures emerging. I ask myself how this or that happens and then I see an advert showing a person who only acts out the role of someone who doesn’t actually live nor ever lived and I see something beyond myself who was intended to create the illusion of being. My working with my hands somehow keeps me well grounded. I like the solidity of honest handwork and that I make something that makes life good.
So, back in the saddle of sanity and saneness, I pick up my bench plane, load wood into the jaws of my vise and take a few swipes of saneness over some rough-sawn cherry and oak and true up my wood until it’s smoothly flawless and level for my joint to be made. I identify with a certain unity between a man and a woman that make and made from decades past and left behind for me to consider. I am alive in reality and leave the fantasy of the fantastic for others outside my workshop door. For some, puzzlement is the element that surprised us. For others, it’s being surprised by beauty and then for others, it’s the surprise novel things bring to our lives. This is the power of culture We wonder why a roar goes up at certain events and why someone cries at another. Is wonderment surprise and is surprise puzzlement for others?