The Neuroticism of Craft

Last year, I designed and built a series of six chairs from road signs, all nearly identical.  The chair shells were folded aluminum signs and the bases were made from good 'ol Alabama pecan wood, milled, sanded, and lacquered within an inch of their life.  They turned out pretty well. I wrote an article about them, got paid, and enjoyed them for about a week.  Then, one day after work, I sat down in one of them, and the two joints in the back legs blew out.  The chair collapsed.  I smacked my elbow and my head pretty hard on the way to the floor.

Time passed.  The rest of the chairs seemed fine, more or less; the broken one had a flawed joint in the back, which gave way once my weight was leaned back into the seat.  However, I was nervous every time I sat in one from there on out, and especially nervous that someone else, perhaps bigger than me, might sit in one and break it.  I'm fine with breaking my own creations, but the paranoia and anxiety and embarrassment around the idea of someone else possibly injuring themselves and thinking I was a moron was almost too much to handle.  

I had broken a cardinal rule of design -- putting form above function.  In my desire to have a sleek, light form, I had ignored some structural considerations.  The back legs were extremely slanted -- over 20 degrees.  That joint, where the cross-piece intersected, bit too deeply into those back legs, weakening the wood there.  The legs splayed in only one axis -- front-to-back -- which made the chair unstable side-to-side.  The stock for the legs, at 1" square, was not strong enough to resist the twist and tension in the folded aluminum signs, which meant the legs didn't all hit the ground evenly once the base was bolted to the sign.  The 3/4" dowels I used as cross pieces were also not strong enough to resist side-to-side motion.  The base was essentially a series of parallelograms, with no triangulation, which led to a lack of stiffness.

The original chairs, pretty as you please.

I kept two of the chairs through the move to Chicago, where they became the seating for me and my lady's kitchen table.  We're both small people, and aware of the limitations of the design, and so we've sat perched on the front edge of the chairs, hunched over our breakfast like pigeons on a wire.  The chairs scooted side-to-side under us, rocking on their uneven feet.  However, they looked really damn good!  Visitors complimented, leading to the cringing moment when they would want to try them out and I would have to offer a disclaimer, nail-biting and anxious.  

The O.G. base.
So, after much time on my to-do list, I finally put together some new legs for the chairs.  These bases are rock-solid, full of triangulation and braces, made out of bigger pieces of stock, shot through with screws, slathered in glue, and bolted securely to the road signs.  Originally, I had thought of these chairs as loungers, and made them quite low to the ground.  While comfortable, we now use them with a table, and they were too short to sit comfortably.  So, the new design also raises the chairs 2-1/2" inches, positioning them at a nice side-chair height.  

The New Guy.
The new legs aren't quite so good-looking.  They lack that aerodynamic quality, and tend towards the squatty, practical side of things.  The wood, some scrap poplar from the ReBuilding Exchange, has a greenish-yellowish streaking grain that I don't particularly care for.  But I'll be damned if I can't plant myself in these things without a creak, a groan, or a worry.  

Stable, but a bit boring.  I'll settle . . .
There was a recent article in the New York Times about the death of neuroticism as a cultural meme and character trait in movies and television.  Woody Allen, the king of neurotics, has largely stopped acting in his own movies, and moved onto plot threads that don't involve his own obsessions with death and the artistic struggle.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, psychiatry's manual, eventually dropped "neurosis" as a disorder in 1994, replacing it with a number of more precise sub-categories.

Not bad in profile.  A little chunky, the back is too heavily reclined, but I digress . . .
Wikipedia, however, still contains a robust entry on the phenomenon, defining neurosis as "...anxiety, sadness or depression, anger, irritability, mental confusion, low sense of self-worth, etc., behavioral symptoms such as phobic avoidance, vigilance, impulsive and compulsive acts, lethargy, etc., cognitive problems such as unpleasant or disturbing thoughts, repetition of thoughts and obsession, habitual fantasizing, negativity and cynicism, etc. Interpersonally, neurosis involves dependency, aggressiveness, perfectionism, schizoid isolation, socio-culturally inappropriate behaviors, etc."

This more or less defines the process of designing and making something for me!  The evenings and weekends and tongue-chewing hours of research and drawing and fretting are characterized by anxiety, irritability, mental confusion, and a deep sense of low self-worth.  As the process deepens, work is phobically avoided then vigilantly attended to, impulsively changed, compulsively tweaked, lethargically abandoned.  Thoughts repeat.  Obsessions multiply, haunting even my dreams.  Thoughts of completion of the project overwhelm, fantasias of solid chairs that don't rock and look handsome and are featured in famous publications and graced with celebrity butts.  Negativity and cynicism return as the chair turns into reality.  This doesn't look like the drawing!  It's nothing but firewood . . .

Devil's in the details, failed to peg those pocket-screw holes real well . . .
I'm not trying to pathologize design, by any means, but this process is what afflicts the creative class, reinforced by years of intellectual combat in school and brutal self-criticism in the workshop.  And it works.  I know it works because every designer I know goes through this crippling self-doubt and state of heightened awareness, sensitive to every flaw.  We've learned this, in college and in practice, and eventually it becomes so internalized as to be inescapable, formalizing the artistic temperament long voiced in literature.  The classic idea of someone being struck by a bolt of inspiration has been replaced by a model based on painstaking, endless, iterative improvement -- a process given to neuroticism, as the list of improvements can go on, and on, and on, and . . .

Can't be sentimental about things.  Death to bad design!
I'm already mentally enjoying these little kitchen chairs, dreaming of warm summer mornings with creamy eggs and toast, steaming coffee, the New York Times Sunday edition spread out on the table, butt securely ensconced in warm, gracious comfort.  Until I feel a little rock in the left leg.  And it gnaws at me like an itch under my collar.  And the process begins again.

1 comment:

  1. "I had broken a cardinal rule of design -- putting form above function."

    hey Will, you make a lot of progress ;-)
    Ready for Hermann Miller

    very good strucutre ... love so much.