Towards a Poetics of Making

Lately, I have been considering what I find to be the most engaging questions in my field and wondering if the theory that is available is of much use to me – or to my students. My friend at CCA, Dean Schneider, has been reading David Pye on the Nature and Art of Workmanship as part of his final thesis and it occurs to me that Pye’s notions of Workmanship of Risk and Certainty are still some of the most useful concepts for me when thinking about art, craft and design. I’m wondering if there aren’t other parameters and concepts that I find relevant in my work that might be more universally and usefully applied across the field.

But where to start on such a project? I’ve titled this project ‘Towards a Poetics of Making’. Admittedly somewhat pompous, but I think appropriate. I’m searching for qualities in making that can be identified clearly and that help understand the nature of making and at the same time provide tools for makers to think about, conceptualize and move their practice forward. Much like the notions of simile, metaphor, meter and other tools help poets to understand and construct their work while achieving a transcendent and culturally valuable outcome.

So what aspects of making could be relevant to this project? I’ve already talked about some concepts which I’ve been finding useful in some earlier posts. In my recent travels and spending time with students, faculty and the general public I have been introducing, discussing and enriching my own understanding of the notions of  ‘artifact’ and ‘translation’ that I introduced in  a previous post – which you can read here.

An over-arching question which I’ve been finding a useful tool arises from my thinking on ‘artifact’.

What concepts or cultural values adhere to a particular process?

In defining artifact I have focussed on the idea from science of an artifact being  a direct affect (often unintended, unexpected or unwanted) from a particular process or tool. In art making this is often referred to as a ‘mark’ and the consequence of using a tool is ‘mark-making’. The quality of the mark is determined both by the nature of the tool (be it pencil, or oilstick, or chainsaw), the ‘fluency’ and intention of the artist, and the medium which supports the mark.

I my thinking about translation, I have wondered what is gained or lost in translation as a concept or action gets transferred across media? In my own recent collaboration with Matt Hebert of SDSU using both hand whittling and digital fabrication, I have wondered if the inherent qualities of the whittlings – the form and surface that derives from the subtle interplay between the initial shape and material properties of the wooden piece, the shape of the knife, and my own thinking with both hand and mind – get lost or augmented by their subsequent translation through digital processes into objects of radically different scale, process and materiality? And then, what new attributes come from the translation that add to or contradict the initial qualities and readings provided by the whittlings? Of course, these attributes can be both physical and conceptual. I’m still thinking about it, and I’m hoping the works that we make together over the next few months help me discover some answers.

One thing I have concluded, is that the works in design, craft and art that engage me the most are those that have the process of making and the meanings that adhere to those processes at the forefront of their conceptual underpinning.

Which leads me inevitably to some thoughts on ‘craft’. At a discussion following Fo Wilson’s recent lecture at CCA, someone made the statement that ‘craft is an activity that brings you closer to the source.’ I like that! The notion that any activity that brings you closer to the core values and qualities of that medium or field is ‘craft’. So cooking involving all unprocessed ingredients where you are close to the source of those materials and understand the cultural histories and values of all of the materials and processes involved is close to the ‘craft’ of cooking. And this applies to both the cook and the diner – both the artist and the connoisseur. The source is in the sauce!

This way of thinking clearly applies to traditional notions of craft practice and allows us to expand the use of the term ‘craft’ to cooking, writing, and even designing video games. I have mourned the passing of a useful definition of craft as it has been applied to any activity which requires human intervention – the craft of shopping? Perhaps these notions of ‘source’ and ‘artifact’ can help me reclaim the terms as something useful to me as a maker who loves and is embroiled in the histories and stories imbedded in the tools, materials and processes I employ.

I welcome any thoughts you might have! These tools will only be useful if other people find them handy!

Some thoughts on Originality, Appropriation and the Origin of Teepees

I’ve been thinking a bit about the notions of ORIGINALITY and APPROPRIATION.

As you know if you’ve read my manifesto, I often use music as a model for thinking about art and design. I appreciate the relevance of the term ‘practice’ to both and I’ve always been enamored of the collaborative aspect of music making. The question of originality in music is also a very interesting one. I started thinking about this when considering the notion of ‘covers’ in music – especially popular music (from folk through rock to rap). The cover is a tribute, a test of one’s own ability and sometimes a kind of one-upmanship. A way to acknowledge your forebears and to strut your own stuff at the same time.

But in the fine arts this could be considered simply copying. Its been impossible to carve a version of Michelangelo’s David as part of an art practice for over a 100 years? For most of the 20th Century the avante-garde position has been to reject and deny the work of our forbears – not incorporate it. But since the 1970’s appropriation and sampling have become part of post-modern practice. I’m sure there’s some excellent analysis of the connections between originality, covers, sampling and appropriation with respect to music – I need Don Miller Jr.’s input here!

Perhaps in the worlds of craft and design the notion of ‘cover’ has been there all along. Lately I’ve been teaching one of my favorite classes at CCa – The History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture. It’s interesting the way some ideas keep reappearing and being reinterpreted in the recent history of furniture design. For example, studio furniture designers and makers post WW2 have had this thing about designing and making music stands – perhaps this reflects the parallels between music and craftsmanship.

Through looking at so many designers in the History and Theory class I’ve noticed another strange trope or design ‘meme’. So many 20thC furniture designers have embraced the vernacular be designing their own ‘cover’ of the three-legged milking stool. Here are some nice examples –

Aalto's Stool 60 - an 'original take' from the 30's

Charlotte Perriand came back again and again to this form in the 50's and 60's after abandoning chrome and bent steel.

Tage Frid's 'cover' from the 70's

Tom Dixon's 'Offcut' from 2009

Richard Hutten's one man improv - Stool Pants from the 90's

All this was floating around in my noggin’ when I listened to a great Radiolab show last week – the piece entitled ‘Patient Zero’. It was about tracing the source of things to their ORIGIN – they looked at the AIDS virus, Typhoid Mary, the High Five, and the Cowboy Hat. The last piece featured Jonnie Hughes who has written a new book entitled “On the Origin of Teepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).” Get the pun!

In it the author expands on Dawkins’ concept of the ‘meme’. Dawkins believed that a meme was perpetuated by it being copied, duplicated and appropriated. Hughes hypothesizes another mechanism for the survival and, more radically, EVOLUTION of ideas through environmental, social and historical factors. In the example of the cowboy hat he proves that no-one invented it – despite Stetson’s reputation for having done so. Actually, it evolved to satisfy a very particular set of human needs determined by cultural and environmental factors – powered by the selection pressure of the cowboy’s choice. The cowboy hat wasn’t invented it evolved on the prairie – like buffalo!

So now I’m wondering if ‘originality’ is in any way a valid or useful concept in such a rich field of cultural appropriation and ‘memetic evolution’. I’ve always found it a very problematic concept and a futile goal. The scientific model as aphorized by Newton in 1676 has always held more appeal – “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can only make an (original? evolving?) contribution to a field by recognizing and working with all that has gone before.

I think it’s time I designed a three legged stool – though I know its not original!!!

Day 30 – Artifact and Translation

There are two terms which have become pathways to think about my work that have become very important to me here. I’m now starting to think about how they can be applied to other works – both scientific and artistic.

They are Artifact and Translation. You can look them up in the OED, if you still own one!

But to my mind their definitions can be paraphrased as –


In the archaeological sense, an object or device created in connection with a culture, or in fact any cultural element – both the television set and ‘I Love Lucy’ are artifacts of mid-20thC American culture.

In the scientific sense, a (mostly unexpected and/or undesirable) attribute or effect of using a particular process.

I made a comment in a previous blog that an artifact and a ‘mark’ are very similar – artists cherish the unexpected or particular attributes of a process and in some disciplines it is called or defined as a ‘mark’.

In the aWay station, the first example of artifact/mark was the mark made from the knife while whittling. At first its a simple consequence of knife against wood, then it starts to flow along the form of the whittling, and soon it becomes the finishing detail that defines the tactile quality of the finished object. Another artifact that is at the heart of the Rodeo Project is the characteristic curlycue of ‘live trace’ – a tool or artifact of Adobe Illustrator. I  used and abused this tool to make the images in the Rodeo project and its the source of the fractal landscape/camouflage effect in the detail of these prints.

Whittling facets – knife artifacts

Rodeo charlie – riddled with live trace artifacts


All of the works I’ve made in the aWay station (and some earlier works in the Genius loci series) have gone through some form of digital translation, where object, images or sounds from the real world are abstracted into the virtual/digital world and then outputted again to the physical with a scale, medium and/or dimensional translation. I’ve been wondering what gets lost and what gets gained in these translations. Any new material or process of rendering the translation carries its own artifacts and associations. These need to be ‘mastered’, tweaked and left feral to express their inherent qualities.

I’m still looking for the material qualities I would like to see in the translations for my whittlings.

During my recent public talk at the aWay station, in defining ‘artifact’, I talked about the birth of radio astronomy in the work of Karl Jansky in the 1930’s. While Jansky was working with Bell Telephone Labs he tried to work out the source of the strange noise found in all short wave, trans-Atlantic radio transmissions. He thought it was an ‘artifact’, an incidental unwanted signal arising from the equipment used, but no matter how much he twiddled and fiddled it wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t until he traced the source to the sky, noted the cycle of its activity and consulted astrophysicists, that he realized the artifact was in fact an artifact of the galaxy – the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation emanating from the dense center of the Milky Way.

The moral?  Sometimes the most important information is buried in the smallest scale artifacts.

Bread and craft

Yesterday’s post on Tartine’s bread wizard Chad Robinson, reminded me of one of the core stories I enjoy and often tell when I give presentations on my work. The story came from the inspiring Tasmanian woodworker and sculptor Gay Hawkes who was renown, when I was getting started, for her reinterpretation of the bush vernacular furniture of the (perhaps mythical) colonial chair bodger Jimmy Possum.

On Mt. Wellington, Gay Hawkes

Gay used to say that the ultimate craft was bread baking.

The baker starts in the wee hours of the morning when everyone is asleep and the world is dark and foggy.

She starts up the ovens, gets the chill off her bones and unwraps the basic tools of her trade.

The ingredients are simple and primal – flour, eggs, water, yeast, salt, oil.

When they are mixed, there is an alchemy which transforms and synthesizes the simple ingredients in extraordinary ways.

The work requires strength, care, patience and risk.

The results are delicious, varied, and lie at the very core of human culture.

By sun-up the work is done, the shelves are laden.

When the bakery doors open there is a flood of hungry customers who demolish the baker’s work with gusto and joy.

The baker cleans the tools of her trade, closes shop and goes home to rest.

There is very little waste.

Early in the morning the baker wakes and goes through the whole process once more!

With perhaps a subtle shift in recipe or process to test a new idea or improve an already proven formula.

Isn’t this the essence of CRAFT?

Oblique Strategies

Oblique Strategies - 5th Edition

I have been a fan of Brian Eno since his Roxy Music days. I work to his ambient music, I play with Bloom on my iPhone, I am intrigued by the Long Now Foundation of which he was a founding member, and I’m always interested in his strategies as an artist. One of his most renowned strategies, which I have taken to heart over the years and use regularly in my own practice, is the tool called OBLIQUE STRATEGIES.

In brief, Oblique Strategies is a set of cards which contain aphorisitc jolts to kickstart, derail or otherwise inspire creative thinking. They were developed by Brian Eno and the painter Peter Schmidt in 1975 and have since gone through several editions. You can read about the various versions and their attributes on Greg Taylor’s comprehensive website. The current 5th edition is available from Brian Eno’s webshop. There are also various easily found javascript versions which are available for download to your computer.

I find the cards themselves the most satisfying format. Perhaps its the atavistic experience of handling cards – like consulting the Tarot or the iChing. I think though its connected to the visceral quality of the experience.  I’m ususally using the cards to help me asssess or change the direction that my studio work is taking. This is a very physical and often emotional experience for me, so the physicality of the cards ‘feels’ right.

Brian Eno said the following about Oblique Strategies –

“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt ‘this’ attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt ‘that’ attitude.”

The first Oblique Strategy said “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” And, in fact, Peter’s first Oblique Strategy – done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that – was …I think it was “Was it really a mistake?” which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he’d kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know…there was a complete correspondence between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they’re now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.

Brian Eno, interview with Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM Berkeley, 2/1/80

Over the years I’ve edited the deck I use down to the most useful or most perplexing aphorisms and I have added several of my own. My current list of cards can be found under Oblique Strategies on the main menu to the left – the items in red are my additions. I encourage you to explore the cards too and please send me any additions to the deck which you think could be useful by commenting directly to this post. Thanks!

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio

“Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio”.

This new documentary aired on PBS in the US last night. I missed it but will be getting the DVD for my own personal use and for teaching.

Sam Mockbee was the most inspiring educator I have heard of here in the US since I’ve been here and provides huge motivation and a moral compass for my own work in education.

Watch it if you can. There is a link to the movie (small size) on the PBS website below. Even the preview on the website for the documentary is inspiring!!

Watch the full episode. See more Citizen Architect.

The quandary of the local

Many of you have read my manifesto (a work in progress) and some have even been so kind as to provide useful comments and criticisms. I recently had my theories and intentions tested and placed into high contrast when I ordered a shiny new MacBook Pro (my 5th laptop since my first Powerbook 100 which I got in 1993). For some reason Apple offers all sorts of unwanted (by me at least) offers to sweeten the deal like free printers and ipods. Its hard to resist something free and I succumbed to a new ipod shuffle. Such a cute and seductive piece of gizmo jewelry. Being imbedded in my studio of late I ordered all of my new silicon based goodies on-line and they have been arriving in a strange summertime Christmas pageant throughout this week.

The iPod provides a perfect counterpoint to the admonition in my manifesto to buy, make and honor the ‘local’.

The tiny jewel-llike device arrived a few days after it was ordered, hand delivered by Fed-Ex to the door of my studio. VERY NICE.

Gizmo Jewelry

But what went into this contemporary shopping experience? Not even including the design, production of the item itself or the details of my on-line shopping operation, the arrival of this tiny gem was a marvel.

Firstly, my order was transmitted to Suzhou in China where my iPod was engraved, packaged and despatched. The following manifest shows its trip across the Bering Strait and down into the US by air and then by road to my door.

What a huge trip for such a tiny thing!

It arrived at my door pristinely packaged and ready to disclose its secrets.

Traveler's Chest

Gorgeous packaging

I know we’ve all experienced this moment, innumerable times.

The joy of a package in the mail.

The incredible detail, quality and functionality of contemporary electronics.

The sheer fun of having hundreds of songs or audiobooks or podcasts available at a thumbs press.

The guilty sin of being able to leverage international banking, unlimited (or at least unreasonable) credit, online shopping, off-shore manufacturing, international air freight and road shipping, door to door service, and individually custom-specified and detailed products.

And in this case, all for ‘FREE’, as a thank you for shopping with Apple.

It leaves me excited, fascinated and horrified all at the same time.

My friend Marty Marfin led me to the recent book Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling – “A manifesto for the future of design, impeccably crafted by Bruce Sterling and enhanced by the delicately emphatic graphic intelligence of Lorraine Wild…”.

Sterling creates some novel definitions for Artifact, Machine, Product, Gizmo and his newly coined ‘Spime’. His manifesto casts some interesting light on my thinking about the ‘local’. I wonder if my ambition for increasing the local focus of design is simply counter to the direction of the international interconnectivity and deeply information enriched design that Sterling sees as our irrevocable future. Have we passed what he calls a “Line of No Return” so that all objects can no longer operate merely as ‘artifacts’ but must be ‘gizmos’?

I recommend ‘Shaping Things’ to you as a provocative manifesto. And if you have any thoughts on this please leave a comment.


I just added a MANIFESTO page to this site. I’m starting to outline some of my guiding principles. I hope to elaborate on this over the next few months and welcome any thoughts, feedback or comments you would like to make.

You can access the Manifesto through the link to the left.