Nurturing the Handmade

In interacting with an object, its physical properties are paramount; as a result, the power of objects to affect us becomes identified with their physical attributes, leading to an emphasis on making, and so linking making with authorship. Sorzano explores the process of object-making as the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work as a result....

'In your work, in the way that you do your work, and in the results of your work your self is expressed. Behind and before self-expression is a developing awareness in the mind that affects the work. This developing awareness I will also call 'the work'. It is the most important part of the work. There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work as a result &'

Agnes Martin
You can't help wishing that Martin had found at least one synonym for the word that hammers at you out of the page: work, work, work, as if we didn't know how hard it is, this thing we do.
Appropriately, though, the repetition reveals an underlying structure, as relevant to object-making as it is to painting; mind, hands, result. Although these three elements are fundamental – take away one, and creativity stalls – the sequence isn't always that clearly defined, and in object-making there's a second sequence, subsumed within the first: concept, form, resolution, construction.

There's a tendency to conflate some of these elements, or shuttle between them, particularly where one person is responsible for the entire process. This makes any debate on the value of hand-making confusing, especially since making is often read as shorthand for authorship.
The issues of form-finding and hand-making, 'always implicit in the applied arts' , don't have equal significance in contemporary visual arts, where the focus on the concept eclipses considerations of actual construction. . From that perspective, the hand made is a superficial aesthetic, and the value of artistic labour is in a state of constant flux, sinking, swimming, drowning, waving in intermingling currents of context.

With objects, the emphasis is reversed. In interacting with an object, its physical properties are paramount; as a result, the power of objects to affect us becomes identified with their physical attributes, leading to an emphasis on making, and so linking making with authorship.

Objects represent solutions, but the problems they seek to address may differ wildly. Indeed, it's the nature of the problem, rather than the solution, which provides a distinction between art and design: 'You go to an artist for some perspective on life & the best design might provide a little perspective [on life], & but the basic problem of a chair is to hold you 400mm off the ground'.

Perhaps the basic problem of a chair is whether it needs to be a chair at all; how should we live? and the corollary, how do we live? are questions which rightly preoccupy both artists and designers. In any case, this emphasis on functionality significantly affects the role of making in the design process. Design objects 'exist by being reproduced' , and one measure of successful design is the degree to which the object can be reliably replicated by others. The effect is to separate the solution the object represents, from the way it is made. Authorship, likewise, becomes differentiated from making, relocating into concept.
After working with architect Aldo Rossi, Alberto Alessi wrote:
'& firstly, find the 'strong idea' of the project, from the formal and expressive point of view; and then, once the idea is found, if it is really strong, it will be able to survive all the modifications demanded by the technicians, with the least amount of control on behalf of the designer &'
This reads like a medieval allegory: imagination assailed by pragmatism, the valiant idea Рinnocent, vulnerable Рbesieged and savaged by demanding technicians, bleeding on the studio floor. Will it save itself? Will the designer save it? Where is the designer? Having supplied the technicians with some sketches of the strong idea, he's already getting on with the next project. 'But couldn't you give us some execution designs, instead of these sketches which we can't make any sense of?' the technicians complain, only to be silenced with: 'You know far better than me how to build a cafeti̬re.'

This is a somewhat extreme position, for surely – even amongst architects – few designers can be so completely detached from actualisation. But it illuminates that even when authorship is separated from actual making, it's still connected to form-finding; 'the strong idea' contains its own formal solution, dictating the form in which its expression lies.

The potential for hand-making to affect the design object, then, depends on its importance to the designer in form-finding, rather than in making. And although the process of form-finding can often become conflated with making, particularly where hand-making is involved, it's really part of concept, not actualisation.

One can examine this proposition further by considering the role of hand-making in the work of contemporary New Zealand furniture designers David Trubridge and Katy Wallace.

When Trubridge's figurative, expressive Dance and Wallace's geometric, functional Unit A (1&2) appeared in Framed in 1997, the contrast between these works alone spoke eloquently of the 'extraordinary depth and diversity of activity' which the two curators sought to survey.

David Trubridge was then a highly regarded furniture designer with many years of woodworking and furniture-making experience. His finely crafted, often one-off pieces, such as Dance, or the earlier Hornpipe Bench, explored 'concerns for form, structure and detail' , and were built by hand, modelled with maquettes.

Today, Trubridge is known internationally for the graceful, ribbed forms of works such as Body Raft and Sling; works which speak not only of boats and the sea, but of a wider context, that of the Pacific. Works which have the qualities we associate with hand made objects, and could be hand-made by Trubridge; but aren't.

Since 1999, Trubridge has modelled and resolved his designs by computer, and their wooden components, typically fastened by screws or knock-down fittings rather than glue, are mainly cut out by CNC machine. Metalwork is outsourced, or carried out by others in the associated Cicada Workshops, as is any wood-bending or assembly required. A growing percentage of work isn't even made in New Zealand; Body Raft and Sling, for example, are also made by Italian manufacturers under licence.

Why the change? Trubridge candidly says that as he's getting older, the physical demands of hand-making are less easily borne ; and clearly, business decisions have been taken which have directed his working process towards production pieces. However the overall impetus has come from a significant change in the work itself.

This shift, first revealed by the body of work exhibited in 1999 at Furniture in Context , seems to have come from a synthesis between Trubridge's creative practice and his years of experience with wood, his connections with the sea, his need for conceptual strength in his work, his focus on structure, and his desire that the objects he creates should fit as seamlessly as possible – ecologically as well as functionally – into their context.

The catalyst was his return to a process he describes in the catalogue for Furniture in Context: 'represent[ing] complex three-dimensional forms in two-dimensional drawings', something he had been trained to do as a naval architect . Creating a form in this way, building it up into three-dimensions by cross-referencing between the two-dimensional views, gave Trubridge a new and powerful way of 'working backwards against [the] flow' of refinement and stylising . It also reinforced maritime connections, but in quite a different way to the sail and lashing elements of earlier works.

Trubridge still regards himself as designer and maker, and still views hand-making as essential to what he does. He sees form-finding as flowing directly from the idea, not from modelling – 'don't think table, think eating', as he urged his students at the Vitra Design Workshop in August 2004 – but the framework of hand-making is so integrated into his thinking, that his conceptual work and his form-finding are constantly informed by it. The shapes on the computer are, in his mind, bits of wood – a material he knows so thoroughly that he has no need to work with it physically to understand what he can do, or how to do it.

His decision to design for production has underlined this approach. In terms of the Aldo Rossi model, he's been able to shift more of himself from technician to idea, from making to concept. The impact of this is reflected in the deceptive simplicity of works like Body Raft, Sling and Ruth Rocker.

Katy Wallace has never thought of herself as a maker. Although she does her modelling and prototyping by hand, this is not 'out of a love for the making process but for the process of design' , and she rarely involves herself with final fabrication. Paradoxically, playing with materials and processes, seeing how far they can be pushed, is intrinsic to her work, and she finds physical involvement and interaction with materials indispensable to her creation of ideas and forms.

It's difficult to generalise about Wallace's work – hardly surprising, when it embraces such diversity as a circular plywood shelf, chairs of aluminium channel and upholstered foam, a pop-up cardboard ticket booth, banana boxes in a cabinet on wheels, and an entire caravan complete with a floor which turns into tables and chairs.

You could say that Wallace interrogates the potential of industrial materials, and encourages them to take up new identities, without displacing them from their inherent characteristics . You could also say that her work is characterised by geometric or modular forms, (Unit A, or Bi-fold shelf, for example), or the use of commercial, readymade components (Unit A, Louvre Light, or Roadside Screen). And you could add that there are links to Donald Judd and Jasper Morrison , .

But it's as useful to say that Wallace is 'interested in readdressing the way we live with and interact with objects' , and doesn't see her designs as objects so much as 'starting points', a source of possibilities to be explored by interaction . When she turns 2D into 3D and back again, when chairs and tables disappear or shelving emerges from a single sheet of material, this isn't a virtuoso exercise, or 'flat-pack' as metaphor, but maximisation of possibilities.

There are always three parties in Wallace's construct – user, object, and the modern, urban space in which they come together. The landscape she draws on in furnishing these spaces is familiar, yet somehow invisible: not the Aotearoa of beach and mountain-top, but the New Zealand of industrial estate, demolition yard, and construction site.

The Katy Wallace Caravan Project, with its disappearing furniture and stretchy shelving, is a mobile living space available for colonisation and rearrangement. It juxtaposes these national identities – a point Wallace underlined by touring it around the North Island behind a 4WD, the family car of the 21st century. It also references something which itself links the alter egos: the hand made.
Eyebrows down, please. The traditions of the hand made object in New Zealand, while strong, have as often been linked to pragmatism as to fine workmanship, and it's this self-sufficient, do-it-yourself vernacular that Wallace taps into. Materials which might fall off the back of a jobber's trailer come together in objects which are hand-assembled, user-adjusted, interactive.

The threaded rod and hex nuts in Unit A, for example, provide an instant framing system, infinitely adjustable, but tedious to assemble. Shouldn't Wallace refine the design, introduce a quick-grab fitting? No, because it's partly the off-the-shelf, do-it-yourself framing which defines Unit A. The same applies to Banana Box – who hasn't used a banana box for storage? – and Roadside Screen, conjured up out of fencing mesh and cable pipe, construction materials so ubiquitous as to be virtually invisible until combined by Wallace into a graphic, woven panel.

The furniture of Katy Wallace and David Trubridge is an ongoing series of propositions responding very differently to the question, how should we live? Yet the work of both designers shows that while creativity must embrace new possibilities of technology and industry, or risk detachment from its culture, in our creative evolution we can always find ways to nurture the hand made.