February 9, 2015

The Recklessness of Taking Shortcuts in Making Things

Break icon designed by Robert Bjurshagen from The Noun Project collection

When making things, there is the temptation to take shortcuts. If you can get there faster, whether traveling, cooking, or designing—why not? Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should—the methods and processes play a crucial role in creation and overall quality of the result.

There is risk in not conforming to what rigorously works and elegantly lasts. In some cases, the shortcut is successful in contributing to a product’s usability and stature. But at other times, the shortcut can subtract from a product’s existence and play out in diminishing returns, with the unintended defects revealing themselves.

During a recent visit, Katie Thompson, partner of woodworking studio Joseph Thompson Woodworks near Charleston, South Carolina, told a story about a table they encountered as part of an opening for a local artist. It was a piece commissioned by a client, who owned a very distinctive space with rich local heritage. The maker was a respected designer, and also rising in professional and social status. The maker was given the privilege to conceive and produce a table as part of the client’s permanent collection.

One of my observations of Katie and her husband, Joseph, is their mutual instinct to examine wooden objects. Concerning tables, they physically stoop low to see what is not upfront and in direct sight. They want to see how the table was constructed beneath its surface, which gleams readily with a customer-friendly face and sheen. The inapparent view is telling. It shows how the object was planned, assembled, and, more so, how it would settle over time.

Their assessment of the custom-made table (specifically requested and situated in a high-profile space for the long-term) led to this conclusion: “This table is going to fall apart.” They detected shortcuts in how the table’s joints were built and how the table’s legs were connected. Despite the maker’s pedigree, both of these areas, in Katie’s and Joseph’s professional opinions, do not bode well for the table and, thereby, its owner.

The ill effect of shortcuts was evident even before Katie and Joseph followed their curiosity to the table’s construction underneath. The table’s top showed the wood splitting in a manner of bending inwards onto itself.(1) Noticing this raised the cautionary red flag waving in Katie’s and Joseph’s minds. They were concerned about the table’s integrity—its longevity. The table will deteriorate and cohere less with its prized surroundings.

The table’s execution—including its shortcuts—cut deeper. Katie and Joseph’s reverence for wood escalates here, because the opposite is easy to achieve: a reverence for wood that turns out to be benign in the end. Raw materials command respect. To overlook how natural ingredients behave naturally in a product is dismissive.

I believe that since Katie and Joseph have kept themselves surrounded by trees (their backyard is a forest), that they’ve harvested their own wood for their products, and that they’ve organically nurtured their toolkit and studio, they excel in an environment that readily grounds their craft of woodworking. Owning such a setting that bonds directly with one’s craft isn’t a strict requirement, but frequent contact with one’s chosen materials upholds an informed way of recognizing and working with the attributes of those materials. Katie and Joseph practice working with wood to know the nature of it. Knowing the characteristics of wood sharpens their sensibilities when it comes to approaching and using it. Familiarity with wood is constant and iterative—because, I assume, they don’t want to lose their way with materials they cherish.

When a craftsperson loses proper connection with their chosen material, it materializes into a profound loss of mindfulness. The outcome is a disconnect: between maker and materials, between the product and its space, between the product and its use, most of all, between the product and its standing over time. Joseph told me that he always wants to make something that lasts. He was referring to “heirloom quality.” Familiarity with materials helps achieve this supreme durability of human-made objects.

A client who desires something handmade. A community’s historic location to serve as the object’s home. An assignment to make something special. These facts characterize a dream in the form of a project. A responsible one. Shortcuts are allowed, only if they achieve gains, not defects. The table that my friend, Katie, spoke of was supposed to be a teachable moment, when she and her husband, Joseph, would learn a new aspect, or relearn a timeless technique of woodworking. Instead, unexpectedly, that table and its maker were remarkable in their representation of things scuttled in their making.

Our material world deserves better.

(1) To further elaborate on the table’s deterioration, Katie offered this deduction: “There was no allowance for seasonal movement in the design. The most obvious factor—and only physical evidence available—showed problems with the technique in construction. The table’s visible decline could have also resulted from poorly seasoned lumber, but we have no way of knowing this. The failure occurred during the design process, probably at multiple stages, all rooted in the table’s maker not knowing how to properly work with the given materials.”

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Related: Read my interview “Katie and Joseph Thompson, Designers and Makers in All Things Wood” and their answers to my Designer’s Quest(ionnaire)

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