Last weekend I visited the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham with my Dad. I have been for the last 3 years now, partly because my parents live nearby so I can visit the exhibition with them as they like to go, and also because I love to see all the amazing furniture. The exhibition is a source of great inspiration, and I get to see what some of the best wood workers in the country are doing. As ever, the beauty and craftsmanship in all the pieces on exhibit were stunning, but this year I noticed myself looking a lot more critically at some of the work.
How can I be critical of some of these works? Well, I find myself starting to pull drawers out and looking at joints very closely to try and spot some of the tell-tale signs that something has been made by a human, rather than formed in a machine. This, for me, is the true mark of the craftsman. I want to see the odd gauge mark on a dovetail that has escaped the plane, or the tiny wiggles in marquetry joints that prove to me that the shapes have come from a skilled caftsmans knife rather than the bland perfection of veneer cut by a laser in a modern machine.
Mass production and modern machines like laser-cutters and CNC machines have made perfection ordinary. We expect everything we buy to be perfect, and most times it is. But I know that mass produced perfection isn't satisfying. It has no soul. If you buy a table from a high street furniture shop it will be cheap, perfectly smooth, and the same as any of the other ones that came from the factory. It will do the job of a table very well. What more would you want?
For many people, this is all they want, because it's all they know. We are all used to mass produced perfection - its 'normal'. But sometimes, you hold or touch something and it feels special. These are normally objects that are old, and have been heavily used, and have character and love worn into them. And sometimes, if we're really lucky, we find something new that has been made by hand, with craftsmanship and love, and it can be immediately felt when you touch it. For me, good furniture should be tactile - it should feel great to touch and feel. I love the organic shape of real wood - I don't feel a connection with wood that has been processed and homogenised by machines.
It's a comparatively recent idea, that furniture (and all other everyday items) should be bland, homogenous, mass-produced, inexpensive and perfect. You don't have to go too far back in history (probably to just before the invention of power tools and heavy machinery) to find stuff made by hand in the traditional way. Maybe this is what attracts people to buy antiques - stuff that has been well made so it lasts for generations, and feels tactile and inviting to touch and use. This is a fine aspiration for me when making furniture - to produce functional pieces that are tactile, organic, inviting and will last for generations because they have been well made.
My favourite pieces at Cheltenham were made by Adrian McCurdy - the amazing riven oak he uses is so beautiful and curvy. His were the pieces surrounded by people running their hands over the surfaces of his furniture - what better recommendation can a craftsman get?! Check out his stuff at www.adrianmccurdy.co.uk
Anyway, here's some of my more recent bits and pieces - I've a long way to go before my stuff is good enough for Cheltenham!