As complex as it needs to be

I’ll get into the joint for the rest of the shelves tomorrow.  But here is an interesting divide between an artisan and a hobbyist.  From the outside, it appears that people who make things for a living (especially if they’re self-employed) are really just playing around at stuff, then getting paid for it.  How many times in the various professions I’ve had that people would get a wistful look and say “I wish I could do this all day…”

It ain’t so.

In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to keep all the balls in the air.  Sometimes, you loathe the craft you work at because of the constraints of actually having to make a living at it.  And the margins are slim at best.  No one who works at craft for a living is in it for the money.

So when faced with design criteria, many times an artisan will have a different view than a hobbyist.  A hobbyist will turn the idea around and around trying to be “cool”.  Some crazy wackadoodle scheme inevitably results, requiring lots and lots of painstaking attention.  If you hear someone talking about how a piece took them umpteen hours of work, you’re probably talking to a hobbyist.

An artisan, on the other hand, has no truck with this.  Those hours of fiddling with things are like Scrooge’s coal: temporary and costly.  Instead, the artisan gravitates to the tried and true.  Why do a quad tenon when a single tenon performs perfectly well?  For a showpiece it might be warranted, but not on a working model.  For an artisan the key points are accuracy and efficiency instead of novelty.

Every piece that goes out the door is a reflection on the craftsman.  Shoddy, hastily executed work is self-defeating.  But at the same time, that work must be done as expediently as possible.  Only by combining accuracy with efficiency can the demise of the Arts and Crafts movement be avoided.

The Arts and Crafts movement was based upon the idea that well-made craft should be available to the “common man” by stripping away excess.  It was a reaction to the overblown decadence of the Victorian era.  Instead of veneer and extensive carvings, the main hallmarks became plain expanses of solid wood (to the point of crudeness on occasion), and exposed joinery.  This is where the Stickley brothers were working, as well as others such as Limbert and the Greenes.

But the theory fell by the wayside in the quest for refinement and class.  By the time the classic forms of Craftsman furniture (Sears, Roebuck had nothing to do with that, by the way) evolved, the pieces were priced way outside the realm of consideration by any but the well-off.  The complexity of most of the pieces demanded a lot of detailed work to construct and caused the price to rise.  Simpler furniture was largely left by the wayside, though vernacular forms persisted and the idea of quality furniture for the masses would occasionally surface in forms like the “utility furniture” of wartime Britain.

So for the craftsman, there is always a conscious struggle to design as complexly as necessary, but no more.  There are competing demands at work.  Do you want something unique?  Well-made?  From beautiful materials?  So far all of these are possible, but then comes the demand for economy and the whole enterprise collapses.  It’s a tough nut to crack.  How to design something agreeable, capable, and affordable?  All of these are considerations.  Balancing them depends on the client (you pick two!).

In the case of this shelf, I needed strong shelves.  The choice of material had been decided already.  I could have simply butt jointed the shelves on to the sides, or used a simple dado.  But having seen failures of those joints, I decided to use a joint that is more complex, but vastly stronger.  This is not because it was a way to show off, but rather because the demands of the design dictated it.  It is as complex as it needs to be, and no more.