Why No Complexity – Paul Sellers’ Blog

Mouldings are the most common means to decorating furniture. For millennia and all the more since the ubiquitous power router, this fashion has mindlessly continued in furniture and woodwork worldwide. Though skillessly added in work today, the classic Greek influence is used in moulds to transition from one surface to an adjacent one: ceilings to walls and walls to floors on covings and skirting boards (base trim USA). The cabinet here conceals the meeting lines of internal corners and forms a frame to panels of complex carvings as though a frame to a three-dimensional picture. The mouldings are skilfully developed using hand-made moulding planes yet claim no skill by the anonymous artisan. It was on its way to the dump but the driver thought not to follow orders and delivered it to someone he thought might care. Hard to imagine!

There will be a percentage of you promising makers who are looking for more than I am prepared to give you and an explanation might be helpful. In furniture making, there are many a thousand different styles and anyone studying furniture making will soon discover that there is the simplicity of vernacular furniture made in past times on a local level by a local maker and the complex versions designed and made for the rich and influential over centuries past. The clear distinction between the rich and poor of old is all but gone. And yet, I ask myself, just why do we copy something that so identifies with something 2,000 years out of date? Is it simply because we bought a power router and there is not much else you can do with it once you’ve routed out a few dadoes? Again, the only real skill in making a mould with it is to keep it moving in a steady, unfaltering line so as to avoid and indent in continuity and then too burn marks that can be hard to get rid of.

Of course, moulding do have an important place in our woodworking world. I’ve discussed that elsewhere. Though class still exists, it’s different. In the woodworking of times past, rural workers attached to a variety of rural crafts made many things wooden. Restoring wagons and carriages translated into hedge laying and perhaps some basket weaving from willow or split oak. It could be a competent farmer or a useful gardener and in a simpler, less globalised world crafts thrived on a local level. Follow on to discover the flamboyant extremes of the rich and privileged in European environs for a remarkable contrast and then we have those eschewing the excesses of an era to make more the simple statement to pursue a modest life expressing things like Methodism (the Methodist Church) and Shakerism (an unusual religious sect establishing itself in communities in the USA). These religious groups pursued simpler lifestyles altogether and saw any adornment as excessive living. The Shakers devised some pretty heavy demands on those following a cult-like existence to the point of their ultimate demise.

In a maker’s life, someone like me, making pieces full-time year in year out, can be approached to make just about any style including their own if he or she’s a designer maker. Copying a style comes with many a kind of decoration from hawks dropping on a prey to ornate mouldings and then months of work carving and inlaying incredibly extremely complex designs to decorate a tabletop or a cathedral pulpit to be nearer to his and her Maker. The excesses of the ancients in religious edifices like cathedrals and churches cover the whole of Europe with much less so in the new world. Though remarkably contrived through generations of a single household of makers, work was grandfathered down to subsequent generations even to great- and great, great-grandchildren which has always bemused me. I’m sure the men- and women-makers along with their children and their children’s children were grateful for the work that put food on the table and shoes on their feet, but I must say that there is no greater excess exemplified anywhere than the edifices visited by millions in capital cities around the world. I think that the sense of awe we feel in such grand extremes is more to do with the building’s size and clear span at such elevated heights than anything else. These things led me to think about what I wanted in my furniture and I have written on this in other places too. I care less and less for mouldings. Only two choices are available to woodworkers, vintage moulding planes or power routers. Better to let people make their own choices. To mould or not to mould, that is the question.

This carving sits atop a side piece 20″ wide and three feet tall in a single piece. It is skillfully executed work pristinely cut from a solid and all the work is handwork with no machining. We are talking carving tools, special planes, knives and customised scrapers and scratch stock work. Very, very complex. Adding this to a piece `i make is weeks of work and none of my audience has time for such adornment.

There were many makers who left their mark more by the simplicity rather than the ornate. Go into any of the ancient public buildings throughout Europe and the carver of motifs and scenes is more likely a lost and unknown name though there be no signature beyond the style of his working in the round. Of course, the famed architect’s name is plastered in books everywhere, as is the philanthropist supporting the making of such creative work and then too perhaps the signatories at the head of the tables of altruism. And let it be known! There is some very remarkable work out there to be studied and understood. The wormy handhold above is many hours if not days of work. No one anywhere in the world could afford to buy the volume of work in the building this picture was taken from today. Multiply this a million times and you can see how cheap a man’s creative labour was through several centuries and much of it in the names of religions.

The white one was the example to be copied, the wooden versions are pieces I carved to be installed in the restoration of a winery. Many days of work that I was very glad to be done with.

So we come to the present day and the current work of Paul Sellers from the mid-1900s on through the first quarter of the new millennia. Do I admire that the Shakers and the Arts and Crafts movement who brought in or back a simpler styling? Well, I think I would say I respect what they offered to the world of design, yes. They are indeed a part of the greater whole, aren’t they? There is something very special, unique even, about the maker whose skill lies in distilling things down to the raw energy pure functionality brings to a design. Now I am not talking about mass-made utilitarianism evident in institutional venues. No no, that’s a whole different other world. This might help: I recall taking a Stickley chair in for repair some many moons back. The simple-looking chair stood atop one of my two benches for a few weeks, primarily because its owner disappeared without trace for months and my price for the repair wasn’t yet accepted before his disappearance. I could neither work on it nor return it. Over the weeks I found my eye repeatedly drawn to certain facts about its design. I saw a difference between the greater randomness of the stick chair makers cranking out parts by eye in woodlands around England and then how rigidly the Stickley maker had complied with the parameters of spacings between mathematically positioned rails in diminishing distances for the purpose of establishing standardised designs to be produced with ease of repeatable manufacturing that would be faithful to the design and the designer. There was nothing freeform to the design. Every curve and rail, leg and taper was proportionally calculated. How the man-maker was being conditioned by the designer to follow extremely rigid patterns to ensure the design was the designers and not the makers. . . so very critical to any designer’s work.

An Arts and Crafts element by Ernest Gimson stitched into dovetails uniquely by a man maker carefully calculating the outcome of his design. Six pulling dovetails interspersed with simpler squared box joint elements to create a robust corner that goes together much more easily. How lovely such a thing is. As it is with a sentence or words phrased and well met by generations, one might just be saying, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

My repair eventually followed and the work was completed and paid for. There was little interaction between this disappeared man and myself, just a basic gratitudinal letter for saving one chair as part of a suite of six. And so the skills of the repairer were subsumed into the greater whole and no one knew of the work of the whole. Months later another such project came in. These medallions were not particularly complicated but they did bore me as most carving seems to do to me. Every so often though, you will indeed see the work of an individual that just translates you into new realms. Often something truly simple in appearance but then the more you look at it the more you see the art was less in the carving and more in the placing of each well-chosen and composed piece. You look many times and two hours has passed as you catch different glimpses in the twist of a gouge or a chisel’s cut. Getting your work to go beyond the wood to make what’s carved look less, well, wooden, is where the art in carving lies. I once watched a carver carve his own image of himself full size and wondered where this piece would ultimately reside. Would he sell it and if so who would buy it? Would he keep it and if so would it stand on a sideboard in his living room? The work was incredibly executed and it did make me think about something called carving graven images.

I use this oak desk in my office and enjoy the presence of it knowing all that it cost me to get to this point in my lifestyle woodworking. Some developments in my life were part of a steady and engaging plan while others were not any conscious part of my hopes but became stepping stones five thousand miles apart and are fondly remembered. That’s why I enjoy looking at this particular piece. Where, why, when and how I made it is a single stepping stone.

Our work of recent years has led me to design pieces that will enable and equip people to become skilful woodworkers. Adornment would be of secondary interest and value to the construction techniques and methods used. Anything that we have made on woodworking masterclasses can always be embellished with additional inlay work, veneering, carvings and mouldings or whatever. I have many pieces that we have made in these recent years that I have and am enjoying these days. Most of them have no moulding to them. Why? I think using mouldings somehow dates your work. It ties to a past era, yes, but it also ties it to the power router and mass-making methods I try no longer to include in my work. In essence, moulding make me reliant on the design of others–classical Roman influences and such. But worse than that, it ties me to a machine I would rather have as little to do with as possible just because it is so very invasive.

This table is one of my earliest training pieces for table making. It’s probably known as a Shaker style though it’s not Shaker-invented or developed. It’s a strange thing but knock the moulds off, get rid of carvings and such and suddenly people refer to it as a Shaker-style this or that.

Using the dining table and chairs at the house brought comfort and personality to the dining kitchen and, of course, personal mental comfort for the designer maker. I prefer using the wood as decoration rather than three-dimensional carving and mouldings which often serves more to clutter a design. I prefer the concepts of the wood itself texturing and decorating the work and using textures on wood surfaces without too much human interference. Several things strike me about using wood without adornment, perhaps its near natural condition as possible, one, its diverse colour options, two, its grain type and configurations and finally its texturability. hand tools of different types texture wood remarkably well. From wire brushes to carving tools and paints for colouring alongside gold- and silver-leafing and fuming with ammonia. It wasn’t really my intention not to carve or inlay and so on so much as by not using it it became a statement in and of itself. suppose, but that wasn’t really so much an intention as a way to break up the monotony of a room with all of the same wood. Eclecticism is a form of decorating and an arrangement of different woods composed in unique designs can be, well, exceptionally entertaining. When my two new cabinets go into the same dining areas as the other pieces there will be an interest for any eye that comes.

Three kinds of wood in a single piece is not so unusual but here in the UK mesquite is amongst the rarest of woods adding personality to a nostalgic past recalling and recording some of my journey to now.

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