The Shape of Design

Frank Chimero

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Chapter One Illustration

Chapter Two Craft and Beauty

A sunflower seed and a solar system are the same thing; they both are whole systems. I find it easier to pay attention to the complexities of the smaller than to pay attention to the complexities of the larger. That, as much as anything, is why I’m a craftsman. It’s a small discipline, but you can put an awful lot into it. Adam Smith, Knifemaker

They say all things began as nothing. I should believe this, but it is difficult to conceive of nothing in the middle of a world that is so full. I close my eyes and try to picture a darkness, but even that is something. We are told that there was a big bang at the beginning of time that created the universe, but this turns creation into a spectacle. I’m skeptical of showmanship. The romantic in me wants to imagine there was no flash, no bang. Perhaps instead there was a quiet dignity to the spurring of matter from nothingness. I tell myself a story to draw back the darkness and fill the void.

In the beginning, a voice slowly approached from afar, so unhurried that it was hardly noticeable. “Better,” it whispered. But no bang, no fireworks. No grand gestures or swipes of God. The secret closed in and contained the void, like how a hushed, familiar voice in the dark can create a pocket of warmth around it. I picture how the loose gases firmed to make the planets. The spheres spun, and the atoms collided and combined in uncountable ways over billions of years. The cocktail thickened and congealed, and after an unimaginable number of attempts, life showed up, sprawled out, then pushed on. We gained hearts and eyes, legs and hands. We crawled out of the muck, climbed into the trees, and eventually came back down.

The first boom, the recipe that produced the universe and life, was born of circumstance. The second boom, one of the mind and making, was by design.

I hold a token of the second bang in my hands. No bang, no show – most would say what I’m holding is just a rock. Walk into any proper house of curiosities and ask to see their hand axes. They will show you something similar to what I hold: a stone resembling an arrowhead with a tip that is honed and sharp. It will be close to the size of a deck of cards and fit comfortably into the hand. Hand axes are frequently cited as the first human-made objects; the oldest specimens, discovered in Ethiopia, are estimated to be about two-and-a-half million years old. We have been molding this world for a very long time.

The hand axes record the first moment that we understood that the world was malleable – that things can change and move, and we can initiate those transformations ourselves. To be human is to tinker, to envision a better condition, and decide to work toward it by shaping the world around us.

In this way, design is a field of transformations concerned with the steps we take to mold our situations. The maker of this hand axe transformed a rock into a tool which allowed him to turn a sealed nut into an open platter; it allowed him to turn beasts on the plain into dinner. The same making instinct was at play when the Wrights flew their first airplane or when Greek architects sat down to mastermind the Parthenon. The products of our endeavors sprawl out behind us in a wake of repercussions and remain, in some cases, for millions of years.

There is often a diligence in construction to these axes, an elegant symmetry to their form. These details don’t necessarily contribute to the utility of the tool, but their presence implies that we’ve cared about craft ever since our minds first opened up to the idea of invention. A polished axe does not chop better, just as the refined design of a lamp does not necessarily light a room more fully. Beauty is a special form of craft that goes beyond making something work better.

The Shakers have a proverb that says, “Do not make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both, do not hesitate to make it beautiful.” We all believe that design’s primary job is to be useful. Our minds say that so long as the design works well, the work’s appearance does not necessarily matter. And yet, our hearts say otherwise. No matter how rational our thinking, we hear a voice whisper that beauty has an important role to play.

The hand axe is a prime specimen to consider beauty’s role in this tangle of concerns, because the stone’s waned usefulness lets us consider its aesthetic appeal on its own. Despite the axe’s utilitarian origin, the experience of buying my particular hand axe was more like purchasing a piece of jewelry than something kept in the toolbox. The determinate factor was how pleasing each hand axe was to my eye. The aesthetic details I found desirable were the same to the person who made the hand axe. This overlap connects me to the past; someone long ago had an eye similar to my own, and cared enough about the tool’s beauty to choose a rock with an even finish, then mold it into a pleasing symmetry. That care remains intact inside the stone.

Craft links us to a larger tradition of makers by folding the long line that connects us across the vast expanse of time. I am in awe of the brushwork of Van Dyck even though the paintings were made four hundred years ago. My jaw drops at the attention to detail in Gutenberg’s original forty-two line Bible, and can’t help but be impressed by the ornamental patterns of Arabic mosques and their dizzying complexity. We all bask in the presence of beauty, because there is a magical aura to high craft. It says, “Here is all we’ve got. This is what humankind is capable of doing, with every ounce of care and attention wrung out into what’s before you.” Craft is a love letter from the work’s maker, and here in my hands is that note enveloped in stone.

I’m reminded of a piece of advice I received during my third year at university. I was preparing to go to a design conference to show off my portfolio in an attempt to land a summer internship. The day before I left, I stepped into my favorite professor’s office with my portfolio to give him a second look at everything. I had done most of the projects in his classes, but I thought one last bit of feedback might be helpful. He was on the phone, but he still waved me in, and pointed to a empty spot on his desk so he could browse my book while on his call. He flipped through the pages quickly, saying the occasional “Yes” and “Okay.” The words were most likely to the woman on the line, but I sat on the other side of his desk imagining that they were in approval of my work. Finally, he got to the last page and asked the woman on the line to hold for a moment. He held the phone to his chest, looked at me, and simply said, “Needs more love.” He pushed the portfolio back across his desk, smiled warmly, and shooed me out of his office.

I still think about this advice, and what exactly he might have meant when he said my work needed more love. At the time, I took it to mean that I should improve my craft, but I’ve come to realize that he was speaking of something more fundamental and vital. My work was flat, because it was missing the spark that comes from creating something you believe in for someone you care about. This is the source of the highest craft, because an affection for the audience produces the care necessary to make the work well.

This kind of affection has a way of making itself known by enabling those who come in contact with the work. In the seventeenth century, for example, Antonio Stradivari achieved what many consider to be the pinnacle of craft in the instruments that he made. He produced about five hundred violins in his life, and those still remaining are coveted by players around the world. It’s said that their sound is lush and transcendent, and one can imagine Stradivari hunched over the body of one of his violins, meticulously fine-tuning the details to create the most divine sound. Stradivari’s secret recipe has long been lost, but modern science has given a bit of insight into his methods through the analysis of his instruments. Some experts believe the secret to his violins lies in their filler and varnish, which is believed to contain volcanic ash, insect wings, shrimp shells, and “tantalizing traces of organic compounds that could be bedroom residues, sweat, or pheromones of the master’s own breath.” Secret recipe, indeed: each instrument was a beautiful union, where the maker was himself a material used in the construction. There is no way to describe Stradivari’s work other than as a labor of love.

The work has enough love when enthusiasm transfers from the maker to the audience and bonds them. Both are enthusiastic about the design. I can imagine the excitement in the room when Stradivari would hand his newest violin to a skilled musician, because the violinist would unlock the instrument’s full potential by playing it. The products of design, like Stradivari’s violins, possess an aspect that can only be revealed through their use. It is why I’m always compelled to pick up my hand axe and roll it around in my hand, rather than letting it sit on the mantle. The stone is pleasing to the eye, but it was made for the hand, so it feels more appropriate to hold than display. And it’s when I hold the hand axe that I can hear the voice that whispers “better,” sense how the line that connects me to the past folds, and feel a love inside that rock. In truth, there are two sets of hands on this stone, and it’s by holding the hand axe that it begins to unfold its true magic. The stone, in spite of all these years, is still warm from the hands of the one who made it.

Chapter ThreeImprovisation and Limitations