Elements of Design
Éléments desChamps – June 16, 2017
Design starts with problem solving. Good design provides both form and function. Aesthetically, visual arts are pleasing to the eye, invoke a sense of wonder, curiosity, interest and in some cases, even awe. However, for design to reach its highest potential, it also solves problems. Form and function are achieved, rather than one or the other.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition between art/architecture and engineering. Engineering is, by design (pardon the pun), the elemental problem solving discipline. It makes things work. Engineering is all about function, and often leaves form for the aesthetically inclined to deal with. Art and Architecture, however, tend to invoke the essence of the history of both the natural and human aspects of the world. Rarely do we have the opportunity to meet one who is inclined to invent solutions to commonplace problems, while also embracing the visual aspects to the creative solutions. Leonardo DaVinci is the first to enter my mind.
After visiting the DaVinci museum in Milan last summer, and having seen first hand many of his inventions on display in the Vatican several years ago, I imagine it would be very difficult to find many people throughout recorded history who have embodied both schools of thought on such a regular basis throughout a single human experience. It is simply amazing to see the creations offered throughout his life that affected so many disciplines, from flying machines, to musical instruments, to the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, the man was not only an undeniable genius, but an incredible example of what can be achieved in one short lifetime and the effects of those contributions throughout the ages to follow.
So, on a pub crawl in Asheville, NC one sunny Saturday in March, we wandered into Asheville Hardware, where we were astounded to find 10 ft. tall by sometimes 5 ft. wide by 2-3 inch thick slabs of hardwood; multiple varieties, whose towering presence reminisced of forest giants, dwarfing mere mortals. Yet the warmth exuding from these silent giants, was immense. It is incredulous how being in the presence of the elements of nature can calm and inspire. It was with intentions of creating one walnut end-of-bed bench, that we left, slab in hand that day, to unwittingly begin the journey of crafting fine furnishings that will adorn fine homes and become heirloom pieces that we hope folks will pass down for generations.
The addiction was formed that day. A subsequent trip, this time- specifically to find more slabs a few weeks later, led to the flow of creativity that springs extemporaneously the moment you cross the threshold into this super-slab store that started as a typical hardware, but morphed into a haven for creative makers in this city of artists and artisans, Asheville settled by the Biltmores, a town grown through a collective that shares a love for both the form and function derived in nature.
As we wandered through the available kiln dried hardwoods, ideas sprung as if fed by Blue Ridge streams. ‘That maple live-edge slab would make a killer dining room table!’…’I love those black-smithed legs on the Box Elder bench.’ These were the utterances as we moved among the elders (slabs) and furniture created, by hardware store employees who are also makers. It was then that we met Jake Coley, a sculptor who happens to also work at the hardware on Saturdays, whom after I borderline badgered, agreed to mentor me as I re-enter the metalsmithing world, marrying the elements of style.
When finding the ‘right’ slabs, we first wander the entire store and see what’s in stock. Then we circle again, like vultures examining prey, the details, like graining, coloring, markings from bugs, disease all of which add character to finished pieces, yes, the details are the determinant of the ultimate purchase and tentative plan forming in our heads as we leave with yet another carload of live edge, slab hardwoods. Each piece that jumps out at us gives birth to the possibilities of what purpose the giant will ultimately serve. Cookies (horizontal slices of wide diameter trunks), will lend well for table tops, for example; while slabs (vertical slices of tree trunks) have aspirations of becoming dining tables, coffee tables and benches. They also have bins with scrap wood segregated by wood varieties for sale by the pound. Among varieties of kiln dried hardwood we have seen available at Asheville Hardware, are Cherry, Maple, Ambrosia Maple, Sycamore, Walnut, Box Elder, Poplar, Red and White Oak, Cedar, Purple Heart, a rare- definitively purple hue of an African hardwood (typically used in smaller quantities for bird houses or cutting boards, by woodworkers making small scale products, due in part to the availability and in part to the cost).
Some slabs have sizable cracks the entire or partial lengths of the slabs. Some are warped beyond our ability to plane. So the next step in examining and choosing the right raw materials, is to examine for character of the wood- evidence of borers or disease that determines markings, coloring, graining, etc. Finally, we lay the piece on the floor to check for warpage. After selecting, we may have to have it cut to a length that we can transport. The cool folks at Asheville Hardware make the first cut for free as a courtesy to customers, ensuring a sale that otherwise might not happen, due to vehicle space constraints.
Once we get the piece to the shop, the fun begins. Some are so heavy it takes minimally two adults to lift it out of the car and carry into Terranova Woodworks, Jerry Terranova, friend and artisan woodworker has graciously agreed to join our team and not only provide the shop in which all major aspects of the woodworking end of this furniture making endeavor are performed, but also the expert guidance of a master. Jerry is a gem. His lovely wife, Dale, joins the parade providing us humor with a side of homemade potato salad and apple pie- either of which would rival the best in class. Jerry’s own ‘gravy’ (tomato sauce with meatballs and sausage, is worthy of his namesake (Terranova, meaning, new earth). Credit where due to Gabby, who helps with the heavy lifting, planing, sanding of slabs. Joseph and Jerry and I spent a day carving out keyholes for the bowties Jerry cut that would bridge a major crack in a slab of cherry, the bowties made from cutoffs of handcrafted cutting boards of various varieties. In many ways this adventure facilitates the spending of time, learning together and spur of creativity among folks who otherwise might not have created the opportunity to spend as much time together.
Next is the shaping of the legs. Like of a good wine, legs are critical. Like the yin of natural wood, the yang of metal, another naturally occurring element, lends it’s own charms to these freeform pieces. The energy of metal adds anything from a cool, industrial, to mid-century modern feel, to the artsy vine-like steel black-smithed legs. The various functional art forms, whether tables, desks, headboards, stools, benches or other, handcrafted with intentions of longevity, the sheer magnitude of these pieces commands attention, whether paired with like items or acting in contrast.
Often the pairing is where the true essence of the piece is revealed. A wingback settee completes a dining table opposite a bench; while a bar-height standing workstation might have two stools, making a convenient shift in use from desk to bar table for two. A small maple burl might make a lovely little coffee table for a smaller living room, or a reading chair side table in the boudoir. The possibilities are endless!
Aromatic cedar has long held the role of hope chest liner, as a moth deterrent for closets coveting handmade woolen sweaters, linens and quilts. Éléments desChamps offers cedar newly styled in the form of closet shelving, we’ll install for you, or we also offer cedar hanging blocks to distribute throughout your hanging valuables. The cedar smells so good that recently I constructed a headboard of cedar with an oil finish for protection on the face, but leaving the back unfinished to breathe that enticing cedar aroma into the room. Wake feeling like you’ve just spent a night at camp!
Design is creating a visual art form that functions as a solution to a typical need for convenience, comfort, aesthetic appeal. Functional art that become heirlooms, that’s what we’re creating at Éléments desChamps.