A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

I greatly admire the work of Samuel Yellin, an artisan-blacksmith who lived in Philadelphia in the early part of the 1900’s. A master blacksmith, creator of art in wrought iron, and noted teacher, he was a great inspiration to many. His body of work is truly incredible, especially to those with some knowledge of what is involved in working metal at the forge. Even more than his work, I find myself greatly impressed by Yellin’s staunch attitudes towards craftsmanship, which he advocated for, and manifested in his work, throughout his life. I paraphrased him in an earlier post, here’s the full quote from a lecture he gave on Craftsmanship:

Very often I am asked by architects how work should be specified. I always tell them, “Specify that work should be done in the best possible manner.” There is no other form of specification that the true craftsman understands.

A common response to such calls for doing the best possible work one can, often emanates from those with a particularly pragmatic streak, ‘means-to-an-end’ thinkers, or from those who are not prepared to actually take risks in their work, or push their level up, perhaps out of fear of failure. Some might call for other craftsmen to set their sights lower, as it would be threatening to perceive others exceeding them in some manner: keep the others down so you won’t have to take risks to lift your own work to a higher standard.

I’ve heard these sorts of comments a lot over the years:

No one’s going to pay for that

C’mon, get with reality

The client won’t notice these details you obsess over

You’ll never make a living that way

Ah, once that’s covered over, no one will be able to tell – why bother?

From twenty feet (from the road) that will be invisible

It’s good enough

It’s unnecessary (because, beyond the minimum = unnecessary)

The form is all people care about

I gotta make a living here

Why do you have to make everything so complicated?

And so forth. Everyone has their own motivations for what they do, and much of that may well be unconscious. Fear is a strong conditioning device, and our schooling system, with its testing and ranking systems from the earliest years, inculcates a certain timidity in many, and aversion to risk, a reluctance to take chances or be seen to make mistakes.

However, making mistakes is the best way to learn that I know of. Staying within your comfort zone, convincing yourself that making a buck is more important in the long run that your own sense of personal integrity. That’s a heavy price to pay.

I guess what being a craftsman is about is largely having such a strong identification with your craft and it’s expression by your hands, that it is indivisible from your sense of self. In other words, an identification with the way your do your work, and the standards you set, are reflections of your personal character and integrity. Work for the craftsperson doesn’t end at 5:00, everything forgotten, beer in hand in front of the television. Work for the craftsperson, is all-encompassing, and is an artifact of devotion and inner purpose. Personal identification with one’s art means having trouble sleeping sometimes because your mind is abuzz with creative possibilities. If it keeps you up at night with wonder and excitement, then you know you are on the right path. Everything else is just a job by comparison.

That does not mean that everything you do must be gold-plated, but it does mean that you put as much effort into the small things that the client likely doesn’t notice, as into the obvious things they will notice. You do this because you know it to be good workmanship. Yellin cared to make a light switch-plate with the same dedication to excellence as he did for the Federal Reserve Bank Gates, a $5 piece or a $10,000 piece.

Now, some might say, that’s all very well, but ‘my current client won’t pay for that – I’ll save that sort of work for when the $ are there’. That sounds logical enough, but, walk with me through a short analogy for a second….

Woodworking, making furniture, timber framing, etc, are all physical skills, and require, as I mentioned in my Shin-Gi-Tai posting from January, good measures of intellect and heart. Let’s say you play basketball, and perhaps you aspire to make the starting line-up on the team. Basketball is a game with a physical component to be sure, in terms of strength, coordination, endurance, and is also an activity where thinking, pre-planning, strategy (the intellect) plays a strong role, and so does the heart, the indomitable spirit. I would say that preparation and training are the key to performance on the court, no? If, during practice you run usually in a half-hearted manner, are you likely to have that extra bit of stamina and speed come game time? If when you shoot at the basket, if you don’t really care too much if you sink the ball in the hoop, that getting the ball ‘close enough’ to the hoop is ‘good enough’ -heck maybe someone will grab a rebound and it will even look like you meant to miss the basket – is this attitude a likely path to excellence? I doubt it.

If you want to make the basket, you must continuously and repetitively shoot at that basket, and you aren’t aiming merely to make contact with the backboard, and you aren’t going to be satisfied with having the ball rattle off the rim, sometimes bouncing out: no, you will be striving to hear that swish every single time. Does that mean you will hear a swish every single time? Unlikely – we’re human’s not machines after all. Even Michael Jordan missed more shots than he made. You can always practice more, and some days you will be more ‘on’ than others of course. The intent and drive to develop ones game remains however, and that drive comes from within the person.

What will YOU settle for?

My point is, when the game time comes, you will perform as you have practiced. And if you haven’t been striving in practice to do your best, how can you expect that your best will suddenly materialize when the game is on? Same for craftsmanship I think. If your best work is to be saved for some hypothetical point down the line where the ‘client who will pay’ comes along, I put it to you that you won’t really have game when the time comes. In fact, if your practice has comprised only half-hearted, sub-par, playing-it-safe, keeping-well-within-my limits, ‘being pragmatic’, doing only what was asked and no more, well, I suggest it becomes less likely that you will ever be getting that call to come off the bench and take to the court. If you practice sub-standard work, that is all in the end you will be habituated to doing.

So, who will pay for this stuff then? Some might say, “nobody paid for Van Gogh’s work during his lifetime, that poor sap. He went mad and cut his ear off for god’s sake, died penniless – that guy was in too deep. That’s not me.” There’s always the possibility that the value of your work will not be appreciated while you are alive, and other people will make millions off it after you’re long gone. You might go insane from frustration or from toxic paint fumes if you’re not careful. That’s a risk, no doubt about it. Many fine American cabinetmakers, their work fetching in the millions today, died paupers – Bostonian Thomas Seymour for example, whose Seymour Commode now sits in the MFA in Boston. He was a fine craftsman, undoubtedly, but perhaps not such a good technician when it came to running a business. On balance though, we are left with a Masterwork of furniture art.

Am I saying that, given a project to make a lampshade for, say $200, I should labor for 500 hours on it, to create a masterwork of art? That’s always an option of course, but there’s obviously a danger in such absolutism. I’ve become quite expert in working for hundreds of hours for no money – hah! In anything you make, there is the unattainable, 100% perfect mark. Since it is unattainable, some would say why even both going towards it? I say, if you don’t try to go towards it, you are on the path to mediocrity. Somewhere on that journey towards 100%, the craftsperson has to make a rational decision about which point they will stop at, and that is obviously a function of innate talent as well. Some have to labor for hours, carefully and slowly, to achieve a result that the more adept can achieve in a few moves. So, each craftsperson has to decide for themselves where that cut off mark is, some interrelation between time, money, and percentage closeness to perfection. That comes from within – what you will settle for. Getting to 90% might well be fairly quick, and might well ‘satisfy’ the client, while moving from 95% to 97% might well take as much time as getting to the 95% mark in the first place.

The important bit, from a perspective of craftsmanship, is whether the work satisfies the craftsperson. There is no other standard of judgment that matters, not your peers, not the market, not the client. The craftsperson needs to be satisfied that they have done their best and created something of beauty and utility, before it leaves the shop.

If the client doesn’t appreciate what is involved in producing items of high quality, then it is the craftsperson’s job, quoting Yellin again, “to cultivate the client’s mind and eye so that he will learn to be discriminating and appreciative of beauty. Thereby he will learn to accept the better work, even though the cost might be greater, or the designs will have to be simplified to meet the set allowance.

That’s a key remark right there – the design can always be simplified or scaled down to meet a particular budget, but the quality should never be compromised.

I think it may be said, with fair accuracy, that craftspeople, being technicians first and foremost, are often poor salespeople for their work. There is a kind of wishful thinking in much of the crafts community, that ‘if you build it they will come’, that clients will automatically recognize how fine your work is, and why you do what you do, and thus will flock to it. In good economic times, or simply by luck, right place-right time, this may appear to hold true, but it is an illusion. Many clients have no idea about the details of your work, or why doing mortise and tenon might be superior to biscuit joints, etc., from looking at it. And if they are attracted to it, and wonder why the price is higher than for something ‘similar’ they can get at their local Furniture Barn, then the craftsperson’s job is to educate, and negotiate with their best interests – and ultimately those of the client – in mind.

If you truly believe in your work, and think you can convince someone as to why your work is a manifestation of quality in craftsmanship, then sales skill is really simply an extension of this belief. If you’re passionate about what you do, if you know your art inside and out, that will come through loud and clear to the client, of that I’m sure.

But make no mistake, the craftsperson sets the standard for their work, no one else. Another quote from Yellin again, one which I take to heart:

If a man is truly an artist, he must impose on an unwilling public standards of perfection to which it is not accustomed.”

We are fortunate, I suppose, to live as craftspeople in a day and age where standards have fallen so low, along with public expectations, as it is awfully easy now to exceed people’s expectations. Simply showing up when you promised, or returning phone calls, or cleaning up your mess at the job site, is often enough to surprise clients and win their admiration. Sad, but true. We have to do WAY more than that though.

One key, I think, is to move away from a mode of thinking in scarcity, which is, it might be observed, a key assumption in our societies current economic model. I think one of the best things I ever did in my career was the first time I turned work down, despite needing work at that time. The client in that case wanted something I wasn’t prepared to make for the price they were willing to pay. I sent them elsewhere, and soon enough a better project came along.

Nobody goes into the Ferrari dealership hoping to score the latest Italian masterpiece of automotive art for the price of a Chevette, yet this seems to happen oddly enough in the craft world. How does Ferrari do that?

If as a craftsperson you act out of fear and drop your standards of work to get any job you can, you are on the slippery slope, and you do other craftspeople a disservice I think. “Will do almost anything for next to nothing” is not written on the calling card of the craftsperson.

And if the client doesn’t care about future generations, in respect to the quality of pieces you make, then they don’t apparently care about the material or the craft, or base their decision in a long term frame of perspective. If I can’t bring a client to see this perspective, and understand its importance, then they aren’t really clients for me. Of course, the client commissions the piece, and that is hugely important, but they are also the first link in a chain of custody of that piece, and I keep those later owners and users of the piece in mind too. I build for all of them.

I also keep in mind, with building work, the carpenter some years down the line who may renovate, restore, or rebuild my structures – I want to leave no opening or weakness in what I did, no shoddy work for them to uncover. I want them to understand that someone cared and did their best when the building was first made. In so many repair/reno jobs I have done, I find myself shaking my fist at the shoddy work of the previous carpenter(s), and there’s no way I’m going to add to that in my own work. I’ve worked on lots of stuff, and I am always appreciative to discover that the thing I’m working on was made in a way that it could be fixed or worked upon. It tells me that the maker thought of the future. It is a matter of integrity, no?

In the past I have taken on jobs with inadequate budgets, and I have still done the work to a high standard. If the choice is between a few extra dollars, or knowing that a sub-par piece of work with my name on it would be out there, I will always choose to forgo the money and simply do the work with my usual care. Sure, financially-speaking, I eat it sometimes, but better to exceed the client’s expectations, and stick with one’s own internal guidance, than otherwise. I’ve never let a piece leave my shop that I’m not happy with, and I can always take comfort in knowing that I did my best even if the dollars weren’t there. And what I have found over time is a strong sense of confidence from that unyielding commitment. For, as Yellin said, a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

8 Replies to “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever”

  1. “If the client doesn't appreciate what is involved in producing items of high quality, then it is the craftsperson's job, quoting Yellin again, “to cultivate the client's mind and eye so that he will learn to be discriminating and appreciative of beauty. Thereby he will learn to accept the better work, even though the cost might be greater, or the designs will have to be simplified to meet the set allowance.”

    Quite a testimony for the 'liberating' power and accomplishments of our liberal arts (non?)-education.
    Best wishes,

  2. Metod,

    thank you for your comment, but I'm not sure I follow the logic of it. Are you are referring to Yellin? If so, you are far from the mark. Yellin may have lived in Philadelphia, however he is from Galicia Poland where at the age of eleven he was apprenticed to an iron master. By the age of sixteen he had completed his apprenticeship, moving to the US a few years afterwards, so there was not much in the way of a formal 'liberal arts' education in his background.

    If you are referring to some failure on the part of N. American liberal arts education, that argument has been made before, often, it would seem, with a sneering or dismissive tone. It seems a bit too much of a stereotype frankly and such blanket statements are unconvincing. There are many paths to knowledge.

    I have a liberal arts education (B.A. English) myself and though I did not continue in that path of study, and while I was not a particularly devoted student, I am grateful for the shifts in perspective that I gained in the 'ivory tower'. That degree, after all, was what allowed my to live and work in Japan, which is how I became acquainted with Japanese carpentry practice. Sometimes life goes in unexpected directions.


  3. Chris,
    After thousands of dollars in tuition, and still needing “to cultivate the client's mind and eye so that he will learn to be discriminating and appreciative of beauty.” ?
    I was probably overestimating the effect of “became acquainted with Japanese carpentry practice. ” on your person. Only you know.
    It would be nice, if 'liberal arts' (as practiced here) produced, in adequate quantities, what Yellin was.
    You 'have' a degree in English, but 'are' a shokunin. Am I far off?
    Best wishes,

  4. Metod,

    thanks for your comment. The money spent on tuition at school has little connection to the process or idea of educating the client, other than in whatever help it may provide me in stringing complete sentences together. Very few people in this culture have a deep appreciation and understanding of well-crafted things – it's a contributing factor, besides entrenched low standards among many who ply their trade, to the decline of skilled workmanship. If people don't know what a well-made thing is, then how would they know to ask for it? If you've never felt a finely planed wooden surface, how would a person have an appreciation for its virtues?

    There are many writers who have noted the severing of formal education from craft schooling in the past 100 years and its unfortunate effects, both upon those who receive schooling and society in general. Only the mind is to be taught, and the hands, which have zillions of nerve endings, are idled. The divorce of the hands from the mind is a tragedy. Shop courses, when I went to school, where the academic underachievers tended to go – the place for an 'easy grade'.

    I would never call myself a shokunin.


  5. Chris,
    My bad; I stand corrected.

    – When I am in an orchard to gather some apples, I should be doing just that.

    Best wishes,

  6. Great post, I absolutly agree, I feel the same way and I think in my country (spain) 80 % of professional carpenters, who almost don´t know to use handtools, believe and say the above quotes you have mention, it is very sad but it is the mind of lazy workers. My attitude is far far away from those and I see I am looked like a freak when I speak of furnituremaking in handmade manner.
    Once again thank you so much for your help and effort.
    My best


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