The Secret Purpose of Craft by David Orth ©

The secret , enduring purpose of craft is to convey a riddle.  Carried within the body of craft lies an enigma that lovingly and without mercy entraps us by operating whether or not we are conscious of its presence or its higher implications.   Its question is one that we feel in our bones. It cannot be truly spoken; though we might pause and try to let some words direct our attention.  If we try, this riddle might come out something like, "Can the practical and ordinary things in life ever have a proper relationship to the terrible beauty of life?"  Traditionally it was understood that humankind is caught on the horns between substance and essence, matter and spirit, the phenomenal and the noumenal, the ordinary and the sacred.  We have difficulty seeing our devastating confusion about this or appreciating the extent and precise configuration it has taken in our own personal lives.  To those whom this question has chosen, it is a life's work to understand the complex mechanics which typically short-circuit or inappropriately reverse the flow of energy across this spiritual gradient.  The interplay in craft between function, kinesthesia, and mystery is a quiet, hopeful awakening to this challenge.*

This interrogation into a possible connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary embeds itself uniquely and primitively into the traditional crafts. As an expression of this question, authentic craft does not speak in words, ideas, or even symbols (in the common use of the word).  Craft, instead, operates by an utterly "physical" surrender to the broad range of energies in life, and hopes to pose and contemplate the riddle through a fresh consideration of the habitually miscalculated boundaries between the practical and noumenal spheres of life.  These boundaries and their implications are reflected as precise analogs in the objects and processes of serious craft.  The inherent silence and intellectual isolation of craft is required in order to ferry this ancient, practical question safely across an
era which no longer thinks to raise it.  Craft floats patiently through the darkness of an age like a wordless, unopened book.  The silence of craft is essential, and we should note the irony in speaking of it.  What could it possibly mean to read a craft like a text?  Maybe the lacquer fumes are finally getting to me, but it seems to me now that something old, faint, and vast has always been coming slowly into view.

A mature craft is a miniature universe - a microcosm, a map - momentarily enabling us to view our human riddle as if from above.

As a map aids us in spatial navigation by a correspondence between paper and landscape, a craft by a subtle correspondence between material and sentience aids us in navigating the gloomy territory along the border between these worlds.  Diverse materials, opposing formal concepts, and explicit functionality stand in for the Beautiful, the Terrible, and the Everyday.  Form and function, warm wood and cold steel, the familiar and the alien, the elemental and the esoteric, the precious and the industrial - craftsmen mix unlikely combinations and amalgams, we look for modulations & fresh nuances, we pursue the flecks of gold precipitate.  I have a sense I cannot shake that my shop is a laboratory.  Wood, metal, & glass are my base elements.  I am looking for a rare, most precious substance - a truth in things.  Occasionally, I even dare hope to reproduce in miniature detail the impacts & equilibriums between the harsh and the delicate forces in life - both what is and what could be (things below and things above).  Craft is the oldest alchemy - emptying, waiting, coalescing, refining ...emptying, waiting, coalescing, refining.

And we mustn't define craft too narrowly.  It has been said that, "The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist."**

I think any activity which requires the harmonious stirring of intellect, emotion, and movement can become a craft if this act evolves through an enduring history & honest questioning.  Conversely, the fine arts and crafts, as we now know them, have become diluted with the politics and careerism of the art world.  The truly alchemical crafts will be found (and lost) in all stratum of human life.  We must have eyes that hear and ears that see.

Any elegant solution to the intricate calculus of structural, technical, ergonomic, and formal balance in a chair carries encrypted lore on what it will take to acquire balance in a human life.  The fears, passions, and delicate algorithms of life are detailed in the smaller scale of the craftsman's humblest work.  The alchemists knew that any transformation required an intelligent, sequential contact with two fundamental forces - the solvent and the binder.   Craft still plays out the same inner & outer act -
the blade, the joint - the pull, the push.  These are questions that undergird the very art of life even more than they are technicalities of any specific art.  In my laboratory, I play with a dark, formidable steel, joining it to light, vulnerable wood.  I make them hold hands like quarreling children.  I am tracking down a rare, gossamer quality that is neither violent nor evading.  In the tight spaces among the parts of a table I occasionally have a glimpse of such a golden thing.  The engineer and the
poet in me must calm themselves and look to each other.  Sometimes great rifts between labor and management, between body and mind can be bridged.  I play with form and function, get them to play with each other, to help, and honor each other.  And so, in the laboratory, in a test tube, under special conditions, heavy intractable riddles may slowly relax into finer substances.

This amazing world of resolutions which craft suggests, exists in a shadowy place somewhere between the real and the unreal.  Craft is an intermediate world that holds a unique promise of communication and connection between dreams and reality.  The resolutions of craft are not real, but neither are they illusory.   May we say that craft resounds with invocations and premonitions?   These political, philosophical, psychological and spiritual transformations exist in an ontological limbo.  This is their power.  And this is their weakness.  For this reason, here and there throughout history a few skilled craftsmen and a few devoted collectors have been known to abandon their shops and galleries in search of what was all along calling their name.  Handcraft functions not only practically, but simultaneously and seamlessly as the merciless riddlemaster.

Here, I think, is a case in point.  I have an earnest question - a riddle posed to me after 10 years of table making.

Why do we make tables?

What is the matter with setting things on the floor or hanging them on the walls?  Why was the first table made?  A place to dump the mail & drop the keys?  Of course not.  Something to adorn the hallway?  We should begin to doubt it.  Perhaps we could look at it socially as a place of communal gathering.  This is a richer thought and true enough, but still much is missing.   Let me suggest that the table was once much more than anything we now take for a table.  I believe the very first table was suggested to an observant sage by the vertical and horizontal elements in life.  This is suggested not only by the table's obvious vertical and horizontal structural aspect, but also by its final culmination in a plane that is at once parallel to the earth and shifted toward the sky.  It is earth ever so slightly displaced - x-axis ratcheted up the y.   A table is the wedding of up, down, and sideways.  It represents a place between heaven & earth, a place where the things below may contact the things above - a place of magic and miracle.  The tabletop is accessible and yet somehow "up and out".  To set something on a table is to bring it up out of the earth to the light of attention.  The table in structure, form, and function sustains the fragile moment of inner attention by physically demonstrating to us the invisible act.  A table is both a diagram of and an aid toward ground transforming to figure and of  the unconscious transforming to the conscious.  Something that has been put on a table is no longer taken for granted, but is a form attended to, maybe contemplated.  It feeds our eyes and mind and, only secondarily, perhaps our stomachs. The forgotten way to build a table is to approach an important or sacred thing and then to draw the table that humility observes beneath it.  In this way the table recovers its ancient universal connections.  It seems clear to me that any artifact's "function", "structure", or "abstract form" are only arbitrary aspects of design which, after a time, precipitate out of an original totality as the primeval heat escapes out of the event.  It is the unseen work of the craftsman to hold the cold Material once again to the Fire.

As we practice and contemplate craft's riddle, we may awaken to a fresh sense of primordial unity.  A unity between the high, the low, and the human -  "garlic and sapphires in the mud" according to one of our poets.***  Craft draws down the angel of memory as if from a great distance.  On the one hand it affronts the craftsman with danger, failure, and corruption - subverting our innate denial.  On the other, it teases out memory of Arcadia, a Garden - subverting our despair.  The examined life is lived out in a narrow passage between contentment and discouragement.  The good craftsman endures this path in a way that is utterly physical and expansively metaphorical.  The sensation is complex - humbling & privileged, forbidding & delectable.  Every apprentice must begin by recognizing the alternate violence and avoidance in their way of working.  Task by task the early errors of left or right, too hard or too soft, too much care or too little, give way to a completely new thing.  One day the material seems to be the wood, later the material is the tool being sharpened, before long we realize it is one's very self that has come under the blade.  Material, Tool, Master - we discover this eternal trinity of elements only to find them forever and mystically trading places with each other.

So these are the great mysteries that confound and delight me.  I take the chief labor of craft to be the recovery of a dance, a movement of grace, into which all parts and oppositions are absorbed without a trace of falsity or awkwardness.   True craft is a shadow cast by the original unity of things - a Singularity of truth & function, pressure & release, silence & voice, earth & sky.  At times, this realization fills me with promise, wonder, and not a little bit of the holy dread.****

*All fields of knowledge raise or need to raise this question in their own
way.  Architects properly concern themselves about the connection between
form and function.  Philosophers will always deliberate about appearances and
reality.  Distrust between religion and science happens precisely to the
extent that there has been a mutual failure to formulate a suitable
expression of this riddle.  The same failure to take sufficient interest in
the riddle is evident in the massive polarization between fine art and
industrial culture.  Craft, however, may be unique in offering the riddle
within enough of an inviolable, natural gradient between human, mechanical,
and higher concerns that we may explore, taste, and even test solutions with
at least some small protection against illusion.  We must not close our eyes
to the moments when "craft" ceases to be craft and conversely when other
pursuits are truly a craft in this sense.

** Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, Dover
Publications, New York, 1956, p.64.

*** T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton II" in "The Four Quartets", The Complete Poems
and Plays 1909 - 1950, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, London, 1952,

**** Needless to say this brings into play serious questions about the
current positioning, intentions, and practice of arts & crafts in our
culture.  Personally I think we should take an interest in the rash of
distracting devices on all fronts of the contemporary scene.   I believe that
among these distractions are irony, visual slapstick, private narrative,
depiction, the dysfunctional, the merely clever, the merely familiar, the
alluring, and the historical reference.  I am not calling for an inquisition
or even broad reforms, but clearly, whether we are craftsmen or patrons, we
should all open our eyes to the voids in our personal experience of craft.
Perhaps we could benefit ourselves by taking a more respectful look at the
crafts of the unknown artisans of the world who continue to meet the basic
needs of their communities in organic arrangements - sometimes elegant,
sometimes rough - unselfconsciously expressing both simple & elaborate
relations between their phenomenal and noumenal worlds.

ORTH  FURNITURE click small pictures to see larger examples

      David Orth
      Orth Furniture
      Box 1842
      Woodstock, IL 60098
      See more photos, prices, and apprenticeship information at the
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Oct - 2003
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