Simplicity as Healer
Whenever I meet someone for the first time and they find out what I do for a living, invariably the next question they ask is, “What kind of furniture do you make?” I always answer the same way, “Wood furniture.” Then they say, “But what style?” I hoped they wouldn’t ask, because my answer always disappoints.
They want to hear Shaker, or Mission, or Midcentury, or Colonial American, or Modern, or something they’ve heard of. They’ve got stories and opinions about these styles, they’ve got specimens in their own homes, and all they need is a nod from me to begin talking about them.
But my answer usually goes something like this: “Simple furniture. I don’t like ornamentation and I don’t like fitting into a style, I just draw until it looks right to me, then I build it. I used to try and mimic other styles, now I just do what looks right. And I like simple things, so, most of my furniture looks pretty simple.”
“I’m sorry. You can go now if you want.” Usually they take me up on the offer.
So I need a better elevator speech.
But I also need to find a way to help people see what I see in simplicity. I think simple furniture, done well, is anything but boring. In fact I think it’s revolutionary, because it fights against our worst instincts. It calls us away from the busy-ness that fractures our souls. It reveals the phony-ness of gaudy over-ornamentation. It shames the poorly designed and cheaply constructed objects that most of us unthinkingly fill our houses with. It stands up for what’s right about the world, what’s good in people. It makes us feel more peaceful, more confident, more whole. It speaks to the honesty and humility that is buried deep within us and calls it to the surface, centering our attention on the qualities we know to be right and true.
In the history of furniture design there have been other paths to simplicity. The Shakers pared down their designs in furniture, as in everything else, in an effort to clear their hearts of all worldly treasures so as to focus on heavenly ones. They believed they should be seeking beauty in God alone, and that any attempt to adorn themselves and their environments would be distracting and ultimately fatal to their spiritual quest.
The heroes of the Arts and Crafts movement found simplicity to be the highest expression of human dignity. Furniture that looked honest and simple, with joinery that could be seen and seen as beautiful, celebrated the quiet and persistent dignity of the worker. Furniture that was gratuitously adorned and over decorated smelled decidedly bourgeois to these thinkers, and the attempt to hide structural elements under gilded layers of bling represented nothing less than contempt for the craftsman himself. These philosophers, whose influence reached across just about every genre of craft in the 19th century, sought to bring work of the craftsman to the front, to make it visible, and thus to celebrate simple things done well. A well cut dovetail joint, a precisely crafted through tenon, was said to be infinitely more beautiful than the most jewel-encrusted rosette that has ever been pasted onto an aristocrat’s chair.
I love these paths to simplicity, and I buy into them wholeheartedly. But I also think our present society, this post-modern pond in which we all now swim, offers yet another angle, another argument for keeping things basic, spare, clean, clear. To put it simply, life has become incredibly complicated. The number of things we carry in our pockets and purses and cars, the number of dates and times we now have to remember, the number of bills we now have to pay (not to mention the amount of those bills), the number of sounds and sights and products that compete for our attention, the number of objects in our homes that now seem like necessities rather than luxuries, these things seem to have increased geometrically just in my lifetime. And this increase shows no sign of slowing down.
I think it’s making us sick. I think it’s fracturing our souls and dividing our attention into ever smaller bits at the frantic rate of a nuclear reaction. I think if we don’t find a way to make it stop we will eventually explode and dissolve into nothingness. We can’t keep splitting the atoms of our selves forever, eventually we will run out of self to divide.
This is our crisis, I think. It’s not that we can’t find purpose, but that even if we were to find purpose we’d have so little left of ourselves to commit to it that it would not even be worth trying. We’re tired. We’re overstimulated, overinvolved, overdivided, overextended, overentertained. We don’t know who we are any more, where our ‘self’ is located amongst the many fragments of our daily schedules.
I am naïve. But I actually think I can make a difference in the way I design furniture. I do believe, as Winston Churchill is credited as having said, that “We shape our dwellings, and thereafter they shape us.” I believe that a person takes an important step toward wellness by simplifying his or her environment, by deciding to own fewer things, and only things that are simply envisioned, carefully crafted, and extremely solid.
Broad horizontal lines seep into the subconscious as calm open sees or quiet rolling prairies. Stark slabs of wood create a feeling of stability, strength, and perfect balance. Exposed joinery puts the unconscious mind at ease; for in seeing it, it knows a thing to be well put-together and reliable.
As we nourish our instinct toward simplicity, our frantic urge to complicate things will eventually starve. I believe it. Simple things make for simple lives. I could design complicated things, but it wouldn’t feel right. Not now.