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Artisan Educating Architect

By Frederick Wilbur

In most societies, education is an essential activity consuming a significant investment of time and resources. Information, knowledge and values are passed to the younger generation by example and instruction. Erecting any building of size requires common knowledge and communication among the various groups doing the planning, construction, financing and finishing. The many workmen, artisans and artists involved are as important as any other group in conveying the style, unique character and public appreciation of the building. It is imperative that the architect communicates with the artisan and that the artisan reciprocates.

The dictum often heard during business seminars for artisans is "educate your client/customer." For the architectural wood carver, mosaic or stained-glass artist, the client is the architect, interior decorator, millwork company, general contractor and the individual or organization financing the project. This is quite a diverse group of people with varying personal or professional points of view. Education must be more than a top-down management strategy; instead, it must be a web of information exchange. Regardless of how the relationships of these participants might be diagrammed in some business schematic, each participant must be included and given timely access to the concept and specific information. Sounds old hat, but in my 30-year career as an architectural wood carver, I have experienced some preventable collapses in communication. Among artisans working by commission, there is a familiar phrase: "learned a lot on that one."

Monumental are the chances for a communication short-circuit among all those involved in a project. The idea that the architect produces the drawings that serve as a foundation to subsequent construction is the conventional expectation, but the architect who is both technician and artist is rare.

To illustrate this, allow me to describe an incident that occurred several years ago. I received, as I often do, an unsolicited fax of a CAD drawing representing a pilaster capital for a mantelpiece. My initial reaction was one of intrigue and enthusiasm as it appeared to be a rendering of an Art Deco design, a style that I do not often encounter. As I studied the various lines, attempting to visualize the forms, I was puzzled by a number of discrepancies. I called the architect and after some semantic confusion and several faxes back and forth, it became clear that what was intended was a Classical Corinthian capital. "Holy Smokes!" I remarked to myself, a little effort to portray a traditional capital would have been great; even a simple note explaining (the now ridiculous) drawing would have sufficed. Maybe the architect didn't have basic knowledge at his command, in which case, what a sad commentary.

Unfortunately, I could cite a number of instances when critical information was neglected or contradictory, or where a squiggle with the notation "carving here" was the sum of the information provided. I have found that if the architect isn't specific about the decorative details, most millwork companies do not risk an interpretation, but pass the task to the artisan. At this point, the idea is several steps removed from the client's desires.

As an artisan, I need accurate drawings and specifications from the architect in order to perform my function fully. Drawings should be detailed and complete. Cost and timeframe are always primary concerns, but without a thorough understanding of what is to be done, the artisan is hard pressed to supply accurate costs. Realistically, the unknowns have a higher price and longer timeframe. The drawing of ornamental detail should have sections to determine depth of relief and shaded drawings (with conventional upper-left light source) to indicate slopes, relative levels and curvatures of the forms represented. I thoroughly believe that putting pencil to paper is a superior method of representing decorative elements. Coordination between hand, eye and mind demands attention, thought and reflection. Such focus is lost when manipulating a CAD program; technology obstructs the artistic intent. Drawings, of course, are only representations, so some interpretation and variation in technique should be expected. Occasionally, architects are wise enough to defer to the artisan for guidance. In notes or conversation, a sense of the overall context, including the use, location and visibility is helpful, as is some notion of the historical idiom of the structure.

Among the specifications the carver needs to know is the intended species of wood. It may be dictated by the larger context or, in the case of historic replication, by being faithful to the original. Just about any wood can be carved, but some are more appropriate to specific situations. It is the wood carver's responsibility to point out the detrimental influence pronounced grain has on the perception of three-dimensional forms, the general carve-ability of a species and the wear, strength or finishing properties of a species.

Artisans also need to be trusted, and afforded the respect given to any professional. Most artisans of good reputation are dedicated to their work, have accumulated vast knowledge of their chosen and related fields and have remained in business because of the quality of their work. These factors should earn the respect of other participants.

The artisan, unlike the architect or other members of the team who are preoccupied with practical design, is concerned with four aspects of the work: design, material, tools and technique. Integrating these facets of the commission is key to the success of the artisan's work. In my case, some aspects are decided before I am commissioned. Most times the design is supplied to me by the architect, millwork draftsman or by a few thousand years of ornamental history. I may or may not have the option to alter the design. It must be said that I do design many items and have a thorough working knowledge of methods and principles of design. I will take great, sometimes academic, pains, to understand circumstances and intention of a design. I have often thought I should include a provision in my contract that allows me to redesign, reinterpret or "correct" faulty drawings.

The material is also frequently predetermined. Sometimes this doesn't matter, but the choice of material may determine other aspects of the process. Some millwork companies are not overly sensitive to providing properly fabricated carving blanks. Common problems are inaccurately made blanks or ones made by laminating thin pieces, thereby introducing a multitude of grain directions. Less common is the use of blatantly defective material.

Few architects are familiar with the tools of the wood carver. The closest most come to smelling the chips, the sharpening oil or the effort is by flipping through a catalog of machine-carved doughy do-dahs. I do not disparage this sort of thing except to point out that hand-carved ornament is more true to the historic originals, is crisper in appearance, is unique, maybe even idiosyncratic, and has a human story behind it. As there is no substitute for genuine gold, there is nothing that replaces hand-carved work.

Still more arcane to the architect are the techniques employed by the trade carver. Understandably, one needs to be a practicing carver to fully appreciate the process. This is why I firmly believe that all architectural students should be required to spend several semesters hammering nails alongside the carpenter, hauling brick or working with an artisan laying tile, or making cabinets. With a few exceptions (notably the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture) snipping out foam-board models is as close to real life as architecture students get. How many walk around with purple thumbnails or sawdust in their boots?

The integration of the four aspects of craft produces a work of art, but more than that, a human story. Though many trade artisans work more or less anonymously, they have invested incredible amounts of time and effort into a piece. The attractive character of a piece is dependent to a large extent on the individual techniques used, with all the risk and imperfections inherent in a hand-produced item. It is this personal involvement that makes the architect's drawings come alive, to be something worthy of society's values.  


Frederick Wilbur has been a professional wood carver for more than 20 years. He has written extensively on the subject; his books include Decorative Woodcarving, Carving Architectural Detail in Wood and Carving Classical Styles in Wood, all published by the Guild of Master Craftsmen.


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