Craft and computers

You start by sketching, then you do a drawing, then you make a model, and then you go to reality—you go to the site—and then you go back to drawing. You build up a kind of circularity between drawing and making and then back again.

The above is a quote from the architect, Renzo Piano. I extracted it from the first chapter of Richard Sennett’s book, “The Craftsman.” In that first chapter, Sennett spends a substantial amount of time discussing the perils of computer-aided design (CAD). He argues that CAD too easily enables the user to “erase and refigure,” effectively divorcing the designer from the materiality of their design. CAD, he argues, can also lead to designs (specifically, architectural designs) that are overdetermined, that leave no room for the emergent, the informal, the evolving. In Sennett’s view “the tactile, the relational, and the incomplete” are lacking in the experience of designing with CAD as opposed to drawing or modeling.

I am always encouraging my students not to commit to modeling in CAD too early. I admonish them for spending an hour and a half modeling something in CAD that would take them 15 minutes to mock up in cardboard or plywood. So of course, during our first furniture project (a bench or something else requiring hand-cut dovetails and mortise and tenon joinery) at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship I made drawings and cardboard mockups, right? Nope. I became that student I’m always bemoaning and dove head first into creating a CAD model. Even as I was creating the CAD I had this feeling that I was retreating to a comfortable tool in a situation that was stretching the limits of my comfort zone. That I could produce something good (or at least acceptable) in CAD was certain. My ability to do the same thing in the real physical world? Less so.

And, this is where I really began to develop empathy for my students. I ask them to dive into the deep end. To take ownership of their learning. To conceive of projects never before attempted (at least by them). That should be exciting right? Right? Well, yes. But, it can also be unsettling, anxiety-inducing, and downright scary. I believe that my students are profoundly creative people, but that also means that they can imagine projects, systems, artifacts that are well beyond what their (current) skills will enable them to create. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they retreat to the virtual perfection of CAD. It’s a world in which they have complete and perfect control, a frictionless world of bits and floating point accuracy unencumbered by the harsh material realities of actual atoms. To jump straight to making something in foam or cardboard or plywood can feel like immediately compromising your vision. Your ideas wither in the blinding light of the physics of the material world. But, see, that’s where so much of the learning lives. It lives in that dialog Piano is describing above. Making becomes a form of thinking, and practiced and intentional engagement with physical making strengthens our ideas in a way that the purely digital simply cannot.

I am happy to report that the second project (a case piece required to have one door and one drawer) at the CFC kicked off three weeks ago, and I chose not to retreat into my computer but to build a prototype. My piece is a shallow entry table with one drawer on either side and a flip-up lid in the middle. I created a prototype by gluing 1/2 inch plywood together with hot glue in about 1 hour. That simple act generated more questions and design revisions in the next hour than I could have explored in a day of making and revising a CAD model. I have returned to that mockup many times over the past two weeks, and it has served very effectively as a kind of boundary object in discussions with my instructors, Adrian Ferrazzutti and Reed Hansuld.

Yesterday, I cut up the plywood in the mockup to make some spacers for the glue-up of my actual case piece. Tomorrow I’ll take off the absurd number of clamps we used to get everything square and flush and just so while the epoxy cured. And, maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to see whether all that real, physical, prototyping was worthwhile.

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