During a job interview early in my career, the guy running the show held up my first book (which was about workbenches) and made a statement that I think about almost every day.
“This book was a pretty good idea,” he said. “But most of us only get one good idea during our lives.”
Since that day, I’ve fought to build and maintain a to-do list of creative projects – furniture, books, tools and even business models – to avert the staleness that sometimes afflicts even the best writers, designers and builders. This column is a list of ways I’ve tricked my brain into coming up with enough deeply interesting projects to keep me busy into my 80s.
An Anti-self-help Guide
The only reason I’m writing this column is because my approach rejects many of the “creativity guides” I was forced to edit or read while I was a corporate magazine editor. Our publishing company wrote for artists, designers, woodworkers and crafters – so inevitably every year we’d publish stories about “11 Ways to Pump up Your Creative Juices!”
I don’t have 11 strategies, but mine do involve juices (more on that later).
My first strategy is to reject some commonplace advice. Many creativity guides advise you to “leave your comfort zone” or “push into new spheres of creativity that are untethered to your current one.” In other words, embrace stuff you’ve rejected in the past.
For example, instead of working in clay, try sculpting with possum dung.
Building ornate furniture might push me to improve my skills, but it doesn't push my buttons as a designer.
This advice has done more harm than good in my life. Pushing into unfamiliar areas of the furniture craft left me bored and ambivalent. I found that I don’t like marquetry because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles. I’m unlikely to take up carving a Newport shell because I’ve never been into the furniture of the wealthy. In other words, there’s a good reason I don’t build giant carved mahogany secretaries, and it has nothing to do with a lack of creativity.
Instead, I think you should dive deeper into your comfort zone.
When we enter a profession or a craft, there is typically a period where you acquire skills rapidly, you figure out what you like (and what you don’t) and then you reach a plateau. And it’s this plateau that we’re always trying to get off of. We want to take our designs up “to the next level” or some such.
I say forget that. Go full Sisyphus. Climb back down to the bottom of the hill and make your way back up again, looking for things you missed the first time.
After learning all I could about American Arts & Crafts furniture, I went back to the beginning and dove into the English movement that preceded the American one. This pushed my work into exciting new directions. This armchair from Philip Clissett blew my mind in its design complexity.
When I first got interested in furniture, I was excited about the Arts & Crafts movement. So I absorbed everything I could about all the American makers, and I learned to replicate their designs, joinery and finish. About 10 years later, I had become bored by all the quartersawn oak and dark finishes. So I went back down to the bottom of the hill and started reading the books that fueled the founders of American Arts & Crafts movement.
That led me to William Morris, Ernest Gimson, and Ernest and Sidney Barnsley – important figures in the earlier (and far less commercially successful) English Arts & Crafts movement. Their design language had almost nothing to do with the American movement. And that led me to the Mingei in Japan, a folk movement that pretty much sums up what I think is important about the craft and informed many ideas behind “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”
All these things I’d missed when I first became electrified in the 1990s by an American Morris chair made by Gustav Stickley. And now I’m wondering if I should go back to the bottom of that hill, make the climb and again look for breadcrumbs that I stepped over the last time.
Watch Reruns, Over and Over
Watching reruns is not a waste of time. One of my favorite movies is Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” – I’ve seen it at least 20 times (yes, all of the different versions). And one reason I keep watching it is that it’s different every time. It’s different because I’m a different person every time I watch it. I keep getting older, and different parts now seem more important than they did when I was in my 20s.
When I feel stuck, I treat my childhood as something to watch over again in my head for clues. What did I do in our family’s garage when I was 11? Why do I keep thinking about my family’s trip to St. Augustine, Fla., when I was 6? Why did I always sit in one chair in my grandparent’s house in Connecticut? It might sound bonkers, but this strategy has spawned impressive fruit.
Why did I always sit in one chair in my grandparent’s house in Connecticut? The answer was because it was next to the campaign chests my grandfather had made. I adored them. And then I remembered that my dad had built some campaign-style pieces. And my grandfather’s office had several brass bound boxes. Were those campaign furniture?
Though I'd been surrounded by campaign furniture my whole life, my affection for the style didn't happen until I was 39 when I remembered all the pieces I grew up with in my grandparent's home. This piece from India was inspired by British colonizers in that country.
That short bit of introspection led directly to the publication of my book “Campaign Furniture,” and now making furniture in that style for customers feeds my family and has resulted in the largest commissions of my career. Years later, after climbing back down to the bottom of the hill, I’ve developed a taste for the campaign furniture that was produced by craftsmen in India as a response to the British stuff. There’s another book there for sure.
Try it. You were probably a more interesting and weird kid than you remember.
I’m going to write this next part with care, and I hope you can read it with the same.
I think you can get a lot of ideas from other cultures without outright stealing or appropriating them. The idea has nothing to do with finding interesting forms in a culture and then pulling them abruptly into the West (to end up tattooed above someone’s buttocks). Instead, it’s about finding the common links between the stuff you are interested in and that same stuff in a different part of the world. And then seeing where that bright string leads you.
An example might help. After writing a few books on workbenches, I realized that I was looking only at benches in North America, Great Britain and France from the 17th century to the present. However, people have been working wood on workbenches for at least 2,000 years before that. And in all the corners of the globe.
Drawings of how Chinese woodworkers use low workbenches have helped me understand how to use the low Roman ones in my workshop.
That led me to search out the earliest workbench in existence – a knee-high Roman one from the second century. And danged if that bench didn’t look a lot like the workbenches in China, which are similarly low and simple like the Roman workbench. This style of bench also shows up all over South America, where it is still used today. And it even emigrated to San Francisco in the 19th century where you can find drawings of Chinese woodworkers using them.
These 19th-century drawings gave me clues as to how the benches were used (the Chinese used their bodies to hold the work) and that knowledge pushed me forward in using the Roman benches I built for our workshop.
Doing comparative research doesn’t have to involve big jumps in geography or time to be fruitful. For many years I’ve been obsessed with old stick chairs made in Wales. Then one day it occurred to me to ask about the folk chairs made in the surrounding cultures in Devon, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland. That one simple question has resulted in a flood of new information and is fueling a new book project on Irish chairs.
The easiest trick I have to offer is to take a favorite form or idea and try to find the first place it occurred. I build furniture, and so I’m always looking for the earliest stool, chest or drawer. What did it look like? What can I learn from it?
For many years I was obsessed with dovetails. So anytime I visited a museum with old furniture (the older the better), I’d record the angle at which the piece’s dovetails were cut. It could be anything from a few degrees off vertical all the way to 25°. That’s a big range.
I looked for patterns. Did certain woods (dense, lightweight, strong, fragile) use a particular angle? Was the angle related to class or caste? City vs. country? Trained master vs. rude hedge carpenter? After many years of looking at dovetails I concluded this: There was no discernable historical pattern. For every shallow-angle city-cut dovetail you’ll find one just like it that was cut on the farm 200 years before or after.
This information was freeing to me as a designer and maker. Do what you want with your dovetails. Everyone else in history has been doing the same.
Also, early designers will surprise you. We think that sleek and unadorned styles are the hallmark of the last 60-70 years. Bah. The earliest Greek chair – the Klismos – looks like it stepped out of an IKEA catalog. Ornament is on a pendulum with a huge swing.
Driving long distances on the interstate can be an immensely creative experience. Use your phone to take notes.
Other Helpful Tricks
I’m certain that someone has written about this before, but I have yet to see it. Surprisingly, I do my best brainstorming while I am driving on a long journey. My guess is that the combination of alertness and boredom conspire to grant me good ideas.
Perhaps it’s because your brain is open – actively searching for oncoming objects that want to kill it. And somehow, this mental state is ideal for asking it to crank out ideas or make connections between disparate concepts. I came up with the name of my publishing company, Lost Art Press, while driving in Pennsylvania. I almost wrecked my car trying to write the name down on a business card, afraid I would forget it.
Luckily, I now have a phone that can record the ideas, or transcribe my voice into text I can edit later. Many of the book titles for our company’s books are the result of a long drive. During the last decade I’ve generated entire outlines of dozens of stories (including the one you are reading) while driving alone across the prairie. Plus ideas for tools, book concepts and ways to streamline our business practices.
I have my best ideas while on the flat interstate – not while driving on twisty mountain roads. Likewise, long (90 minute) walks seem to generate the same result, as long as I’m on the sidewalk and not hiking a mountain trail that is trying to kill me.
I'd be lying if I didn't give some credit to alcohol (in moderation) for helping me make connections that my straight brain struggled with.
The Juicy Part
And then there’s alcohol. If you don’t (or cannot) drink, just skip this part. If, however, you are healthy enough to consume a few drinks, I recommend an occasional working bender. Try writing or sketching seriously a bit after a few beers.
When I do this, there are pluses and minuses. The good news is that my inhibitions have been suppressed. That helps me make connections between ideas. And I’ll write and draw things that would give me pause while dead sober. The bad news is my grammar, typing and hand drawings are all horrible. (I edit my work the next morning.)
I don’t use this strategy often. And it’s not something I schedule on my calendar. Instead, after I have a couple beers I’ll sometimes pick up my laptop and work so that I don’t make a fool out of myself in front of friends or family (the laptop is far more forgiving).
For me, drinking and designing is a solitary endeavor. There have been a few times I’ve tried to have drinks with other creative types and talk seriously about work and ideas. This hasn’t generated anything other than a lot of loud and meaningless wind.
Final tip: Don’t try to combine the “drink a few beers” strategy with the “take a long drive” one. (Or if you do, don’t mention my name to the police officer.)