Jean Prouvé (1901-1984)

Jean Prouvé apprenticed as a blacksmith before opening his own workshop/studio in France where his designs were produced. Most of his products show his amazing intuition and experience with the properties of wood and metal. Practical efficiency and accessibility without compromising aesthetics was of primary interest in his work. These are values also shared by Eames, McCobb and Frankl, some of his mid-century American contemporaries. He collaborated with many great architects and other designers throughout his prolific career and the results are even more impressive a generation later.   Prouvé has claimed his place in history as a brilliant Modernist as collectors around the world compete for authentic examples of his work.  His commitment to pragmatic modern values combined with intimate hands-on experience with materials and processes make him one of my all-time top-five design inspirations.

"Never design anything that cannot be made,"

-Jean Prouvé

Good advice.   All experienced designers know that how something is made can't be separated from the design.  If the making is not considered, the design isn't done.  To be unconcerned with the resources required to make something is to exit the world of design and enter the world of fashion.      


The Good Borrow, The Great Steal

This aphorism or some version of it looks to be one of the more common misattributions in modern history. Whether you credit Tennyson, Picasso, T.S. Elliot or Stravinsky, it clearly has powerful meaning across the creative spectrum. Looking specifically at the design of some great Modern chairs by great designers, we find plenty of evidence that the great designers steal.

Modern master Hans Wegner called this famous chair (below left) the "Chinese Chair" after the Ming Dynasty chair from centuries earlier (below right).


Kaare Klint referred explicitly to the works and values of the American Shaker movement when he created his classic church chair (below left) derived from the form of the classic and pragmatic Shaker chair (below right).  

The architect and Domus editor Gio Ponti worked closely with the craftsmen of Chiavari, to create his own very austere version of the popular Italian chair.  (Gio Ponti 699 Chair, below left, Chiavari chair below right).

Referring fondly to the Thonet bentwood chair (below right), Poul Henningsen declared in the Danish Design Publication Kritisk Revy "It does not try to be false or mendacious in any way". By using steel, Henningsen was able to remove and combine features to achieve his own design (below left).  In my opinion, this example is the only one of these four where the virtues of the changes are in question.  It is just difficult to improve on Thonet..

So, stealing ideas is apparently just fine.  There is a humility in acknowledging that those who came before us came up with some great solutions.  So lets get to it...just steal the good bits and make it better..

A Systematic Disobedience

John Ruskin, 1819-1900

John Ruskin, 1819-1900

I've heard it said that people who write clearly think clearly.  John Ruskin wrote clearly...and he wrote plenty on plenty of subjects.  He published books, essays and poems on economics, labor, justice, nature, art, politics, architecture, travel and even a lovely fairy tale.   It's difficult to get beyond the surface of an exploration into craft without the contributions of John Ruskin. His writings are widely credited with William Morris  and others for inspiring the Arts & Crafts Movements in Europe, North America and Japan.

He was an uncompromising social critic in a way that is barely recognizable today.  For example, I have always been confused by the contradictions between the modern Western Christian lifestyle and the bible.  John Ruskin sums it up like this:

"I know of no previous instance in history of of a nation's establishing a systematic disobedience to its professed religion.  The writing which we (verbally) esteem as divine, not only denounce the love of money as the source of all evil, and as an idolatry abhorred of the Deity, but declare mammons service to be the accurate and irreconcilable opposite of God's service:  and, whenever they speak of riches absolute, and poverty absolute, declare woe to the rich, and blessings to the poor."    -John Ruskin, Unto This Last

Plenty of people were offended by this but Gandhi was so strongly influenced by Unto This Last that he went to live in a commune and translated it into his native Gujarati.

Ruskin argued that the "science" of political economy espoused by John Stuart Mill and others failed to consider the social affections that bind communities together.   Here he offers a few words on the brilliant innovation of division of labor in our new industrial economy:

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.     — John Ruskin, Cook and Wedderburn

So here we are left questioning the teachings of our elders.  Questioning the assumption that it is desirable and virtuous to rise above labor and become a professional thinker, wondering if our modern ideas about profit and commerce are morally sound.  I'm nearly certain they are not so I'm going to go make a chair...

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William Morris

William Morris (1834-1896) was best known during his lifetime as a poet.  Today, few know anything about him outside of his work designing textiles and wallpapers.  I'll bet you have seen his work, perhaps without knowing it.  He was prolific and had a profound impact on the Victorian era sensibility in England and the international Arts & Crafts movement.  

william morris.jpg

William Morris once wrote “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.”  He then went on to design decorative wallpaper, stained glass, and textiles for most of his life.   It seems a bit of a contradiction.  I struggle to reconcile these ideas with his practice in the same way that I am confused about Soetsu Yanagi's acceptance and affection for the decoration of pottery and ornamental painting. Yanagi declares that the decorations and patterns are "useful".  Maybe Morris was of the same opinion.  In both cases it was important to mimic nature in a stylized manner (not a faithful rendering but a recognizable derivative (in Morris's case this meant flat and illustrative, in Yanagi's Kingdom of Beauty it meant thoughtless or uncontrived).

“...everything made by man's hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent...”   -William Morris

One may argue with William Morris about the virtues of hand made v. machine made goods or his socialist anti-industrial political position but arguing against the beauty of Nature is a form of madness, like taking a position against beauty itself.  

"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."    

-William Morris

Good advice Bill.  Can I get some help picking out some wallpaper?

William Morris,  Age 53

William Morris,  Age 53

Kaare Klint

From the Carl Hansen website:

Kaare Klint also founded the Furniture and Spatial Design Department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he employed a teaching method considered radical in his day. He asked students to construct furniture items from the inside out, based on thorough pre-analysis. The outward style was less significant; instead, the focus was on function analysis, choice of materials, and material processing.

Klint's influence led to a comprehensive renewal of Danish furniture design. He demanded clear and logical structures, with nothing superficial - only honest, pure lines, the best materials, and genuine craftsmanship. 

The “Red Chair” was designed for the Danish Museum of Art & Design’s lecture hall in 1927. You can pick up a set for your dining room on 1stdibs right now for $29,000.

The “Red Chair” was designed for the Danish Museum of Art & Design’s lecture hall in 1927. You can pick up a set for your dining room on 1stdibs right now for $29,000.

"clear and logical structures, with nothing superficial".   Well, these ideas sound familiar.  While radical at the time, his design philosophy would influence many other designers including his students Borg Morgensen and Poul Kjærholm.   

A couple of years ago I went to visit what I consider to be one of the most sacred feeling examples of architecture on the planet.  Designed by Kaare Klint's father, P.V. Jensen-Klint, Grundtvig's Church in Copenhagen is constructed almost entirely of white brick.   P.V. didn't live to see it finished so his son Kaare completed the job and designed the fantastic shaker inspired chairs that make church pews seem like the Medieval seating that they are.  I think it is great that this building looks as Modern and beautiful today as the day it was completed in 1940.   It's 100% Klint and I get the sense that the Danes have never even considered altering it.  

So I guess it is correct to say that we are standing on the shoulders of giants who in-turn stood on the shoulders of giants.

The Mingei Movement

Mingei (民芸 lit. "folk arts" or "arts of the people"?), the Japanese folk art movement developed in the late 1920s and 1930s in Japan. Its founding father was Soetsu Yanagi (1889–1961).  His famous book The Unknown Craftsman was not translated into English until 1972.

Many say that the Japanese Craft movement was inspired primarily by the writing and work of William Morris and John Ruskin.  This may be so but Yanagi and his peers saw an undeniable connection between beauty, nature, god, humanity, simplicity and humility in a movement that is still an important part of modern culture in Japan, China, Korea and elsewhere.   It is interesting how the American and British Craft movements lost their voice in the Modernism that followed where in the East the pragmatic and austere values of Modernism were already clearly visible in the values of craft.  In the eyes of some, the terms Modern and Arts & Crafts are references to aesthetic styles or fashions of their eras.   This is to not see the true essence of these movements where in both cases work was inspired by deeply held values.  Time does an excellent job to help us differentiate these movements based on values and the fickle fashions that rise and fall at a much higher frequency.

Yanagi clearly differentiates "folkcrafts" from "artist crafts"  where folkcrafts are made by the many for the many anonymously, artist crafts are made by few for the few and signed by the artist.   Here, Yanagi comments on the two: 

Q.  Which Contains greater beauty, folkcrafts or artist crafts?  

A. "If we place them side by side, strangely the artist crafts cannot be said to be better, for they depend on the personality of the artist rather than the character of the craft.  If the names of the artists were unknown, could they have stood the contest?  There are people who buy the name of the maker rather than quality.  As to aristocratic crafts, in their attention to technique and over refinement, they, too, are separated from the mainstream.  It is truly strange that folkcrafts should be better than the work of artists in pursuit of beauty.  The works of artist craftsman are not primarily intended to be just good pots os much as to display the fine sensibility or strength or personality of the maker--the flavour of itself rather than the flavour of mankind, which crafts exude."

We can learn so much from Soetsu Yanagi and his seeing eye (,   And perhaps one day we too can enter his Kingdom of Beauty.

Removing the Unnecessary to Reveal the Essential.

We are not alone in our love of simplicity and austerity.  Many great minds of the past have declared the virtues of less.  Not less for its own sake but less to provide a sharper focus on what we really value.  The proposition that removing excess is really the path to discovering the essential and important things in our lives is in stark contrast to our current competitive consumption-driven culture.  It turns out that our quest to lead happier and more fulfilling lives through the acquisition of wealth, property and power may be leading us away from our goal.  I've collected some insights on the subject from some of the great minds of literature, painting, music, science, design and philosophy (regretfully also an accounting of misogyny, past and present)

And how does this matter to The California Workshop?  It matters because it serves as a compass to help us improve our products and processes.   If it worked for Gio Ponti and Hans Wegner, maybe it will work for us too.  We are standing on the shoulders of giants when we share their values and approach.

The Vitra Design Museum has the following to say about Gio Ponti and the Superleggera, No. 699.

Ponti himself describes the chair as the “normal,” “true” chair, the “chair-chair devoid of adjectives.”  With it, the architect pursued his own standard of keeping things to a bare minimum.  Ponti was inspired to optimize the qualities of this model during the postwar era, when furnishings were out of necessity frugal.  He then designed the “Leggera” for Cassina in 1951, which reduced the structure of the Chiavari chair to only what was absolutely necessary. The result is a stable chair weighing a mere 1.7 kilo.

And here is Hans Wegner on his driving force...

"Many foreigners have asked me how we made the Danish style. And I've answered that it...was rather a continuous process of purification, and for me of simplification, to cut down to the simplest possible elements of four legs, a seat and combined top rail and arm rest."  

-Hans Wegner

I have heard the famous statement "Less is more"  too many times to count.  When it is attributed to someone, that someone is usually the brilliant Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe.  He did use it as a a precept for minimalist architecture but borrowed it from Robert Browning's Andrea del Sarto, 1855.  That doesn't matter.  I'm sure Robert Browning is fine with being a little less famous.

So lets all take away the extra; the decoration, the status symbols, the concealers and everything else that distracts us from the true nature of things...


Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.  William of Occam

Nothing useless can be truly beautiful  ― William Morris

It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential. –Bruce Lee

To obtain Tao, reduce daily  -Lao Tsu

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. –Leonardo da Vinci (attribution)

I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter. –Blaise Pascal

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction. ~E.F. Schumacher

“In character, in manner, in style, in all the things, the supreme excellence is simplicity”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” 
― Henry David ThoreauWalden and Other Writings

Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. ~Albert Einstein, (possibly a paraphrase by Roger Sessions or Herbert Spencer)

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. ~Lin Yutang

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.” 
― Leo TolstoyWar and Peace

Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.

Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great.

Fools ignore complexity, pragmatists suffer it, some can avoid it, geniuses remove it

Live simply so that others may simply live. - Mahatma Gandhi

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” 
― Isaac Newton

Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity—I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only a euphemism for folly.

  • PlatoThe Republic, Book 3

Art is the elimination of the unnecessary–Pablo Picasso



Don't Make Assumptions: Glue Strength Does Not Matter

258g Hide Glue in electric warming pot

258g Hide Glue in electric warming pot

What!!??  There is a lot of important information to know about wood glues if you want to be sure you are using the right one for your project.   Strength is the characteristic that everyone seems to agree is the most important.  This is interesting because it is likely among the least important things to consider when making a choice and here is why:

Glues available for woodworking have a higher tensile strength than wood and create a bond that is stronger than the wood that it is joining.   This includes the most common PVA (PolyvinylAcetate or Yellow wood glue) epoxy or even the ancient Hide glue.  Good glue joints don't fail at the joint.  This means we could make an argument that once the joint has been made stronger than the adjacent areas, there is no merit in making it any stronger.  Under stress, the object is going to fail in the same manner and at the same time (somewhere other than the glue joint).   

Some other characteristics of wood glues that are important and could compromise the strength of a joint or just make your job easier are:

Reversability, Repairability, Cost, Creep Under Load, Resistance to heat, Resistance to Bacteria, Resistance to Moisture, Ease-of-Use (need for heating, mixing and clean-up), Shelf Life, Pot Time, Working Time, Toxicity (to the air, soil or us directly), Color, Response to Finishing, Sustainability...    

At the California Workshop, it is a priority to reduce or eliminate toxic and unsustainable materials from our process.   We also need an adhesive that does not creep under load and would prefer one that does not cause the wood to react differently to the finish.  These requirements and the great repairability make Hide glue the first choice of luthiers for centuries and for us today.  

read more at: 


R. Buckminster Fuller

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty … but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.    — R. Buckminster Fuller

So much more than the man that popularised the geodesic dome, Fuller was an environmentalist, philosopher and a Unitarian.  

How much does your building weigh? was a question he often used to challenge architects to consider how efficiently materials were used in their projects.   This question was so insightful that it became the title of the 2010 documentary How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?


Fuller was a pioneer in thinking globally, and he explored principles of energy and material efficiency in the fields of architecture, engineering and design.[29][30] He cited François de Chardenedes' opinion that petroleum, from the standpoint of its replacement cost out of our current energy "budget" (essentially, the net incoming solar flux), had cost nature "over a million dollars" per U.S. gallon (US$300,000 per litre) to produce. From this point of view, its use as a transportation fuel by people commuting to work represents a huge net loss compared to their earnings.[31] An encapsulation quotation of his views might be, "There is no energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance."[32][33][34]

At The California Workshop, we share Fullers pioneering values and concerns regarding efficient use of materials, the dubious merit of petroleum products, and sustainability in general.  It's just another example of how we learn from the past and are #standingontheshouldersofgiants.

Wharton Esherick

Chairs, table in foreground, sofa and wood paneling/sidingby W. Esherick.

Chairs, table in foreground, sofa and wood paneling/sidingby W. Esherick.

I enjoyed learning that he discouraged his clients from buying his pieces as investments and told them that they should appreciate them for their intrinsic merit and usefulness.    The chair shown in the the picture above, his music stand and small ladder are my favorites.  He was a pioneer in what is now called the Studio Craft Movement.  Never mass produced, his rare pieces are highly desired by discriminating collectors....surely because they are rare, novel and have so much intrinsic merit.  

Wharton was one of the few woodworkers of the era to command high prices for his original work.  The high prices and name attribution mark departures from craft values yet he still enjoyed the title “dean of American craftsmen”.

His collaboration with architect Louis Kahn on his studio is a must see for modernists.  

With such a great body of work, we are all truly #standingontheshouldersofgiants!

Wharton Esherick at his studio in Pennsylvania

Wharton Esherick at his studio in Pennsylvania