Risky Business


The clean, quiet woodshop before the storm.

9I made a larger model. It feels a little boxy and the side frames feel a little thin compared to the broad seat, but this is all good to know! I’m getting somewhere. I cut the basic shapes on the bandsaw, used the belt sander and sanded by hand, 11and glued the thing up. I had to get a little creative laminating and gluing the 1213 141720 rockers. As I’ve been working on this I’ve also been reading David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye, who was a furniture maker and design professor, wrote this semi-manifesto in the late 1960s, when industrial production was exploding and it seemed we might lose the art of handcraft entirely. Obviously this didn’t happen, and he admitted himself that he ultimately may have taken too apocalyptic a stance, but he was reacting in a real, emotional, and educated way to what he thought was a threat to his livelihood. And he was not wrong, just somewhat overzealous. The Nature and Art of Workmanship will be a good source of inspiration for me as I think more and more about my paper as a manifesto.

What I perhaps love most about Pye though, is the distinction he draws between what he coins the “workmanship of certainty” and the “workmanship of risk.” The workmanship of certainty is essentially that of mass production, where the entire process is controlled by machine and the human hand does not determine the success or failure of the outcome. The workmanship of risk, conversely, is that where, at any time, you could screw the whole thing up, to put it bluntly. In the workmanship of risk, one relies on one’s actions, decisions, and physical coordination in order to complete the process one has planned to engage in.

For the self, this is meaningful in that one is always negotiating one’s own trust and confidence in oneself. One questions oneself and draws on knowledge and the ability to acquire knowledge to find answers. Another important aspect of the workmanship of risk is that one is inevitably exposing one’s process and method of work to others and, in doing so, is sharing with them the possibility and hope of success, but also the possibility of failure. This is risky, exposing your potential failure to others, but does it not make success even that much more rewarding? And does it not allow the user/viewer to appreciate the outcome more?

Other things I love about Pye are his insistence that everything is imperfect, his acknowledgement of the deficiency of language in describing the experience of making and of experience itself, his acceptance and regard for the wear on a piece of furniture as a reminder of our mortality and at the same time a connection to a vastness of time that lets us live on, his reverence for wood as a material that offers a user an infinite “diversity” of experience (as he puts it), his acknowledgement of the possibility for subjective, private experiences of materials, and, last but not least, his distaste for John Ruskin and critique that those who do not make things ought not to try to posit what it feels like to be a maker. So, consider this project and this blog a total commitment to the workmanship of risk. I lay before you my entire, convoluted process of making and hope for the possibility of success.


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