Larry Ciesla Woodworking

originality in design

Human beings rarely have an original idea! Our brains are not wired to think with originality.  Instead, we’re wired to learn from our environment, from our past experiences, and we usually express new ideas by rearranging memories of things we’ve already experienced.  Early in my engineering career I learned that the best engineers were the ones who (deliberately or not) studied the work done of other engineers, particularly those engineers who had solved similar problems.  If you’ve ever played chess, you have learned that the only way to improve your game is to play someone better than you.  A good chess player who plays someone less skilled is actually being very generous.  By playing and defeating a weaker player, with each defeat, the weaker player gets a bit stronger.

As a woodworker, I was never satisfied building a project from someone else’s design.  Unlike my engineering career, woodworking was a hobby, I had no mentor, and I had no formal training.  It was just something I’ve always loved to do.  It took me a while to figure out that just like with engineering, there are a few giants, a few craftsmen whose extraordinary work is really worth studying.  But wanting to design my own furniture, I was limited by two things.  First was my technical skill in the craft; how to use my tools, how to create good joinery, how to apply a good finish, etc.  Most woodworkers have a pretty good idea where they are at in this aspect of our craft.

The second factor holding me back was a lack of realization that, even though furniture objects are commonplace, extraordinary ones are rare, as are the craftsmen who create them.  Take chairs for example.  Most of us look at a chair and only see it for its functional purpose; a place to sit.  The vast majority of chairs we encounter during our lifetime are not worthy of even a second glance.  They are commonplace; ordinary, everyday objects we use daily in our life.  Because we become so familiar with chairs, we become blinded, in a sense, to the rare times when we happen upon a truly extraordinary chair.  Learning to discern one extraordinary example of a piece of furniture is very difficult.  Like hunting for wild game, success depends upon being very deliberate in where and how we look. 

In my particular case, the realization that there were extraordinary craftsmen whose work was worth studying was a turning point in my personal development both as a woodworker, and also as a furniture designer.  I became familiar with the work of icons like Sam Maloof for chairs, James Krenov for cabinetry, and Paul Schurch and Silas Kopf for marquetry and veneer.  I don’t think it possible to stress enough that thinking along the line that for a design to be my own, “I must draw only upon my own design insight and not “copy” the work of others,” is really an absurd idea.  Perhaps it is the word “copy” that troubles us in the sense that since early childhood we’re taught that copying someone else’s work is “cheating.” 

I once gave a talk to my engineering organization where I said that over my 40+ year career as an engineer, software developer, and corporate Senior Technical Officer, I only had two or three truly original ideas.  I went on to remark that Sir Isaac Newton said, "If I have been able to see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."  Newton would have never had the scientific insights he did if he did not studied the work of those who came before him.  To me, the parallel to excellence of woodworking design is no different.  I’m not saying I  should look at a Maloof rocking chair, copy it exactly and then call it my own design.  That might be OK if your objective is to master Maloof’s joinery skill or to try to learn his sense flowing lines and sculptural beauty.  But if your intent is to call the design your own, then copying in this sense is very wrong indeed. 

I believe the correct approach is to try to assimilate as much of someone else’s work as you admire and think worthy, and let this new knowledge influence your own thinking.  In this sense, because of what you’ve now learned from someone else’s work, your own work can never again be the same.  This concept is not the same as copying someone else’s work.  If you think about, it really lies at the core of how human beings create in the first place.  Imagine you were dropped off on a deserted island as a small child and lived alone the rest of your life.  Apart from the obvious misery of being alone, think of how it would have stifled your ability to be creative.  How could you ever create a painting better than the Mona Lisa if you’ve never actually seen the Mona Lisa in the first place?  How could you ever design a better chair than Sam Malloof if you spent your entire life having never seeing a chair of any kind?  Thinking along these lines, it seems intuitively obvious that anything we create is really the result of having experienced things similar to the thing we seek to create, and all we’ve really done is changed the idea slightly by incorporating some tiny new insight or idea coming from our own mind.  I think this concept lies at the very heart of the design process and is a reality we must accept, understand, and be willing to embrace.  Until you fully embrace this concept, you will never allow yourself the personal freedom to create your own design.  You will limit yourself in what you do to only that which you feel has only come only from you.  Unless you’re some kind of genius, that kind of thinking will stop you dead in your tracks.