Exuberant Frugality

greens table1

We tested my Greens Chair at Greens Restaurant over a four course dinner

On the eve of our first full week home after six weeks of travel, Ene, Aili and I celebrated with a prix fixe, four course dinner at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. Mike Hale, Greens’ manager, generously comped the meal as a gesture of thanks for the chairs I recently designed that now populate the restaurant’s expansive interior.

ene and aili

My lovely ladies enjoying a delicious dinner, as the sun set over the Golden Gate

By all accounts, the chairs are a tremendous success, adding a touch of structure and formality to the dining experience without detracting from its casual simplicity or bohemian legacy. More importantly, we got to test the chairs over an elegant, beautifully prepared and presented vegetarian feast, and they proved to be perfectly comfortable all the way through coffee and dessert. The Greens Chair is the first furniture commission at this scale where I have not actually made the furnishings myself, hadn’t touched and shaped each piece of wood with my own hands, yet I was pleased to feel the same pride of authorship as if I had.

greens chair1

Most of the Greens Chairs are made of maple, with just 16 in walnut

As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on our way back up the coast in the lingering twilight, while Ene snoozed and Aili surfed her iPod, I began to reflect upon the relationship between craft and design, content with the fruits of my labor. I’m called more and more frequently to shift roles between maker and designer, and I find it helps to make a smooth transition by keeping a foot in either world.

sunset2

the view from our table at Greens, looking West towards the Golden Gate

‘Craft’ is too broad a term for consensus on its meaning, which can range from implying a level of skill in handiwork, to standing in for pre-industrial technologies, to being a kind of hobby or therapy. For the sake of clarity, I think of ‘craft’ more as an artisanal production model, connoting things made using local resources- material, knowledge, and energy. In such a craft-based production model, ‘design’ is often an afterthought. The final thing more or less emerges from the constraints of tradition and the limitations of resources. Most products of this system live in the past- the Windsor Chair, basket-making, vernacular architecture in general- but they still influence the visual culture of design. From this perspective, ‘craft’ and ‘design’ are mutually exclusive.

While craft is a bottom-up strategy, design is a top-down one. Design most often begins with a visual representation of a thing to be made, but exactly how it is made is incidental to its final manifestation. When called to design something made at an industrial scale, I begin the process by thinking as a traditional artisan might, given the resources of labor and technology in today’s world. I don’t have any preconception of how anything will look, but trust in an ethos of Exuberant Frugality. I try to optimize material and structure, nest functions and eliminate waste, knowing that this will make room for quality to emerge at all stages of a design’s development, and that the ethos will resonate with anyone who works with their hands.


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