03 March 2021

Designism, part 2 *updated 11-03

Mystery item
 I present to visitors of this weblog a mystery item in various configurations that appeared first to me on a wechat stream and a modicum of time to ponder its purpose while scrolling down.

position number 2

It's evident that it is posable and yet it's really unclear whether posability is a useful feature and how it affects utility

Maximized openness

One can readily presume that it's made of plywood due to its structure but does that make it a wooden object or along with the mechanism, simply wood adjacent? 


For those who've not simply guessed what it is, here it is with a pretty model to convince you

So comfy cushions aside

 warning: pinching hazard

Position number 2.5

Back support optional

Dos à dos

that it's a chair. No, really. Typically images that get reposted on wechat aren't linked with the original source, which in part explains why I see so many examples of designism there. The motive for reposting is simply the 'wow' factor in search of thumbs-up and heart icons. I downloaded these images to do an internet search in order to relieve my curiosity as to how the positioning mechanism worked that prevented this piece of furniture from accidentally becoming a human egg slicer. 

Having found the original source, I searched the website and learned that the human egg slicer was properly called the Exocet Chair (patent pending) and offered for purchase in, at least, 5 different veneers, one of which is Mozambique. There is no mention of the number of positions it can be 'locked' into but it is being offered as a limited edition, presumably still in any color, but nothing about the number that Exocet Chairs is limited to.  So is it like an exclusive club which anybody may join until it's full?

Fortunately for me a website that promotes designers (more than 140,000 of them!) interviewed the Exocet Chair's designer, Stéphane Leathead, the leader of Designarium, (yes, that's really the name but with an inverted A). I would not call designer.org (directly to their webmaster's face) a puff generator, but some of the interviewer's questions are: 

    "What kind of emotions do you feel when you design?


    How do you feed your creativity? 


    When do you feel the most creative?"Sin

Since a few postings ago, I've had more time to ponder the admittedly nebulous notion of designism and I have thus come up with a list of 4 features to formally distinguish this aesthetic trend. It can easily be seen how these categories overlap to some degree in definition and in root causes.

1) Emphasis on novelty:

This is the 'wow' factor that seems to be what generates virality on social media. The rise of digitized image sharing via social media is certainly a factor of the greater spread of designism, but I would argue that it predates the internet with its appearance in many magazines, e.g. Architectural Digest. (Who also remembers sunken bathtubs?) A trend that has likely magnified the growing appearance of designism is the lengthening of manufacturing supply chains, or rather the concentration of manufacturing farther away from urban and academic environments where designers live and work, and the steady dropping of woodworking and other handskills from the general school curriculum and, in particular,  from the curriculum of designers most of whom conceive their patentable consumer goods exclusively with software programs on computer screens

2) Plastic and Industrial aesthetics:

Plastics in so many ways have improved human existence (while their excess use has led to environmental degradation on a planetary scale but honest recycling is only 20 years away) and have allowed for manufacturing processes that would not have otherwise been possible. With this in mind, plastics are often used to fool consumers with the illusion that an item is made from solid wood, or of true veneers. And even as consumers might balk at wood grained vinyl siding or similarly deceitful formica, they have come to internalize the aesthetics of plastic manufacturing that industrialists profit from and highlight as key to maintaining their position in the marketplace: predictable uniformity, overall smoothness, and presumptive disposability. There is also a priority given to patenting a design and creating a copyrightable brand since the 'free' market tends to reward IP more than skills or trades

3) Impracticality

Here is one aspect that might be readily conflated with conspicuous consumption, but in the case of designism, that of a durable good. The first example that I ever became aware of was when as a young boy I was invited into a house that had white shag carpeting that nobody was allowed to walk lest the carpeting get dirty or matted. So, in fact,  the roots of designism precede the internet. I see often with items that are oversized for the 'wow factor' and then occupy more floorspace than similarly functioning items. It has also become common in the art world. Other examples are the 'live edge' that cannot be used as a bearing surface or is needlessly hard to clean. I refer again to the chairs in Ikea, which I have highlighted previously, with their remanufactured rough sawn surfaces, which leads me to the last distinguishing aspect of designism

4) Appeal to artificial rusticity and authentic seeming handicraft

Designism certainly is not the first example of industry's attempts to mass produce items with the appearance of handmade goods. To some degree this is a function which we want industry to serve, to produce more items at lower prices so that more individuals can enjoy them. This is all well and good until the average consumer is so far removed from real handicrafts that industry can strategically fool consumers with more deceitful plastics and in examples that I have already referred to as Real! wood. The epitome of this is the recent trend of "river tables", liters of two part epoxy resin rendered rustic with some offcuts that get encased in even more plastic.  The fact that these tables are promoted as DIY projects conflates handicraft with relocating the plasticized manufacturing process to a home garage

At least most of this table can serve as a flat surface


Just wow, man
 In other more personal news, I did a demonstration of making milk paint in Shanghai to Chen Yonggang, whom I have mentioned working with before, and his partner in a joint venture, a designer who tells me she is inspired by Middle Eastern furniture, in a woodshop the owner of which is a Taiwanese national who studied woodworking in Japan for a decade.  As a couple, he and his wife, teach both in their woodshop and take their curriculum directly to some Shanghai schools that appreciate what they can offer their students.

Shanghai woodworking 木忘初心

Sulfur red pigment



There was some suggestions that I might be able to work with them, reestablishing my operation in Shnaghai with their cooperation but then they are also in the process of looking for a new location to operate from. I can only wait and hope for now.

Terrazzo incorporating recycled glass

Shanghai architectural legacy 建国东路打浦桥街道


Happy Lantern Festival! 

Modernist rusticity

Update: Many customers need just a little more proof that a table is really made from a tree substance: Real! Wood. I found this one on facebook where among the many praises for the table was one suggestion that the hollow is perfect for kids to climb through. Because children have been denied for too long the opportunity to climb under more conventionally made tables.  I spent some time, trying to find the original source of the image or the maker, but page after page of pinterest compilations came up first interspersed with weblogs highlighting the table as a new, bold design for a modern kitchen. 

03 February 2021

Huzhou and back: The Elephant Commune


A common sight in many rural Chinese households is this particular stool, known as 四仰八叉凳 or Si Yangbacha Deng, a name that means simply: stool with four splayed legs. Its design is basic : rectangular seat, four legs, with stretchers between the short lengths. Its distinguishing feature is how the stretchers (I've seen some versions with double stretchers) keep the legs in place, which I've never seen wedged into the seat mortises, and often become loose with wear and seasonal changes because they lock the legs into a triangular configuration. This piece of furniture has potential to be a beginner project since it teaches layout of mortises, cutting of tenons, and application of geometry. I've never made one myself nor have I ever watched the difficult and critical step of inserting the legs into the seat mortises while simultaneously pressing the stretchers into the leg mortises.
Triangular lock

Common and neglected

This difficulty was confirmed to me while I was involved recently with a newly forming woodworking education facility in Huzhou, Zhejiang, named by the founder: The Elephant Commune. The first event occurred on the 9th of January and was a demonstration of  mayhem which involved the participants pounding together components of a 四仰八叉凳 prefabricated in the adjoining factory without instruction of how to assembly. The losses were evident with some stools abandoned as the participants exited. I don't use the word, students, because there was no teaching occurring. Office workers with no woodworking experience were pulled in at the last moment as was I to assist in the chaotic experience. 
Huddling in the cold

working in the light of the setting sun

a graphic designer lends a hand

it didn't happen if it isn't posted on social media

nothing so fun as fitting legs in holes

sorting out the leg arrangement

Still struggling with the leg assembly

Some participants more wisely chose to assemble the other stool model, which was easier to assemble but without instructions and not without its own set of challenges. 

Banging and Pounding

Production assembly

The factory owner had learned of my reputation and work history through her contacts in Shanghai where the Huzhou operation had been before the present facilities had been built and relocated about two years prior. She gave me a rough outline of her personal story: how she and her husband began as factory workers and (somehow) had become owners of the factory, how she had once emigrated to Canada but then decided to return after a year, how she was developing the Elephant Commune in order to allow her Canadian educated son to replace her in the daily operations of the furniture exports, and how she wanted me to cooperate with her to teach woodworking. 

Elephant carved in poplar by Fan Huilin

and the logo that it inspired

I asked for a detailed job description, which had not occurred to her as necessary for hiring. When I made a visit in December to her Huzhou factory complex and was given a tour of the location where she wanted me to teach, I pointed out some of the salient problems: the decision to locate the teaching and work area on the third floor without an elevator, the lack of electrical outlets, the inadequate lighting, the absence of heating or AC. Her curt response to all my concerns was: 'don't worry'. This should have been a red flag but I deeply wanted to begin doing woodworking again and get back into teaching.

Mother finishes her daughter's Luban lock puzzle

It required several prompts before I was given a detailed job description that I had been asking for. I responded by suggesting that I not be hired as a regular employee but as a 'craftsman in residence', a variation on 'artist in residence'. I even put forward the idea that I would be establishing an 'in residence' program, which if I became a full-time employee eventually, I would also help with selecting the next in line. Looking back I was naive to have thought this term would have meant anything to her or that a factory owner would have bothered to clarify its meaning before agreeing to my proposal.

Squeezing glue

I arrived on the 4th of January with a majority of my handtools and teaching materials. The weather was bitterly cold, making any work in the workspace uncomfortable even if the cleaning ladies (ayi) had not insisted in opening so many windows to allow for fresh air to circulate. Because. 

On the upside, it was sunny
 The more immediate problem for me, however, was having no mattress to sleep on.

Minimalism in mattressing

The bedding upgrade
Prior to the event on the 9th, my first two projects was my explaining how a French cleat storage system works, determining where to locate the woodworking machines prior to installation of electrical outlets, and as a volunteer, pleading with the factory owner to not have closed cabinets along the entire east wall in front of the windows, limiting access to natural lighting and becoming dead storage space.
Machines awaiting setup
All three tasks were challenges which I could not have thought so overwhelming. I worked alongside a graphic designer who was understandably confused about French cleats because she had never seen one, and because the visual examples that she found on the mainland intranet were wrong or simply didn't show enough details to allow her to comprehend the simplicity of it. The factory had, in fact, already cut and delivered components to the third floor minus the 45 degree bevels that make the system work. They were even predrilled for the vertical members that needed to be attached to the concrete walls. For reasons that only mainland Han might be able to explain, the horizontal slats were shown in the blueprint to go from above eye level down to floor level. 

Chinese style French cleat wall
I explained that there was very little advantage to hanging tools on French cleats below the waist so I advised that an open cabinet be built to run along the full length of the wall and the French cleats begin from the cabinet's height and rise upwards. Besides, the fact that the cabinet ended up without a kickplate, it turned out well. 

The difficult to conceptualize French cleat wall
I won't even go into the details of how even more frustrating it was to describe picture rail and how it can obviate the need to drill a new hole into concrete to redecorate a wall. The experience did, however, clarify in my mind how the Han Chinese think about concrete construction in general. Not only is it the dominant construction method, it's equally regarded as much less permanent than I would consider it.

Last step: Light fixtures and outlets
The redundantly unproductive discussions about the outlet locations and arrangement of the woodworking machines led to the one and only meeting of interested parties while I was in Huzhou. It can be puzzling for an outsider to understand why the electricity is often the last utility to be installed. As I recall from my stint at Harvey, the woodshop had compressed air piping installed before the necessary outlets for the machinery. When I was asked to define the arrangement of the woodworking machines and where I wanted the outlets (spaced 2 meters apart along the east and west long walls. I anticipated locating a cantilevered lumber storage unit along the northern wall and shelves were already in place along the southern.), I explained that I wanted the machines along the center line of the room to reduce the lengths of hoses to the dust collector and the electrical cords to be suspended from the ceiling. I thought I was clear in explaining the details and the reasons for the choices. But I explained again. And again to a growing band of befuddled looking electrical workers. A meeting was called to resolve the undefined impasses. I demonstrated again the arrangement for the woodworking machines to the attendees. The leader of the electrical workers (calling them electricians gives them too much authority) insisted that he could not recreate the working situation as I had in the Nanjing International Woodcraft Club in Pukou as he showed me a photo of a class I conducted there. I cannot fathom why he fixated on this photo or how it was connected to the present discussion. Finally the leader of the electrical installation crew, a Mr Bao, who certainly due to coincidence is the brother of the factory owner, expressed some details as to why the installation of the outlets was not proceeding. He started complaining that the machines had different plugs which require different corresponding outlet fixtures. I would not have thought that this might have created such a challenging impasse since most outlets in the PRC allow for different configurations of electrical plugs but it seems that allowing him to express his discomfort was enough to allow the project to move forward. In the end electrical outlets were hung from the centerline of the room for the machines and far fewer outlets than spaced 2 meters apart along the long walls. Because.

From Pukou to Huzhou

Later during my stint, the factory owner asked me for suggestions about her addition to the buildout for installing a doorway that would occlude the natural sunlight from morning until evening in the only place on the third floor where this happened and where I wanted to eventually set up my own workbench, “look very simple natural generous feeling” As diplomatically as I could, I responded: “It would certainly be a pity to erect another door in the brightest area of the woodshop” Consideration of natural lighting was not on her list of priorities. It seems that the only way to control access from the second floor to the third, which was only now realized at this late date was to build a wall on the third floor in the area that was most desirable for working. Because.

Handtools for wall decorations

January 9th was a scheduled event that involved inviting large numbers of participants to pound together stool components with claw hammers. The chaos led to the factory to produce benchhooks based on what I use. 

Factory made tables

Modeled after a Chinese classroom
 Well before I arrived in Huzhou, I was sent a photo of the workbenches that were being assembled on the third floor. I responded that they were not suitable benches for woodworking and that it would be better for me to build proper woodworking benches after I arrived. (This was before I knew about a pressing event scheduled for the 9th) I received the standard response: “Don't worry” After I arrived, I was asked to install end vises, I demonstrated that the vises were of low quality and that Moxon vises could be made from wood with German made taps and dies (which could subsequently be used to teach a class) and showing very clearly that the vises would not fit on the benches without damaging the stretchers and the corner braces. This was the result. 

For every bench a vise

The vise as installed

On the 17th a young woman from Shanghai began her employment in the woodshop. By that time I was debating whether I could stay in this workplace for a full year commitment. I was still confident than that I could bear the unrelenting chaos and clueless approach to woodworking instruction as long as I could remain sanely calm above the fray, potentially setting examples by osmosis, as with the adoption of bench hooks, until either the end of my craftsman in residency tenure or until I thought the organization was ready for me as a long term employee. I eventually learned her name and shortly afterwards I discovered that she actually had some experience as a woodworker. 

The upgraded vise installation

a bench appliance unfriendly to saws
Briefly, she attended a Shanghai trade school as a senior middle school student, participating in a training program that existed in order to compete in WorldSkills,  a Dutch based organization that hosts trade skills competitions worldwide. She was young with little experience that wasn't learned in an industrial training program but she and I had much more in common. 
Little wood horse kit: just add super glue!

She even readily understood that it was a bad idea to allow small children to use cyanoacrylate adhesive (i.e. super glue) to complete projects. And to her credit, she helped me to wipe away the clouds that I needed to leave this place, albeit briefly.

She began to take on her assigned role of intermediary between me and the factory owner according to the norms of a mainland work environment wherein orders are typically conveyed indirectly from top to bottom, probably, to prevent any feedback from moving, in response, from bottom back up to the top. 

Real! Wood

the straw that broke

I was shown a photo of a 四仰八叉凳 and informed that I needed to make an example by hand, which would then be given to the factory so that components could be manufactured in bulk. I countered with a series of reason why this was not my responsibility and that I would not be making such an item. I explained that I was not an industrial designer and nowhere in my job description was I required to make production prototypes. I pointed out that there were already two stool projects. I patiently explained the that most expeditious means of obtaining a prototype would be to buy one online (quite possibly the same one in the photo) and give it to the factory. 

There might be some backstory to this workplace demand or it might be an example of the boss reaffirming who the boss was. More than likely, it was yet another impulsive whim on her part. It's apparent that this is just another example of  仰八叉凳 but with round members. I've hinted at the chaos of the event on the 9th but I need to explain more. It became apparent that the best method for assembling the stool components had not been thought through.

Broken seats from the first event
One can say that the solution to this problem was creative but it's really just an example of making a square peg fit into a hole in a less breakable seat. Negative outcomes entirely predictable when there is no planning and so a solution was found that might negate the need for further planning or curriculum design.

Melamine sandwich

Factory ordered components
These plywood components were ordered from the factory to produce as a quick fix to the problems which arose due to lack of preparations and poor understanding of how to design woodworking courses. It was a factory owner's solution to a production problem, upgrade the stock material to make the problem simply go away. And no, I didn't see one of these melamine seat stool assembled to be able to confirm whether the solution was workable. 

Using a chisel to complete a project

Rather than accepting the need for a comprehensive lesson plan with a project that could be reasonably managed by a participant with no experience, I was assigned another task from the one I was there to accomplish. The intermediary explained that this requirement fell under my responsibility for creating courseware and it was not a template for the factory. Yes, she asserted an argument which contradicted what she had just told me. She further explained to me that this assignment fell to me because I had not developed any courses that met the two hour timeframe.  I did my best to suppress my fury mainly because she was simply conveying a directive. I explained that in addition to the rope spinning, which I had demonstrated on the 9th, I had proposed three projects that could be turned into courses that accommodated the two hour timeframe. This back and forth was getting nowhere essentially because that was the main point. 
World Skills instructor
My wife had just received a copy of my labor contract which she was planning to take back to Nanjing in order to have it looked over by an HR professional. The message that I was being told to accept, and which would have been implicit to most other Chinese workers in this same situation, is that a job description could be reinterpreted in anyway imaginable by the factory owner to suit her spontaneous whims. If making a factory prototype can be interpreted as courseware design, then any assigned task can similarly be imposed on me under the same open ended interpretation. Further evidence that I was there to be nothing more than a common factory assemblyline worker, I had just been informed on the previous day by this same intermediary that my new work schedule would be 08:00-20:00 6 days a week with Tuesdays off, nercifully. With two hours subtracted for lunch and dinner provided by the factory canteen, this amounted to 60 hours a week. Evidently the concept of craftsman in residence had been ignored.

I asked my wife whether the work schedule was specified in the labor contract along with the salary (or was it calculated hourly?). She explained that work schedule and hours required to work fell under the 'rules of the factory' clause. A labor contract only needed to specify theoretical compensation. Have I mentioned that common practice of docking wages in the PRC?

Subzero woodcraft
I lay in bed that evening and came to the conclusion that I needed to accept that my position there was not in line with why I was willing to relocate and was, therefore, not tenable. I determined that it was simply better to resign immediately while my wife, Julia, was still there to help me negotiate a withdrawal. In the morning, I sent a message via the wechat app to the factory owner with the reasons for my resignation. She asked for a meeting at 09:00 during which she explained that she was a very important person who owned five companies before excusing herself to speak with a banker. Remaining at the conference table were Julia, me, and the intermediary. We didn't know how soon we would be able to continue so Julia and she chatted lightly and eventually I brought the topic back to why I was leaving so at the very least one person would understand my reasons.

No elevator
The intermediary before the factory owner returned, unprompted asked me the question: "What can you bring us?" I didn't understand where the question was coming from or how to answer it. I naively responded: "all my woodworking tools" Afterwards, my wife explained that this is a standard interview question as well as the question, "What is your advantage?", which I knew from another context. The young intermediary was possibly parroting what she thought she should say, unaware that this was an exit interview and her boss had not passed my interview process.

Discussing rope spinners with Chen Yonggang

I had been dreading the inevitable task, which I could postpone mentally, of packing up and returning to Nanjing with a truckload of my belongings. The reshipping was suddenly upon me. The logistics of moving back were complicated by a staff of workers who were less enthusiastic about moving my things onto the truck than they had been upon my arrival. They seemed afraid of getting on their boss' bad side since she had not yet given them orders to help move out. The biggest struggle was getting the workbench down to the first floor and then onto the truck. I was prepared to disassemble (it was designed to be unbolted after all) but as the last item, it was eventually carried back down the stairwell by a band of sturdy men who had been given their orders.

What can you bring us?

Chun tian kuaile!