Sunday, February 14, 2010


It’s interesting how a few minutes of conversation can influence your thought and perception for years while millions of words go in one ear and out the other.
I remember a customer coming to my workshop some years ago in a small Ontario town. This man wanted to have his kitchen cabinets replaced and had come to me, a cabinetmaker to do the job. I was in my early twenties at the time and he would have been twenty five or thirty years older. After he had explained what he was looking for I asked him if he had a design or if he needed me to do that part of the job as well. He reacted with suspicion and confusion and replied, “What design? I just want you to build it”. I did not have a lot of experience at the time in dealing with people, especially people my parent’s age who were suspicious that I was trying to take them to the cleaners with fancy talk about design. The customer left and I never heard from him again.
This experience has stayed with me for several decades and I still try to understand what happened. The conversation with the customer ended abruptly because he thought that I was bull shitting him when I tried to make a distinction between the design and the making of his kitchen cabinets.
I think perhaps that this experience also represents a change in the way that this type of work, the making of things is done. At one time, I am sure that carpenters, cabinetmakers and other trades simply designed and built almost simultaneously without a distinction between the design and realization of the job, much like the way one might dig a ditch, you just dig and adjust your digging until you have the ditch you want. You might spend of few minutes leaning on your shovel thinking about it, but you would not have distinguished this as the design part of the job.
The question is; can we separate design from making? Of course we can. It’s done all the time, more and more, in architecture and construction, industrial design and manufacturing. Even in art. Many artists never technically make anything although, in my experience, there is a lot more collaboration between the artist conceiving the work and the tradesperson executing it than is generally acknowledged. This is often the case with design professionals as well.
Some design professionals and trades people embrace their inter dependence and others resent it.
Recently I looked at all of the websites of architects who are members of the AIBC. I think there were more than one hundred members with sites. As I recall, only one of these sites showed images of the architects engaged with the building part of their projects, or buildings under construction. (Incidentally that one architect was a customer of mine and the building site represented was his own home.) All of the other web sites showed the architects either working at a computer, or sketching at a meeting table and images of finished projects. Interestingly, architects often use the term “build” when referring to their work rather than “design”, as in “we recently built a large home in Whistler”, when, in reality, they had nothing to do with the actual building work.
I ran into an architect friend of mine recently, who made this mistake when telling me what he had been up to lately. I didn’t say a word but I think he could tell from my face that I was not comfortable with his use of the word “build”. He backed tracked and said “well I don’t mean I actually built it. I designed it”.

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