I grew up in a college town, and we used the term “regular guy” to describe people who didn’t let the initials after their names make them act superior or place them outside the real world. As in “he has a Ph.D. in economics, but I ran into him at the lumberyard and he’s a regular guy.” Before the 1930s, design was not the realm of folk educated beyond their intelligence. Design was the field of regular guys; it wasn’t a profession, it was a skill learned by experience and intimately connected with making things. It was learned from someone with experience in the real world.
Tom Wolfe’s book From Bauhaus to Our House makes the point that there was a cultural shift in the design world between 1930 and 1950, due in large part to the Great Depression and World War II. We weren’t making or building much in those years, and that left a gap in a long chain of practical design experience. Design became an intellectual exercise, largely unrelated to the real world. It moved from the shop floor and the job site to the college campus. After 20 years, there weren’t many regular guys left, and the academics convinced the rest of the world that their credentials were essential.
There are two approaches to learning, the academic and the practical. The best information about historic forms of furniture comes from people who know what they know because they have had their hands and eyes on the real thing, have done their homework , and most important, have done it themselves. The Woodworking in America Furniture Design and Construction conference isn’t an academic exercise; it is a gathering to pass on practical knowledge. And the presenters are all regular guys.
If you want to make your own furniture, and you want to do it well, you need to be careful where you get your information, because there is also a significant gap in information about woodworking that started about 80 years ago. We stopped making stuff when the stock market crashed in 1929, and when we returned to it there were very few people around who knew what, why and how things were accomplished. There are plenty of people without practical knowledge passing along what they’ve read, what they’ve heard and what they imagine about these things. That won’t teach you much. If you want good information, look for a regular guy to teach you.
Regular guys know what they know because they are driven by curiosity and passion. They read everything that has been written, but they also take the time to try things out to see how the written word holds up in the shop. They willingly share what they know, but they are willing to point out what they don’t know, where historical evidence is lacking and when we have to make our best guess. If you’re interested in making better furniture, and want to learn the fine points without getting lost in academic hooptedoodle, come and join us in August. You’ll have access to people who know what they’re talking about, and you probably won’t hear the word evocative. You will head for home better equipped to build anything.
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