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For the last 20 odd years I have benefited from regular bouts of insomnia.

When they happen, I’ll wake about 4 a.m., roll over and my head will spin with several conflicting images, usually relating to something on my workbench from the past, present or future. For years I tried to get back to sleep when this happened. When Lucy and I had children who were young, we needed every moment of sleep possible.

Now I take a different tack.

I sort through my frontal lobe slideshow as if I’m attending a university lecture in a foreign language. What is my subconscious trying to tell me because it cannot use words?

Then I sneak out of the bedroom and head to my sketchbook, which always sits in the same place with a mechanical pencil at the ready. For the next 20-30 minutes I’ll write the paragraph that has been eluding me or I’ll draw the solution to a vexing design problem.

The sketches are not design documents. I make them rapidly without rulers or scale because I have found the idea can fade if I switch my brain to a mechanical mode.

The image above is a series I drew one night of frame-and-panel doors where the panel is a piece of leather that has been woven (as shown) or riveted or perforated. I am just waiting for the correct cabinet for these doors – probably a low credenza or sideboard.

This week has been a banner week for insomnia because I am traveling overseas. Sleep comes and goes at odd intervals. So two nights ago my brain spit out what I hope is the final iteration of a series of six stools I’ve been building.

The good news is that I’ve also found this design exercise is the solution to my insomnia. Once I sketch for about 20 minutes and get my idea on paper, my brain says: OK, idiot, thanks for listening and doing my bidding. Now the rest of your meat sack can get some sleep.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. I’m not a medical professional, and my experiences with insomnia have no basis in medical fact. Other side effects from insomnia include itching, burning, decreased sex drive, an impacted spleen, liver pimples and, in extreme cases, the desire to make furniture for a living and starve. Ask your doctor if sketching is right for you. Sketching. From the good people at Dixon Ticonderoga.

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Showing 5 comments

    If you need to forgo designing something and need to sleep, some doctor whose name I do not recall wrote that you should devise a simple, repetitive task that has a number of sequential steps. Focussing on the procedure should calm your brain sufficiently to allow you to slip back into slumberland. I use dismantling a plane in order to sharpen the iron. I start by gathering all the gear needed before I sit down to the task. I rarely get past flattening the back of the iron.

  • Bill Rainford

    Embrace the twilight sleep or dual sleep cycle — a lot of the founding fathers (IIRC John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jefferson etc) all would sleep a few hours, have a prolific/calm hours of work mid night and then sleep until morning.
    I was in the mode a bit (always been a night owl), but now with two babies even 3 hours or sequential sleep is considered a win for me.

  • BLZeebub

    Some of my greatest achievements occurred in fevered waking dreams. Just ask myself…

  • Canuk Wood Chuck

    Sometimes your best designs come to you when your mind is at rest. I’m really glad to hear your children were born young. lol

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