‘Craft needs objectives,’ argues Frank Chimero (p. 17) in his new / pending book The Shape of Design.* A significant and indispensable part of the craftsman’s work is his apprenticeship—the learning of his craft, and the ongoing refining of it, as Richard Sennett describes in loving detail in his book, The Craftsman.** While sifting through my sorts (individual metal letters for printing) at the letterpress class I recently had the pleasure of attending, I was informed that the first four years of a letterpress printer’s apprenticeship was sorting the sorts into their cases–minding their p’s and q’s–and indeed I spent some time pondering over the subtle differences of n’s and u’s when tossed into the wrong allotment. By the end of this gruelling period, the fledgling printer would be expert at reaching for and setting characters without looking, making him a capable and efficient typesetter.
Chimero acknowledges that perfecting one’s craft is important and—as Sennett emphasises—rewarding, but argues that focusing on this one face of craft is myopic. There is a second side to craft, which he illustrates by situating Rembrandt as the flipside of Vermeer (pp. 12-13). Vermeer brings us into the artist’s studio to see him adeptly putting paint to canvas, but Rembrandt depicts the analytical face of the artist, scrutinising his efforts from a distance, simultaneously a critical and a strategic gaze.
Chimero (p. 13) equates How with this nearness to one’s work, also understood as the making and execution of that work, or, more broadly, as craft. How is no simple question, and covers all the problem-solving, lateral thinking and sweating over details and failures explored by Sennett. But Why encourages us to put our work into perspective, to think about it, strategise about it, to approach it analytically. It is this added engagement that nurtures originality. Chimero (p. 13) paints this rather vividly as ‘an individual in dialogue with themselves and the work.’
Having approached my first few months as an illustrator with the explicit intention of improving my craft, learning new techniques and exploring my style, I find myself with a pictorially lovely collection of work that finds itself a sort of baby sister to Fine Art. These works are in no way wasted, and are necessary steps along the path to Becoming Awesome, but their purpose is as simple as: ‘learning exercise that hopefully ends in aesthetically pleasing object.’
‘Questions about How to do things improves craft and elevates form, but asking Why unearths a purpose and develops a point of view,’ Chimero (p. 12) writes. Creating beautiful things is pleasing, but engaging our minds is even more rewarding. Revealing our analytical choices and processes gives a depth to our work that Chimero (p. 15) calls ‘a new form of beauty,’ one that engages dialogue beyond the craftsman and her work, engaging the viewer in that conversation as well.
* Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design.
** Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.
↬ Maria Popova, Frank Chimero’s studiomate, wrote about this book on her fabulous website Brainpickings.
Having begun to think of ways in which I might apply my illustrative abilities, I dreamed up a French restaurant and fashioned a hand-lettered menu for it. The mouthwatering recipes are titles carefully selected from a recent second-hand find, Good French Cooking (1966) by the Comtesse Guy de Toulouse-Lautrec. In my days at my coffee shop, I am unendingly maddened by the stupid orders of my patrons, who want everything from decaf soy cappuccinos without the chocolate dusting, to mega-babycinos. I like to imagine that my own café would serve simply ‘Coffee,’ an espresso, and if you don’t like it you can do unspeakable things to yourself with hot substances or you can go and humiliate yourself elsewhere. A simple menu with limited choices is best, and if devised by a culinarily talented individual it ought to succeed without bending to the whims of trends or demands.