A recent article in the New York Times, “Simplifying the Bull…“, discusses a series of 11 lithographs by Picasso, as a tool to model product designs in order to reduce them to their most fundamental and functional aspects. It’s an interesting piece that delves into the design and decision making process at Apple Inc., and that opens up a broader discussion on design itself.
Picasso’s “Bull” Christmas 1945
(The progression moves from top to bottom beginning with the far left-hand column-click on the image for a more detailed view)
Much has been made in the art world and beyond regarding the psychoanalytic vestiges inherent in the particulars of this work, which I’ll gladly leave to the post-modernist critics and anybody else who may be interested in trundling down that path. My intent here is to examine the evolution of the above drawings in relation to the design process as exemplified through the craft of wood furniture production, particularly of the type generated in garages and basement workshops every day, from tinkerers to professionals and beyond.
Let’s dive in.
Initially, through the first two drawings there is a growing complexity to the bull, whereas beginning with Plate 3, a progressive deconstruction ensues, rendering the final plate a seemingly simple line drawing that in fact exhibits the primary elements of the idea, encapsulating both the rudimentary nature of the design and espousing the power that is the essence of the thing itself.
Plates 1, 2, & 11
This brings up a fundamental question in the art/design process; namely, what is the first step? Does the artist/designer imagine the final piece (subject to revision) initially (Plate 1) or do they construe something more basic (also subject to revision) in their mind’s eye (Plate 11)? Take a dining room table for example: is it the finished product that first appears mentally or rather a flat surface with 4 legs to support it? Ultimately, I assume it varies widely from person to person. However, we woodworkers possess what I would consider to be an additional advantage, i.e. function. More specifically, I would guess most woodworkers wouldn’t place themselves in either of the above camps which both subscribe to Form/Idea as the maximal origin and conclusion. Rather a woodworker tends to be cornered by the constraints of their predicament, such as, “I need a place to eat, and this cardboard box just isn’t doing it”, and voila….a dining room table results. Of interest, once the impetus is established, is what’s the most effective method to arrive at the end result, i.e. a dining room table.?
As a side note, it’s important to add that there are several if not countless additional components that feed into this design recipe. Items like skill set, awareness of past and current design trends, aesthetic preference, the size of one’s dining room, the size of oneself and one’s family, availability of material, associated cost, time available, each of which merit their own further discussion.
So when we look at Picasso’s Bull, what we are really privy to, are the stages of an accomplished master artist’s thought process from initial spark to final conclusion. It is curious to note that there is a degree of increasing complexity from Plate 1 to Plate 2 at which point the series gradually distills down to its more fundamental elements. This may indicate an intimate look at the initial idea (a bull for whatever reason), an exploration into what that fully represents (Plate 2), and then ultimately a paring down to the basic and final most effective form (Plate 11). Regardless, the end result is the same.
In some ways, the medium of sculpture would seem more closely related to the woodworking idiom instead of a 2D representation of a 3D object (drawing of bull versus actual bull). Like Michelangelo reducing a block of marble to something as incredible as David. But this still leaves out function. At least in the practical sense. Functionally, David, may in fact bring a certain mental satisfaction to the viewer that they then carry with them and that too is grist for another conversation, but functionally speaking methinks trying to balance a dinner plate on David’s kneecap would prove entertaining at best. But I digress.
Where then, does that leave the inspired woodworker? True, the sketch pad, scrap paper, napkin, etc. seem like an obvious first choice. But to really get to the heart of the matter, one cannot leave it at that. The inspiration, the need is there. The image presents itself in the mental/visual landscape. The 1st drawing materializes. Then what? Some latitude is necessary here; each woodworker processes the making manifest of an idea differently. A cardboard mock-up for some, a scaled down model for others. Even a rough version of the intended piece. While critical, the details of this stage do not matter so long as one takes the step itself. Beyond this there is the actual piece. And pleasant it may be. But finished it is not. For at the end of the day we are a different person than the face that greeted us that same morning in the mirror. And so our work follows. And thus life. That dining room table then, is never quite finished. Especially when we are faced with it each day. We see where it may have been a little lower or a bit wider or the base less heavy. We see where we might have made it better. But we do not lament. We instead make a promise. To build that table again, to change what need be changed as we have changed and the world along with it.
(this essay was revised at least 17 times prior to publication)