Techniques can be easily taught but design is another story. Yet it is probably the most important story in the arts and crafts. In wood turning, refined technique, choice of wood, and grain pattern, as well as finish are icing on the cake but the heart of the issue is design. Without it, the project will never be first class.
It is said that you have to turn several hundred ugly bowls before you begin to turn pretty ones. I have certainly turned my share of ugly, unbalanced and clunky bowls. I am pretty embarrassed when I look at these earlier works. Yet this is how we grow. We start from where we are. We then begin to improve on the design. As our techniques improve we can try more sophisticated designs not possible with more limited ability.
I tend to be a practical person and a bit old fashioned. I feel this is a prerogative of a wood turner in his seventies. My bias is that design should have something to do with function.
As I began to work with larger and larger bowls a design feature began to occur to me. The purpose of a vessel is to contain something. If it is a large vessel, it will contain a lot of something, be it holiday salad, fruit or whatever. That means that the vessel, in this case I am thinking of a large bowl, will be fairly heavy.
Smooth flaring curves of a large bowl’s outer wall can be a bit slippery, especially if oily or wet. So I had the idea to substitute raised beads on the outside of the bowl in place of indented grooves or lines. This serves a couple of purposes. First it gives the fingers something more than a curving slippery surface on to which to hold. Thus it is practical. The heavily laden bowl is less likely to slip through the fingers with raised beads to grip. This makes the bowl more functional and, to my mind, better designed.
The second function it fulfills is to break up the long, somewhat visually monotonous curving side of the bowl, giving it more appeal. The long curve is divided into two smaller curves. Now, most would agree that dividing a space into two unequal parts is more visually appealing than making it right in the middle. So by putting the beads nearer to the rim of the bowl makes the division into unequal parts more functional as it is closer to the gripping fingers while the thumbs are anchored on the rim of the bowl. What should the exact ratio be? That is a personal decision. You need to see what works for you. Personal taste varies so there can be no set rule. The golden ratio is a place to start.
How many beads to make and how high again is a personal decision. You can decide for yourself if the bowl pictured above is appealing to you or not. There is no one right or wrong way.
Is this something new? My answer to that is that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything has been thought of and expressed before. All ideas and forms exist in nature and we merely recall what we have seen or experienced. No need to take credit for what nature has already done. So, best to be careful to claim authorship of a creation. Go to a museum and learn to your chagrin that artist thousands of years before you had done the same thing. Look at nature and you may see that idea expressed in hundreds of forms.
In fact, it is good training in design to go to museums and see what the ancient were doing with design. It is good to be alert to the magnificent design ideas nature has provided us everywhere we choose to look, from the smallest of the small to the biggest of the big. Design is all around us. When we are alert to it, we see it everywhere.
By studying these examples of nature and man we can see what works for us and what does not. Then we can begin to incorporate these features into our work. At that point, design begins to take on the aspect of a great adventure. As Mae West said: "It ain’t what I do, Honey, it’s how I do it." We all copy, it is just how we copy those ideas into our art that makes the difference.
So, my advice is to be bold. Try new things. Find out for yourself what works and what doesn’t. The possibilities are infinite. There is no joy in smallness, joy is in the infinite, the Vedic wisdom reminds us.