Break the mould

One of the most inspiring presentations at the AWGB seminar, well, for me at least, was the one from Ambrose O’Halloran. He comes from Ireland, where he lives in County Galway. For those of us who are a little shaky on their geography, if you walk from Dublin straight west, that’s where you fall into the sea.

There was nothing particularly spectacular about the piece he made during the presentation. No, the true value lay in his approach to his work, and how he managed to get this message across to the audience.

His basic message to us was: do not use the classical engineering thinking, which asks first “what”, then “how” and finally, maybe, “why”. Go around the circle half way and ask first “why”. Why is this shape this way and not any other? Or, sometimes even better, “why not”. Why not make something that breaks all the rules?

His thinking owes a strong legacy to David Pye, who was the professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art from 1964 to 1974. During that time he wrote two books, which have become standard literature at many art colleges. In the second of his books, “The nature and Art of Workmanship”, he proposes the workmanship of risk, by which he means “workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works”. This is opposed to the workmanship of certainty, where the maker uses the same skills to create a process where the output is completely predetermined (in other words, mass production).

It is clear that if we are to truly break the mould and create works that are unique and have qualities that differentiate them from mass production, that we must use the workmanship of risk. Every time we create a new piece, we must risk complete failure at any stage of the creation. This becomes even more true if we want to break new ground, as there will not be any other makers we could use as a reference.

I always knew it: life is a risky business, and nobody gets out alive. So let’s get on with it.

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