Alexander and the Pursuit of Beauty

“Let it be anything you like but at least let it be unified”
Horace, the Art of Poetry

For quite a few years I was professionally involved in furniture making and design, and as an Alexander teacher it felt natural to relate what I was doing in this field to the Technique and to its principles which underlay the rest of my life. Of course there’s been a lot written about Alexander in relation to other, more spontaneous creative pursuits—music, dance, acting etc., but I’ve not come across much in relationship to Alexander Technique in craft and design (an exception is in Bruce Fertman's new book). I suppose that this is because AT principles are so much more obviously applicable to activities in which the artist ‘kisses the joy as it flies’ and in which the work is produced in real time, directly from the activity of the Self. A pianist plays and there is music: a dancer moves and there is dance. Cabinet making, on the other hand is slow and demanding in a very different way; any sense of artistic accomplishment is experienced only in fleeting moments during a laborious making process which may last months. Hopefully if things have gone well, it will come in greater fullness when the work is complete.

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So how can we relate Alexander principles to this kind of time-extended pursuit? I’d say in four ways. They can help us work healthily, safely and to wield tools skilfully; they can open questions about process, ends and means; they can give us an approach to revealing beauty suggested by inhibition and direction; and the practice of AT itself can help us to attune to the qualities of life, movement, delicacy and strength which are the hallmarks of beautiful work

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People often tend to see furniture making as quite a romantic thing to be doing, but it is anything but that. It is physically demanding, dusty, often noisy, occasionally frightening (big machines can kill or main) and repetitive. If we are starting with rough sawn timber then there are considerable weights to be moved around the workshop. In order to make anything with any degree of efficiency you first have to be in reasonable physical shape, and AT can certainly help us maintain this in the face of the demands the work puts on the body. As a matter of course we can also note that it can help us to master the more refined parts of of the process, teach us use hand tools well, and to handle them with them with the delicacy and refinement needed to do high quality work.

Woodworking is stressful, particularly as we near the end of a long project when the costs in time and labour which are embodied in the item we are working on become quite high. There is the constant stress of worrying about making ends meet (this is a high overhead business), about disappointing customers who are paying a lot of money, and about mistakes, which can be very expensive. Alexander principles can help us to manage stress and to keep calm when everything seems to be going wrong. It can help us to have the sense to ‘stop’ and take a breather—not only when we are getting into a mess, but also when things are flowing suspiciously well which, paradoxically, is often the time when mistakes are made and accidents happen. There’s nothing more illusory than the feeling of invincibility that comes with flow. A pianist may play a wrong note, which is embarrassing: a cabinet maker might lose a finger. There’s no space for Dionysus in the workshop.

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Beyond the Mundane

However valuable such mundane, everyday considerations about efficiency, safety and practical skill may be, they are not the main focus of what I wish to write about here. Much more interesting from a creative point of view are considerations of ends, means and process which Alexander work encourages. Industrial woodworking, for example, is of necessity very ‘ends’ focussed. Considerations of efficiency and utility rule. How the final result is achieved is predicated entirely on cost. Tooling, techniques and workflow are based on speed, with no consideration for how they affect the feel of the final piece, which is produced from an image in the head of a designer who may be on another continent. The result is often a dispiriting uniformity and soullessness. But though there are legitimate questions to ask around how this is implemented, you can’t really live in an over-populated world and deny the logic of mass production if you still hope everyone will be well fed, housed, and have a bed to sleep in.

However, as we get to the ‘finer’, bespoke end of things where people may be prepared to pay more (by necessity a lot more) for something special and unique to them, some other considerations might come into play if we are open to them. We might realise that the need to charge so highly for any piece of bespoke furniture has to be justified, and one way to do this is start to ponder on the possibility of much great complexity and richness of ends, and therefore about what sort of process might be needed to get us there.

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For example we may start thinking about what might benefit people in a deeper sense than simply owning a useful or attractive item—for example the need for home and a sense of place, beauty and connection. Looking at the world around us we may start to realise that the sort of things which meet these needs in a profound way tend to have certain qualities. These often include: a feeling of connection to both history and the present (timelessness); a sense of life that reflects the natural world and helps people feel connected to it; a high level of complexity, what craftspeople call ‘diversity’—the shimmering quality when there are complex layers of detail in a thing that go ‘all the way down’; a tangible (touchable) sense that the maker cared about what he was doing and the people he was making for; a pleasing engagement with many senses—obviously visual balance and interest, but also texture, sound and smell. Does it matter how a door clicks when it closes? Does it affect anything if we make our draw bottoms from cedar of Lebanon giving a lovely piney smell whenever it is opened? Of course it matters! And among all this we may wish to find an ‘ascending’ quality, a movement upwards as well as down that remind us that we are spiritual beings also, whatever that may mean to us.

What we can notice about all of the factors above is that we are no longer in the realm of quantity (units sold, functional items acquired, money made). We have moved decisively into the realm of qualities and this, to my mind, brings us firmly into a sphere where Alexander feels relevant because the ‘goals’ in Alexander work are also about qualities. There is no ‘right position’, nothing that can be measured or set in stone, or produced by doing something predictable. There are instead ‘desirable qualities’ which we can allow to manifest or become aware of. ‘Up’ is a quality, not a position. ‘Free’ is also a quality, as is ‘open’, ‘expansive’, ‘grounded’, ‘present’, or any of the other myriad indicators of ‘good use’. Such qualities can’t be tied down in quantitive terms, because they have a living, evolving connection to the moment, and they are never quite the same twice. There is no formula for them: either they are present or they are not.

One of the things that the AT teaches us is that in order to experience such qualities we need to let go of our obsession with ends, and attend to the process which takes us towards them. Otherwise we just end up with the same old same old. Implicit in this is that the qualities we end up with are inseparable from the process by which they are arrived at; the ends and the means are in a sense one thing. So if we want to be making pieces of furniture, or pots, or textiles, or any other beautiful thing which reflects worthwhile qualities, we’d better be thinking about the way we intend to get there as well as the destination.

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Something we can notice about the list of qualities I suggested relating to furniture is that, if we want to produce them together, we are undertaking something complex. It is a tall order to manifest many of the above qualities some way in a single piece! In addition we are working with wood, and wood is not uniform—each piece is different, and differences in grain and pattern will make two identically sized pieces look and feel very different, which adds another level of challenge. A door which looks balanced and harmonious with one piece of timber may look all wrong with another, though the dimensions are identical. So we have to balance differences in grain so that everything comes out harmoniously. And in spite of this very great complexity, what we need above all is for the different qualities we are working with to hang together into a whole. If we are to produce something to lighten the heart we need the end result to have a feeling of integration.

One helping hand we have in this is that furniture is primarily functional. We are not making a piece of ‘art’ but something which first has to perform its job, and this puts limits around what we are doing and sets a clear direction. If we are making a chair it must be comfortable and strong before it is beautiful. So what we are doing has bounds, and those bounds are our starting point—just as if I am to get up out of a chair elegantly, without unnecessary stress or strain, that gives me a general intention around which I can organise what I’m up to. From there I can start to wonder about the process needed to achieve it.

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So what sort of process will help us to end with a piece of furniture with a sense of soul, with heart and a sense of life to it? It’s clear that there’s no kind of formula which can help us. We are dealing with a unique problem—a piece for certain unique people to go in a certain place and perform a certain function, made from unique materials. Nothing can ever be quite the same twice. Once I made the mistake of creating an exact copy of a piece I was rather proud of. The original had a certain quality of life, I thought, but the copy was dead on arrival! The process that had lead to certain dimensions and decisions with one load of timber was a unique response to that particular batch. So whatever happens we know we will need to be producing something ‘new’, something currently unknown with its own qualities of life, movement, balance, flow, groundedness, history, ascent. Starting from what we know as Alexander Teachers, what sort of process allows us to open up into a shining liminal place like that?

I would say that such a process is born in a dance between a general plan (to make a certain type of table or get out of a chair), the 'thinking self', and the deep intelligence of the organism, and that the way we can approach this is not through what we think we want, but through being clear about what we don’t. Now it’s clear we can’t set out to do this with timber if our design is rigidly set to begin with. So we need to start by finding a way of holding our general intention that leaves space for responsiveness. In a similar way to how, sitting or standing, we are not trying to reproduce what happened the last time but need to give space to allow for something fresh, in working with wood we need to find a general way of proceeding where there is a plan but in which the possibilities are left open.

One way to do this is to feel our way towards the result we want in a process the late lamented cabinet maker James Krenov called ‘composing’. This means working without any drawings and only an idea of the structure in our head. We let the design and precise dimensions evolve from working with increasingly refined mockups made, as much as possible, from the actual timber we are using to make the piece. This leaves a great deal of freedom with room for spontaneity and serendipity. However if the design is complex or involves mechanisms of any sort, then the difficulties of keeping track of what we are doing can easily lead to mistakes. A halfway house is to use an ‘open drawing’ or full-sized ‘rod’ in which key dimensions are fixed, but as much as possible is left only roughly sketched and filled in as we go. But either approach gives us a flexible general idea within which we can allow something unexpected to arise.

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Working this way allows a constant interplay between what we see and feel, the qualities we are looking for, the limits and possibilities of tools and techniques, and the qualities of the timber itself. Instead of a dry process in which we are closely following a plan, there is an element of life and spontaneity to what we are up to, even at the glacial pace enforced on us by hand crafting a resistant material. Rather than working only from a visual image born in our head—often without reference to the actual material to be used—we are allowing our hands, our fingertips, and our sensitivity to living form to enter into the equation. At every step there is room for a spark which can make things happen.

Direction and Inhibition in Process

So how best to use this freedom we have given ourselves to bring about the qualities we are looking for and to integrate them into a piece that has a feeling of unity and wholeness? The answer is as simple as we might hope. It is direction and inhibition. We have a direction, or many directions that refer to qualities that need to be going on, one at a time and altogether. We want a feeling of life, of history, of ascent, of timelessness, of complexity and diversity, all tied together by a feeling of unity and integration. These ‘wishes’ for our piece are like directions. And, as with directions, all we can say for sure is what is not that. We may make a move in our mind that feels right, or start to plane a delicate profile on an edge but must always be asking, “is this taking the piece towards the qualities we want or is it not?”. Is our excitement about our idea for a part contradicting some deeper wish we have for the piece as a whole? If it is then we’d better stop and try something else.

“Like this?”

“No, that’s dragging it down”.

This way?

“No, it’s becoming rigid”

That way?

“It loses its connection to the ground”

“How about….”

“ah, we can go with that…”

And so we give permission.

This kind of working can be very arduous‚ an almost continuous process of saying “no” to any possibility the mind or body is drawn towards that contradicts the qualities we are after. Day after day, week after week, until the piece is finished. Sometimes this takes a lot of discipline. Wood is beautiful, and tools and technique can be compelling. Sometimes we have in idea that on it’s own terms is lovely and it is hard to say ‘no’ to that. But of course that is what art involves—‘killing your darlings’. And killing you darlings is like inhibition. It’s about noticing what is not good.

Interestingly this ‘exploratory negative’ approach was very much a part of the way that humans worked with wood before we had standardised working practices and machines. Wood is an ablative material—until the invention of modern lamination techniques we could only form shapes with it by removing stuff or bending it with steam. So most of the experience for early woodworkers was of chipping stuff away until they got the form they wanted. In standardised, machine based work this is not so much of a factor because you’re working to a rigid preconceived plan, but in more handmade traditions the ‘exploratory negative’ was central. For example, planking up a clinker dingy involves putting on each new plank alternately across the boat and sizing up by eye whether it looks balanced with the ones that are already there. In essence you are asking “what needs to be taken away here”, and you remove material until it looks right. The end is a kind of live, simmering quality which is quite different to work made with mechanised techniques. It’s not perfectly symmetrical, but is more beautiful for that.

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Creating furniture in the way I’ve described above is rigorous and often tiresome. We want to get on. In fact saying ‘no’ to the wish to prematurely cry “to hell with it!” is often the hardest part, especially if there are customers waiting. “They won’t notice these little details: this little reveal or that lift of a rail”. And the thing is, it’s often the case that they really wouldn’t. Many of the details we do in this kind of work are subliminal, they are not usually registered by the conscious mind of the observer at all. But make a piece without any of them and sure as hell they’d notice. Individually details seem a chore. Together they’re the difference between, as David Pye puts it, “a piece that sings and one that remains forever silent”. So we’d better take time if we care about that difference.

The World in Ourselves

Of course a piece of furniture is not really alive, it doesn’t actually ‘sing’, and it is not really even unified in the sense that a human, plant or animal is. It is a collection of bits screwed, glued or jointed together with no actual meaningful relationship between them except in so far as our mind creates one. So there is an illusion about all this, but it’s a good kind of illusion which works through reflection, and so tells us something about ourselves. There’s a quality I see in myself that is indicative of the fact that there’s life in me. For example I might notice the way that I walk or dance with an easy rhythm which is regular, but not rigidly so. So I take this to my cabinet or dresser or whatever it is, and I create rhythm with the drawers or the doors or some other subdivision that is also regular, like walking or dancing but, also like those things, not rigidly so. There may be a gentle expansion or contraction of the interval between regularly spaced elements, or they may be spaced with subtle irregularity. And this, like the irregularity woven around a good drummer's pulse may be so slight that it is perceived only subliminally most of the time.

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Or I see that, like any part of nature, I don’t have perfectly straight lines in me, but I do have lines, for all that. So I might reflect this in the lines of the piece which are given gentle lifts or flowing profiles carved or planed by hand which may again be so slight as to be subliminal but which belie and soften the apollonian geometries and ratios that link the piece also to the world of human thought and can be related in some small way to some 3000 years of human culture.

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One is helped in reproducing such qualities by the extent of the sensitivity one has access to, and the depth which which one has met them in oneself. How deeply does one know the delicate strength in ones body? How intimate is one with the irregular regular rhythm of ones own free dancing or walking? It is this strange relationship between oneself as a living, breathing being and the hard, unyielding, demanding wood which is the fascination and frustration of working in such a slow and laborious medium.

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Ultimately the slowness and the laboriousness, the dust, and the noise and, truth be told, the tenacity required to consistently earn a worthwhile financial return, eventually caused me to stop making things from wood. One of my favourite tools—a little beech bollow plane which I made myself—sits on the shelf above my desk and now and then I look up at it and feel surprised that I started such an enterprise, and surprised that I stopped. It feels like a loss, though the opportunity in the space that decision opened is also great. But in so far as the process of making grew from ends and means and saying ‘no’, and in so far as the work does indeed reflect some kind of feeling of liveness in myself and the world around me, I like to think that the hands of those who have worked on me, and of those with whom I have worked, also have their own subtle reflection in these pieces, and will live on for a while in the best of what was made….

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Copyright © 2018 Marcus Sly