Monday, June 1, 2015

Regulae Stultis Sunt

I wrote this little essay a few years ago. In giving my website a facelift – it was left out. I thought it worth re-posting though. A condensed version appeared in Popular Woodworking .

My eight grade math teacher, Mr. Gayda, was fond of saying, "Rules are for fools."
Although this little maxim sounds like a rallying cry for anarchists, Mr. Gayda was a man of many rules and by no stretch of the imagination a member of some radical organization. I took his meaning to be more along the lines of: "Society has many rules and they are there for a good reason - but it's foolish to follow them blindly." Mr. Gayda's philosophy has stayed with me and over the years has taken on added meaning.

I recently asked my seven-year-old granddaughter, Victoria, "Are rules for fools?" She replied with enthusiasm, "NO!" I told her she was correct. But life isn't so black and white. Good rules are there for a reason and understanding why they are there is the most important part of a rule. Blindly following the rules has contributed much to the world's suffering. 

There are rules for every aspect of life. Art and furniture design are no different in that respect. 
Back in the BC (before computers) days of T-squares, I had many of the rules prominently displayed on my drawing board. My designs were infused with Fibonacci numbers: golden rectangles were abundant. Without fail, secondary mass would play second fiddle to primary mass. I thought I was doing everything right and I admit I had a few "acceptable" designs, but nothing that had any real fire in its soul. I had the rules in an iron grip, but they were not taking me where I ultimately wanted to go.
In the year following 9/11 my orders dropped off (as most everyone's did). There came a point when I ran completely dry of work. Previous to this my comfort level was about a 6 month backlog. I was now in the panic mode! If nothing came in soon, I may have to get a real job! I had spent years getting to where I was, and was not prepared to let it slip away without a serious fight.

But what to do?  About this time  an old Star Trek episode popped into my mind. Spock is in a dire situation and facing certain death. He had done all the possible logical things to save himself. Faced with a seemingly impossible dilemma, Spock concludes that the only logical thing to do is the illogical; he must rely upon his intuition, which he does, thus saving himself with only nano-seconds to spare.

So given the fact that desperation was setting in, the Spock episode was on continuous loop and Mr. Gayda's maxim was still making the mental rounds as well, I decided on a course of action.
I had a file cabinet stuffed full of never-built designs: all lacking 'fire'. It was time to re-visit these pieces. But forget the rules - This time I would rely on intuition with the only constraint being the function of the piece. I spent several weeks reworking the designs. I posted the results on my website. To encourage commissions, I offered a discount on the first commission for each of the designs (just a note here - I no longer offer discounts). I was overwhelmed by the response. Not only had I clicked into the right groove artistically, but I was backing up orders in a decidedly down-market! For the first time I could feel real fire in my work.
An act of desperation had rejuvenated my portfolio and in so doing had re-launched my woodworking career in the right direction. 
I still believe that rules of design are valid. I refer to them when giving design advice, but they no longer rule me. After many years the rules have been fused into my consciousness. They have become a part of what I "feel" when I am designing.
There is only one eternal rule: ........"No rule is so sacred that it cannot be broken"

Inspiration and intuition are the major players in artistic pursuits. Without them, art is lifeless and sterile. The rules play a part but must be subordinate to intuition.
I recently read Louis Sullivan's biography and was not so surprised with his approach to design and his views concerning the rules of art. Sullivan is considered the father of the modern skyscraper and was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright called Sullivan "the Master." Sullivan was an active architect in the late nineteenth century when skyscrapers were in their infancy. Up to that point most buildings were lower and more horizontal, so naturally the horizontal line had been historically dominant. Early skyscrapers were designed following this established rule. Louis Sullivan, who is credited with the phrase "form follows function" (actually it was Horatio Greenough who first said it), intuitively realized that the dominant horizontal line did not apply to extremely tall buildings. Sullivan's skyscrapers were the first to accent the vertical line, as skyscrapers do to this day.
A quote from Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats (1901-1902) explains his views concerning the rules:
"……formulas are dangerous things. They are apt to prove the undoing of a genuine art, however helpful they may be in the beginning to the individual. The formula of an art remains and becomes more and more rigid with time, while the spirit of that art escapes and vanishes forever. It cannot live in text-books, in formulas or in definitions."

"Regulae Stultis Sunt" (in English "Rules are for Fools") is a gross simplification of my views, and on a literal level it is a bit too black and white for me. But to me it is a symbol and represents much more than those simple few words can convey.

I am about to put the finishing touches on a new shop building. As you enter the shop there will be brass letters embedded in concrete that say, "Regulae Stultis Sunt". But also on the wall near the brass letters will be Louis Sullivan's quote.

Rules are not bad: Just don't follow them blindly and remember "no rule is so sacred that it cannot be broken." In artistic pursuits let your intuition and inspiration rule the day.
Darrell Peart


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