Carpenter’s Eye

17 January 2018 – The editors of Architectenweb invited me to write a monthly column for their website. This will appear under the title The Carpenter’s Eye. I like that term. In the Dutch language it stands for the ability of craftsmen to measure their work on the eye, for the absolute of size and proportion which is necessary in my profession, just like an absolute pitch is useful for a musician. Quite neatly, the title suggests the perspective I will use in writing these columns. I will approach the international current states of affairs in architecture from everyday design practice.

The title has a personal significance as well. My grandfather was a gifted carpenter. Before WW2 he made the timberwork of ship cabins in the Rotterdam docks. After WW2, he travelled to the USA as a union leader and stayed in one the cabins he had once finished himself. Proudly, he wrote home that after 25 years not a single mitre joint had opened.

His attempts to teach me his carpentry skills were in vain. However, he did succeed in teaching me to anticipate on the properties of the material you are working with and to cherish your tools. As an aged man he showed be the chisels he had bought as a teenager. By perpetually faceting them, they were just a quarter of the length compared to the size he got them. He accurately put new fat on them and wrapped them in old newspapers before he put them back.

My father was an architectural technician who, unfortunately, was not able to follow his call to become a designer. He could draw beautifully. He always remained committed to the family tradition of windmill builders and carpenters, that allegedly can be traced back to the 17th century inventor Jan van der Heyden. I have no idea whether this makes sense or not.

Later this year, my son Sam will graduate as a product designer. He also draws well. Sam likes small, perfect objects. The concrete shutter systems and standardize timber frames I always keep in mind, are too raw to him. When he welded the steel legs of our garden table, I recognised the quiet considered way of working of my grandfather in him. When Sam works on wood, he uses the computer to steer digital tools. Yet, he too remains anticipating on the properties of wood, steel and plastics. Through generations, simple rules remain applicable. One does not screw in the end grain of wood.

During WW2, Karel van Veen painted the portrait of his friend, my grandfather. It is now in my studio. The carpenter’s eyes of my grandfather watch the computers on which we work. When my father gave me the painting, shortly before his death, I agreed with him to pass it on to Sam later.

The Carpenter’s Eye #1 under the title Jail Rubbish is online now (Dutch only).