• ← Thesis 2013
  • Each simple, charming, and functional object is carefully
    and lovingly handmade using natural materials; such as paper, leather, and wood. The phrase "various and sundry" suggests a collection—one in which each object has its own individual value and significance, yet also works as a cohesive collection. The collection itself is an exploration of and an homage to materials and making methods, dedicated to quality and creativity. I am committed to crafting beautiful objects that are appropriate for any and all creative working environments.

    The Various & Sundry Lettering Stencil is a stencil designed to allow users to construct custom lettering. The typical stencil is an identifiable office supply; one in which the function is immediately evident by the form. This stencil transforms the conventional idea of a stencil; that
    is, to create fully-constructed, repeatable, identical letterforms. Instead,
    this stencil system breaks letters into their most basic building blocks
    of vertical and horizontal strokes, diagonals, and curves. Starting with these simplified shapes, the user can invent their own letterforms.

    —Bruno Munari, Design as Art

    I am an avid collector of vintage and contemporary office supplies and printed ephermera. From small scraps paper to family heirlooms, I find beauty in the form and function of these supplies.

    "There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use everyday is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide."

    In the early stages of the project, I contacted peers, mentors, and professionals asking them to submitphotos of their desks. Along with a photo, I encouraged them to write about the objects on their desks and why those objects add value to their work environment and contribute to their work as designers.

    Back to Function—

    After the research phase, I challeneged myself to protoype and experiment with materials. I played with various materials to explore their habits, tendencies, and abilities.

    I have fallen in love with desks. I am fascinated by the purpose they serve—to help us create and enable us to work and play. Desks, are not places of solitary confinement, where one sits and works monastically with no breaks or enjoyment. They are places in which we can lose ourselves to the work we create, spending long, dedicated hours of creation, iteration, execution. My own desk is a sanctuary for ideas and an altar for objects that inspire me. From a young age, I have loved all things desktop—gadgets and gizmos, from the simple and efficient to the beautifully complex. For my graduate thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I have committed myself to crafting objects and tools to be used as accessories for desks. A little collection of synecdoches—each small part of each object stands to embody the larger idea, the larger message of the desk—and thus, the function of the desk.

    For my thesis, I planned to build a desk with my Dad. I am not a woodworker. I am a graphic designer. As graphic designers, we are comfortable with Xacto knives, not table saws, in our day-to-day practice. I have plenty experience pushing pixels, illustrating, printing, and even product design, but never before had I attempted to construct something on such a large scale—both physically and metaphorically. This desk was to be the focal point of my thesis exhibition and the success of its construction would determine the viability of my exhibition space and the validity of my thesis. With the help of my Dad, a seasoned woodworker, I hoped to build a beautiful desk that would serve as a receptacle for objects large and small.

    A woodworker, crafter, and craft-lover from a very young age, my dad has built everything from bird-houses to curio cabinets. As a child, I remember stepping clumsily into the garage to discover what Dad was working on. I would sit and play in the saw dust below his table saw. Since Iwas a child, he has been a guide, not just in life, but in his craft. Whether he knew it or not, I watched him work—carefully, confidently, and cautiously. Woodworking and craft-ing are not hobbies for him, but a passion to which he has devoted countless hours. My Dad would be the perfect mentor to help me tackle such an enormous project.

    My dad’s garage is the same as it was when I was a kid: a forest of tall cabinets, strange machines, and large boards that stretched from floor to ceiling. It has always had the perfect amount of messiness—never so clean that it looks unused, but never so messy as to seem disorganized. Working among all the cabinets and shelves and piles of gadgets, my dad has always known the whereabouts of each and every object. The workshop is about 90 square feet in size with a concrete floor, sturdy brick walls and a door that leads into the house. The opposite wall has floor-to-ceiling metal cabinets from the sixties that used to inhabit the kitchen. The adjacent wall is fitted with a wooden table-top and shelving, made by my dad, equipped with saws, sanders, and the like. In the middle of the room is an old leather recliner and a trusty, old table saw.

    My parents live in Little Rock, AR, approximately 1,050 miles away from Baltimore. To build a desk was one thing, to transport it was another. So, to avoid some dastardly shipping costs, I drove cross-country down to Little Rock in December and planned to haul the desk back up with me to Baltimore in January.

    Little Rock is a sylvan and quiet place; not much happens there, the people are friendly and the winters are mild. This Christmas, the Little Rock weather service predicted about three inches of snow to fall—which is a blizzard by Arkansas standards. I was looking forward to working on the desk in a warm garage with the snow falling. On Christmas Eve, my dad and I decided to bring in some of the boards from outside and into the garage, so they would be nice and dry to work with. We selected a few choice, un-finished boards and lugged the heavy things inside and set them gently on the concrete garage floor. We went back inside the house and resumed Christmas time activities.

    Christmas Day arrived and the house was calm and quiet—no visiting family this year, just my parents, brother Blake, and his dog Trevor. In our cozy paj-amas, we sat in the sun room, holding coffee, and watched the snow fall outside. We spent the day opening gifts, cooking and watching television spec-ials. Around 8 o’clock, Blake came home from work and we quickly ate our Christmas dinner. Outside, the snow had accumulated to about 3 inches and showed no sign of stopping. Blake dashed out the door, Trevor in tow and drove off, headed for his house. My parents and I returned to the den and watched some television. After about an hour, the electricity flickered and we were in darkness for about a minute, and then it flashed back on. We grabbed flashlights and came back to sit around the television. Five minutes later: another outage. Our power returned. And again, the power goes out, this time, it doesn’t come back on. In darkness, we walked with flashlights and scrounged up candles to place around the house. Eventually, with nothing better to do, we went to bed.

    We woke up to a cold, quiet house. The familiar hum of the heater was no longer there. I shuffled out into the sun room, and our backyard was unrecognizable. Everything was covered in 10 inches or more of snow. The whole neighborhood—full of mid-century houses, dated plumbing, and old, above-ground electric lines—was blanketed under at least a foot of snow. Beautiful as it may be, our unfortunate part of town was notor-ious for extended power outages with little to no attention from electricians. Two giant trees laden with snow had fallen across the road that lead to the main street. We were stranded and it seemed unlikely that we would have electricity by the end of the week.

    The power was out for a full 7 days. My family and I spent most of our time and energy merely keeping warm. Our only source of warmth was the fireplace and daylight was a precious commodity. I was forced, for a full week, into an analog life—to do everything manually and mechanically.

    By sunlight and candlelight, I finalized the plans for the desk. Originally, I thought the desk would be double-sided. One half would be dedicated to the use of digital technology and the other side would faci-litate manual and analog processes. There would be no literal split or divide in the desk, just a suggestive one. The desktop was to have pockets and slits cut into the surface to organize cords and hold pencils and cutting mats. A separate drop-leaf panel would fold out to extend the surface plane of the desk. The drop-leaf would hang down approximately 15”, half the height of the desk. The drop-leaf would serve as vertical portfolio storage and, when flipped up, would function as an extension of the desktop and a shelf. (Fig 1) The legs, I figured, would be an Ikea addition. Simple metal ones would do well against the walnut. I sketched and reviewed the plans with my dad for the full week that we were without electricity.

    When the power came back on, we were elated. My family and I ran through the house flipping light switches, plugging in devices-that-needed-to-be-charged, and blowing out candles along the way. We had come to appreciate electricity as a precious commodity. Later that day, plans in-hand, my Dad and I stepped out into the garage and we began the process.

    The first step was to plane the boards—the process in which you incrementally remove layers of wood to make smooth surface. On the exterior, the planks of wood looked blackened and almost rotten in places. We pushed them through my dad’s planer—a noisy, but efficient machine that sprays out sawdust like confetti—and slowly uncovered the beautiful grain beneath. It was like cracking open a geode or finding a pearl in a clam shell. We picked up each of the four heavy, 12-foot-long boards, and slowly ran each one through the planer with me and my dad at opposite ends like a see-saw. (Fig 2) The boards were almost too long to go through the garage and we opened the garage door so I could pull the boards out through the back end of the machine. We shaved the boards down to about an inch thick. Then, using the table saw, we ripped each board in half lengthwise and once more widthwise to get the boards down to a more manageable size, about 6”x30”x1”.

    The boards, although beautiful, were not perfect. These boards were cut from two ancient walnut trees that grew in my maternal grand-ma’s backyard. About four years ago, she passed away, leaving a large expanse of land in the Ozark mountains to my mother and her siblings. After cleaning and prepping the house to be sold, my dad requested that the two old walnuts that lived in the backyard be cut down and turned into lumber. It’s poetic, really, that my desk sh-ould be made of these trees. My grandmother owned the trees that my dad turned into lumber that I would turn into a desk. In the end, the desk will not only have an aesthetic value, but also an immense sentimental value for me and my family.

    We handled each board, examined them twice over to check for con- sistency of grain and straight-ness, and eliminated those that had any cracks or holes. The method was to find boards that fit together nicely, lengthwise, and then glue them all together to form the larger plane of the desk. We scrutinized each board carefully and lined them up like specimens on the garage floor. We pressed them together to make sure each board sandwiched perfectly together. We numbered them with a red wax pencil.

    Next was gluing—a slimy and tedious process. “Use more glue!” my dad would tell me repeatedly. The key was to over apply and then sand off the excess dried beads of glue. We heavily applied glue to the edges of each board, pushed them together, and held them loosely in place by pole clamps. A few of the boards were slightly skewed, and we needed to straighten them up while the clamps were still loose. I tried pushing them with my hands and my dad insistently handed me a rubber mallet and said, “use a friendly persuader.” I hammered the ends of each board so that they became flush with one another, and we tightened the clamps one by one. The desktop looked something like a foosball table with long bars stretching across and handles and locks at each end, resting atop a table saw. Glue oozed out and dripped onto the table, and we left boards to sit overnight to cure.

    The next morning, I swept up the saw dust that had accumulated into miniature dunes on the concrete floor. Later that evening, after my dad got home, we ate a quick dinner and changed into our ratty and worn work clothes and stepped out into the cold garage. My dad flicked on the space heater, and we had a look at our boards. We unclamped the boards and evaluated the gluing. We had designed the desktop such that there would be six parallel boards and two perpendicular boards on either end to trim it. We cut off any excess board to form a clean, perfect rectangle.

    We sanded the top of the desk, the side with the most desirable grain, with a rough electric sander. The sanding process was a lengthy and laborious one, but it was essential to achieving a smooth finish. With the rough-grain sandpaper, we cross-hatched the wood, removed any excess glue, and smoothed out any rough sections. We shifted to a finer grain sandpaper to create a flat, uniform surface—a necessity not only for the user of the desk, but for the CNC mill I would eventually use, which requires a perfectly flat surface. After a few days of sanding and finishing, content with our work, we set the desktop aside and moved on to the drop-leaf. I wanted the drop-leaf to be slightly different than the desktop itself and thus made of plywood, to lighten the weight of the drop-leaf panel. I had drawn up some beautifully complex plans for the drop-leaf to be a white, walnut-trimmed panel that dropped down and connected to a bottom piece about 6” wide that would extend away from the desk, parallel to the floor. Connected to that would be a triangular panel that raised up, parallel to the white panel, that would form a shelf for upright portfolio storage. The outer, triangular panel was designed to have a pattern etched into it with the CNC mill. We glued more boards together and sanded each panel down to a level and smooth finish.

    Once all the panels were complete—the desktop, the 2 drop leaf panels, and the small 6” board—there was no more to be done in Arkansas. I was throughly exhausted from spending those 7 days without power, physically worn by the labor of wood working, and mentally spent from the design challenge of creating an object that would be structurally sound on such a scale. So, in mid-January, I packed up my luggage, laid the un-assembled desk in my trunk, kissed my family and Trevor goodbye, and drove back to Baltimore.

    Back in Baltimore, the spring semester began, and during the first few weeks, I unloaded the desk panels from my car and into my studio building. I stored them vertically in the printing room, behind rolls of paper, until I was ready to tackle the CNC machine. The CNC (computer numerical control) mill is an enormous machine that takes up nearly an entire room. It consists of a flat bed perforated with pinholes used to vacuum and stabilize the wood to be cut. Above that is a bridge that runs the length of the machine, and, on the bridge, is a routing tool equipped with a drill bit that moves side to side, and up and down. A CNC machine allows the user to cut or etch virtually any shape out of any 3D material. In my case, I planned to etch a shallow pattern, based off of security-envelope patterns, about 1/8” deep into the triangular drop-leaf panel. To do so, I had to create the pattern on the computer, specify the depth, speed, and orientation of the drill bit, and then send the file to the machine, which would cut the pattern into the wood (Fig 3). The machine made short work of the pattern and etched it perfectly into the wooden panel.

    The desktop was to have 4 main modifications located in the four corners, (1) 5 slits cut through the wood for cord organization, (2) one angled etch the would hold an iPad upright, (3) one depression would hold a cutting mat, and (4) another etched channel that would be a reservoir for pens and cutting tools (Fig 4). I prepared the file and was ready to go.

    When I went into the printer room where the wood was stored. The wood had split in several places, like fissures in rock and the whole board had warped at opposite ends.

    It no longer laid flat, a necessity for the CNC mill, because the vacuum table can only securely hold down objects that are perfectly flat and level. I had two weeks to complete this thing and considering the feas-ibility of me working out the warps and filling in the cracks, there was no way that I would be able to use the CNC mill in time for the exhibition. The warp in the desktop also caused a serious problem in the plan of the drop-leaf. If the desktop was not level, then the drop-leaf would not be straight, and it would sacrifice the structural integrity of the entire desk.

    Stressed and saddened, I resolved to determine the reason for the warping. The board had survived the 18-hour trip cross-country and not faltered a bit. So what could cause such distortion? Wood naturally holds moisture. The walnut, when we were constructing the panels, had a very average, workable level of moisture and did not prove to be any problem. Once in Baltimore, the boards were kept in a relatively temperate room, as healthy wood should be. I had stored the desktop upright, resting on its side on the concrete floors in the printer room. What I had not expected was that con-crete wicks moisture and thus pulled any remaining water out of the boards, unevenly so. The wood, dry as a bone, was now warped and split between the joints of the boards.

    I made the decision to not use the CNC mill. Over a cup of coffee, I resolved that the desk simply did not need all the added divots and perforations—these could potentially confuse the user or force them to use the desk in a certain way or for a certain purpose. The desktop itself, a simple, flat plane of walnut, has an inherent fun-ction. It is a table-top that serves its purpose as a work surface without my additions. The drop-leaf panels, now excluded from the plans, would be turned into table-tops to be used in my exhibition.

    When all was decided, I put the finishing touches on the desk and the new table tops. I filled in any cracks in the wood with walnut wood filler and carefully sanded down the filler until it was level with the plane of the desk. Each table was then finished with Tung oil, a natural, non-toxic matte finish that brought out the warmth and beauty of the walnut grain. I bought some simple, square, brushed nickel table legs and drilled each one into the underside of the wood of each table. I knew that once I got the legs screwed into the desktop and put some objects on it, gravity would do the work for me and massage out the warp in the desktop. Sure enough, as I installed my thesis exhibition, each table had its own purposeful place in the space, and the desk stood firm, in the middle of the room, as a receptacle for my products.

    The process of building the desk led me to question the purpose and value of desks for designers. The work that we make is our lifeblood and the process with which we make it is equally as essential. But I think that the environment in which we make our work is just as important. Our desks and our workspaces set the tone for the work that we create. Desks are a vehicle through which design is made possible. It is an altar where we spend countless hours devising visual experiments and creating the precious gems that we put out into the world. Through this process of construction, from start to finish, I have come to realize and appreciate the surfaces that we use and the immense contribution they have to my own ability to generate good work.

    I chose materials atypical in graphic design vernacular, yet culturally com-
    monplace. Leather, the staple of our bags and wallets, is rarely engaged
    in a graphic design context, and more often relegated to the arena of “craft”.
    I searched for new ways to integrate type, image, and leather in a consid-
    ered and contemporary fashion. Each hide was held to the highest standards and selected for its particular color, grain, and supple quality.

    Wood, the workhorse that forms our floors and desks, also seemed overlooked as a tool or product serving designers. Each board was lumbered from two ancient walnut trees from my grandmother’s backyard, planed, and sanded down to finish objects for the collection. Throughout this process, I taught myself new making methods and found ways to use wood as a receptacle for graphic designers.

    (The photos below are a few of many process photos taken along the way.)

    Mass manufacturing has saturated our culture with synthetic products by unknown makers, and we are perpetually triggered by sleek devices and new technologies. While I too find these things important, I believe strongly in the essential contribution natural materials make to our quality of life. Various & Sundry celebrates the beautiful and the useful through high standards of design, fine materials, superb craftsmanship, and lasting beauty.