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Zen and the Art of Furniture Making: An Inquiry into Quality

Architecture Design Furniture Interior Japan

What image comes to mind when one hears the word Zen? Perhaps a rock garden or a meditating monk? At first, Zen may seem like something distant and separate from our daily lives, but as we learn from the influential book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, that is not the case. To the author Pirsig, Zen, a state of peace and insight sought after in Buddhism, can be achieved with regards to any pursuit, but only when one is attuned to the experience and committed to quality work. An understanding of what constitutes “quality work” is therefore necessary to experience Zen, and a major focus of the book is on how we define and experience Quality, a phenomenon that is simultaneously subjective and objective. Pirsig examines these questions through the lens of motorcycles and their maintenance, but the ideas he presents can be applied to anything, including furniture making.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator finds that there tend to be two types of people in the world. There are those that look at the world from a romantic viewpoint, and those that look at it from a rational and analytical viewpoint, what the author refers to as a “classical” viewpoint. Those that view the world in a romantic way focus on how things and experiences make them feel, and can be described as living “in the moment,” which is thought in Zen Buddhism to allow one insight into the world and open the mind to hidden truths. The pure enjoyment of an object or experience that’s enabled by a romantic viewpoint is one way to appreciate the phenomenon of Quality. In Pirsig’s eyes though, approaching life with only a romantic view is like only seeing half of a larger picture. To him, finding a middle ground where romanticism is tempered by rationality is the best path for experiencing Quality. There is an instance in the book where the narrator notices that his motorcycle is not running well and guesses at the cause using his knowledge of the motorcycle’s mechanics. Upon checking, he finds that he was right about the cause of the motorcycle’s poor performance and is able to fix it. In this way, the narrator’s understanding of the motorcycle’s mechanism reduces the frustration he might have felt otherwise and gives him a sense of satisfaction. The narrator approaches the issue from the classical, rational viewpoint, yet his attunement to and care for what he is doing creates an intrinsic sense of reward, which is what the author considers a Zen-like state. This example also supports the narrator’s claim that the divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural.  For Pirsig, whether something is art or not is determined by whether it can be perceived to have Quality, which, as stated above, happens when we are satisfied on both a romantic and rational level. In our present society we rarely view commercial goods, such as a motorcycle, as art, but when we consider the care and thought in the creative process and the potential emotional effect from interacting with the object, the differences between the things that are considered art and the things that are not can be superficial. Pirsig zeroes in on these unnecessary dichotomies as a source of unhappiness in our modern world, as well as a roadblock to understanding Quality.

A craftsmen from Nissin working on the frame of the award-winning Sola Arm Chair

Furniture is another type of product where the focus on the functionality of the piece can often overshadow the artistry and technological achievements that go into its creation. Although function is very important to furniture, it is only one aspect of the Quality that furniture can possess. Approaching a piece from a romantic point of view, for example, we might observe the beautiful shape of the wood, and feel its smooth texture, and from having an awareness of these sensory components get a feel for the piece’s Quality. When the same piece is approached from a classical point of view, there may be an appreciation for why a certain material was used, a sense of the piece’s heritage in the employment of certain styles or techniques, such as traditional nailless joinery, or an interest in how new technology is being utilized. In both the creation of the piece and the use of the piece, a mix of romantic and rational aspects deepen its Quality.

Nissin's Sola Arm Chair

An example to help illustrate this would be the Sola Arm Chair, which was developed by the furniture-maker Nissin to mark their 60th anniversary. The development of the Sola Arm Chair took the design team three years and countless prototypes in order to reach their goal of creating a simple and sophisticated chair suitable for both residential and commercial settings. The minimalistic yet unique design of this chair melds the past and future by using both traditional Japanese wood-bending techniques and new techniques for making super-light yet durable furniture. When one goes to sit on the Sola Arm Chair, though, the technical achievements and history of the piece cease to matter. In that moment, how the user experiences the chair, for example, how the chair embraces their body, and how the sight and texture of the smooth natural beech makes them feel, is the most important aspect. Because of the care put into the Sola Arm Chair’s creation by the makers, this piece satisfies as both art and technology, and on both a romantic and rational level, confirming its Quality.

Although it’s difficult to define quality in concrete terms, we almost always know it when we see it. When care and awareness go into an object’s formation, it translates to the final product. As Pirsig explains throughout Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, even something as functional as furniture can be art when the creator and user of the piece are attuned to the experience enabled by its romantic and rational Quality. With these needs satisfied, we can find Zen even in a piece of furniture.

By Danielle Johnson, OOKKUU

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