Artist or Artisan
It is claimed that Plato once said that the maker of an object should be held in higher esteem than the painter of the same object. We might find that a little strange today. Most people would consider it more difficult to paint a realistic painting of a vase than make a vase from clay. Is Plato just out of step with our time? I doubt very much that he was berating the skills of the painter. Perhaps he was trying to say that someone who creates a thing from scratch should receive more of our respect as a creator. That creation stands higher than interpretation or reproduction. Plato had more respect for the inventor than for a person who uses the first idea to support their subsequent creation, standing on the shoulders of another.
Best of both
Unlike Plato, I am an advocate of both approaches. Fine arts didn’t explore abstraction for nothing. Abstract painters attempt to avoid depicting something already in existence and, in doing so, hopefully connect with the viewer at a higher level. This is a near impossible task, as people generally seek visual confirmation at a lower level. And uninfluenced creativity in the arts is frankly near impossible. Someone can always make a comparison with something that already existed. Even if it has been made in a different medium or for a different purpose. A shape, colour or texture has usually appeared somewhere else before.
We still use weaving and knitting for all manner of fabrics and nets. Sometimes they hardly resemble fabrics anymore as they are processed and treated to take on characteristics not normally associated with textiles. Furniture makers still use joints and techniques invented hundreds of years ago in combination with new ones. The most popular approaches have stood the test of time.
Nothing new Plato?
So it is with design. Plato would claim we are doomed to tiny momentary sparkles of originality in a world in which we emulate and transcribe all that has gone before. Furniture, he could argue, is really just a variety of raised platforms and boxes. No matter what we design as seating, as tables, shelves or cabinets, we cannot escape this fact. But this is perhaps the secret of what makes clever design so attractive to us. Because even within the strict parameters of a weave that must not unravel or a chair that must not collapse and, in fact, support you comfortably and safely there is so much to explore. The most astonishing buildings are often built in the most impossibly restrictive spots.
I don’t want to paint too poor a picture of Plato. The fact that he is still quoted to this very day speaks volumes. Perhaps he was just being practical and, at the same time, showing his thanks for the person who made him an attractive and comfortable chair to sit in so he could get off a rock and rest his weary back. How could a picture of a chair console you if you don’t have one to recline in?