Tools for the job

Paul Epp
As a young adult, I was seized by the idea of becoming a product designer. That would be a good description of what occurred. I was seized and the idea didn’t let go. At first, I had no idea of what kind of products I wanted to design.
By Paul Epp

My earliest design activities were for jewellery and clothing. But once I felt that I could, I wanted to design all sorts of things. I think that all designers secretly, or not so secretly, design for themselves. And the sorts of things that I used while young were predominantly domestic.

Housewares and furniture, as well as the jewellery and clothing that I had already tackled. At the design school that I attended, the curriculum was based on the understanding of particular materials, in proper early Bauhaus fashion. Wood seemed to be the material that allowed for the greatest breadth of scale (jewellery to buildings) and that interested me. In this program, the greatest use to which wood was put was furniture and that interested me even more, as the world of furniture included the use of a lot of other materials as well.

Although I learned, at school, a lot about the craft-based use of wood, I also picked up the notion that if I wanted to be successful as a furniture designer, I would need to learn how furniture was made in industry. And I was lucky enough that Gary Sonnenberg of Craftwood Industries took me on as what would now be called an intern. It was sort of an accelerated apprenticeship without the contract. And that introduced me to a more comprehensive understanding of what machines were used in woodworking.

Paul Epp, in his younger days.
Paul Epp, in his younger days.

Once I had determined to open my own woodworking shop, I had to obtain some of these as well. My funding amounted to what I had in my pockets, so I had to proceed carefully. The first purchase was a sweet little General bandsaw. It had seen some hard use, but was restoreable, and it served me very well.

The next was a thickness planer that I bought at auction on Ossington Avenue in Toronto. The kitchen making shop there had gone under and, from the disorder and chaos, it was possible to understand why. But among the debris was on old planer, still hooked up to its ceiling mounted line-shaft. It was castiron, open framed and 18 inches wide.

Perfect, at the price I paid for it. As the sale was ‘everything to the bare walls’, I took the line shaft down and used the V8 sized electric motor to run the planer at my shop, although now converted to v-belts. Coincidentally, when I eventually gave it up, it made its way to a Mennonite shop near Kitchener, where it was put back on a line shaft. I like to think it is still humming along. And the former shop on Ossington is now a very trendy bar. Who would have known?

Other machines followed, as finances and job requirements dictated. They allowed me to do a lot of woodwork. I don’t have any of them anymore and I almost feel bereft. I’m still designing things and now I’m without the means to make them. As a designer, I feel very underequipped.

Ideas meet materials in changed ways

Fortunately, a lot of the tools that I have acquired as a designer are a lot more portable. Some of these are the skills that I still feel in my hands. I can make stuff and I still find opportunities to do so. Making things is one of the best ways to test the ideas that lie behind them and I think it can be both very useful and very valuable.

I have other tools: I’m much better at idea generation than I once was. It’s a skill that is acquired, like most skills, through a lot of practice. Although I’m disinclined to speak in public, this is also a tool that I have picked up along the way. Its part of my presentation skill set, without which I would not have done very much paying design work.

As designers, we need a lot of tools to do our jobs. Many of these are cerebral and many are shared among a wide range of designers. Some new ones are needed now and the profession of design has certainly been impacted by technology and all of our social and cultural changes. My main tool is now my computer.

Some of the more specific tools, like the skills and machinery of woodworking, may be becoming less important and consequently scarcer. Sort of like line-shafts.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.


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