Growth rings

Annals of our work, thick and thin

One of the many beauties of wood is their growth rings. These variations in the rate of growth, season- to-season and year-to-year, are a large part of what gives wood its visual interest. There are colour variations, with the wood grown early in the season, when growth is faster, being lighter in colour and thicker in width and the later growth being darker and denser.

Paul Epp

In quarter-cut boards, these differences will appear as (almost) parallel lines. In flat-cut boards, there will be a much more varied display of arching lines, ovals, converging and diverging lines and other graphic interest. If we look at the ends of the boards, at the end grain, we see that all years are not equal.

Stories in circles
There were good years and leaner years too. Not so unlike our own lives, although we can’t display our history quite so easily.

That’s a pity. I take some comfort, looking at the growth rings, that I’m not alone in contending with difficulty. I’ve had easy times and harder times. Like all of us. It would be interesting to be able to see this, because we tend to forget it. Maybe not so much in our own lives, but in the lives of those around us. We would all display a pattern of variation, thick and thin. These patterns would tell a story, a biography of experiences. If trees could talk, they would tell us about good weather, hard winters, disease, drought, plenty, threats and blessings, visits and even reproduction.

All the things that we design and make have a history too. Their growth rings are not visible either, but, in a sense, they are there. There is the ring of dream, the inspiration that lead to the creation of this artifact. There would be a design ring, which would describe the activities and process that lead to the form and function being defined as they are. Manufacturing would have its ring, or rings. Material was specified, selected, transformed. Tools were used. A complex web of technology was probably invoked, even for simple things. Supply chains were created. Capital was put to use, arranging the complex decisions and aspirations of a business venture, forming its own distinct ring. Marketing would appear, and probably sales as well. It’s likely that plans were made, in support of these objects finding their eventual owners. This could be a pretty complicated ring, or rings, or wholesale and retail and transportation and distribution.

Layers of meaning
Once an object is acquired by its consumer, it gains a whole other type of ring. There is the joy of acquisition (or not). There are the rings of use, possibly reflecting years of prosperity, interspersed by years of austerity. Things happen in the lives of objects. They may go from being treasured to being ignored. And then eventually re-discovered as mid-century modern is now. There might be rings of damage and rings of restoration. There might be a ring for being discarded. And a ring for reuse in a circle of recycling or repurposing. There might be rings that reflect the emotional attachment that the owner feels. There will likely be rings reflecting different and sequential owners.

Collectively, these rings would tell the life story of an object just as the growth rings tell about the lives of trees. Archeology is a process that is kind of like revealing these invisible rings. Objects that were lost have been found and revealed as what they were, and also thereby gaining a new set of rings, or layers of meaning.

Does this have any relevance for designers? Yes, I think so. We are part of a much larger process that goes on and on. We have our ring, and it is set within other rings. If we do a good job, the chances are greater that there are many of them. Our work is part of a much larger story. That ought to give us some satisfaction.

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