Handle with care

Both tool and furniture touchpoints are key
Paul Epp

Handle: derived from the word hand. As a verb, it means: to feel or manipulate with the hands. As a noun, it means the part by which a thing is held, carried or controlled.

Many of the objects we live and contend with we do so by hand. By their handles. Much of what is made is a tool, in one way or another. And the utility of a tool is realized through its handling. Our hands handle the handles.

At one time, one very long time, handles were most often made of wood. So, the activities of a day would bring ones hands into contact with many different kinds of wooden handles. Think specifically of garden tools: hoes, spades, rakes and so one. Farming tools: hayrakes, shovels, plow handles. Sporting tools: baseball bats, tennis rackets, cross-country skies, gun-stocks. Kitchen tools: spoons, bowls, knife handles. The steering wheels of early cars.

When we think of tools, a hammer may be one of the first objects to come to mind. And there is a good chance we see it with a wooden handle. Axes too. Tool handles are now sometimes made of other materials: aluminum, fiberglass, or other composites, and these are often promoted as superior. But some of us will still prefer the old way. The wooden way.

There is something about the feel of a shaped piece of wood in our hands, that is irreplaceable. It’s a warm material, that is, it doesn’t readily conduct heat, so our hands make it feel warm.

Wood also is fairly readily shaped, so that a handle may be carefully formed to delight both the hands and the eyes. The woods may be selected so that the graphics of its grain accent the chosen form, increasing our pleasure.

Attention to the small details of handles was possibly more highly developed at an earlier time. Perhaps we have lost something and regressed.

Old tools are a rich lexicon of what is possible. The handles of old axes, as one good example, are often delightfully formed, with small changes in curvature and section. There is a much stronger reference to animate forms, than simple geometry. These old tools are a pleasure to use as well as to look at.

Unfortunately, their contemporary, high-technology replacements, with their straight lines, have lost a great deal. I would agree that the new materials do not suit an organic form, regardless of the plasticity of plastics, but we no longer have something in our hands that allows for a variety of sensations and experiencing. Too bad.

The hand plane of publisher/editor Kerry Knudsen’s grandfather.

I’m pleased that the bats that are used in major-league baseball are wooden. However efficient the aluminum ones are, the sound of a wooden- bat struck ball is a sweet sound and that isn’t true of the metal ones. Even if this allegiance to tradition is a safety consideration, and not an aesthetic one, I’m happy to accept it.

Another type of handle that reflects traditional values is the arm of a chair. You may not consider these to be handles, but if we think of chairs as tools: for sitting, then the arms are rightly the handles: where does our hand go? There is a widely accepted view that people like to have their hands on wood, in preference to other materials and we spend a lot of our time in chairs. It’s warm and it’s nice to us.

Design has often become a process of reduction. Two factors that support this are computer use and less familiarity with materials. Computers prefer simple geometry, although skill can offset that. And most people, designers included, don’t spend much time working with wood or any other material. We all live in a complicated world, and who has time?

But I don’t think we need to accept this as a necessary limitation. My suggestion for young designers is to spend some time with old tools. Look at them. Feel them. Use them if you can.

Learn their form vocabulary. That spot where our hand meets the tool is a very important place to lavish some thoughtful attention. This caution is for designers: Handle with care.

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