Obituary: David Pye
Wednesday 06 January 1993
DAVID PYE was a maker of wooden bowls and boxes, the teacher of several generations of furniture designers, one of the most respected British craftsmen, and among the few to write about the crafts in an unsentimental fashion.
Pye came from a middle-class family with an Arts and Crafts streak. His grandfather, John Brett, the painter, knew Ruskin and Morris and is best known for that most Ruskinian image, The Stonebreaker. An aunt, Sybil Pye, was a bookbinder in the Cockerell tradition, active during the 1930s. His father found the family's wine business less fulfilling than amateur painting, jewellery and furniture design, and boat-building; and a cavalry officer great-uncle took a wood-turning lathe to amuse himself on the long voyage to Bombay in 1862. (A flywheel from that lathe survived until recently in David Pye's Sussex workshop.)
Pye trained at the Architectural Association in the heyday of Modernism; reacting against the prevailing enthusiasm for concrete, he spent much of his time building boats, and decided to specialise in wooden buildings. But the war intervened, and service in the navy, leaving, for example, a school for a Yorkshire mining community (articulated 'like an alligator' to compensate for ground subsidence) unbuilt. 'After the war,' he told Crafts magazine in 1976, 'there wasn't going to be any wood for building for a long time, so I thought I'd stick to wood, and ditch buildings.'
Sticking to wood meant designing furniture for industrial production, and making carvings and, especially, large carved bowls and dishes and small turned boxes. It also meant blacksmithing - forging tools not easily available otherwise - and inventing: by 1950 Pye had built the 'fluting engine' with which he cut the smooth, rhythmic flutes on the inner surface of his bowls. In the Seventies, it was joined by a smaller machine to engrave patterns on the lids of boxes.
These machines - essentially guided hand-tools - embody, in a way, the concerns of Pye's writings and of his craftwork. Their purpose is to bring diversity to the object, changing and enlivening the quality of its surface, and offering the eye something to focus on intermediate in scale between the object's large form and the minute texture of the wood itself. Pye invented a terminology for different kinds of workmanship: 'workmanship of risk' (which involves a constant risk of failure), 'workmanship of certainty' (as in much industrial production, where the process should guarantee the result), 'free workmanship' (avoiding precise reproduction of a design) and 'highly regulated workmanship' (precise reproduction).
The fluting engine produces moderately free workmanship, and though mechanically aided, fluting is still workmanship of risk; Pye perhaps took some sardonic pleasure in illustrating in his book on workmanship a bowl where one flute, cut a little too deep, jumps out at the eye from its shallower neighbours.
In the post-war years Pye began to teach - briefly at the Architectural Association, then at the Royal College of Art (where he was Professor of Furniture Design from 1964 to 1974) - and to write about design and workmanship. His first book, The Things We See: Ships, was published in 1950; a slender volume in a didactic series produced by Penguin and the Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council), it contains hints of ideas - particularly, his demolition of functionalism - which he developed in the Sixties.
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. 'Things simply are not 'fit for their purpose'. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.' The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968) similarly sweeps away certain myths about the crafts, derived, perhaps, by a process of 'Chinese whispers' from misunderstandings of - and by - Ruskin and Morris. Pye could not forgive the Arts and Crafts movement for insisting that 'its doctrine of workmanship was the only true one. That inchoate doctrine will not stand fire. The movement neither formulated it precisely nor criticised it and corrected it in its original form - Ruskin's. Because of this the movement left behind it confusion of thought about workmanship; or in its terms, craftsmanship.' Starting with the chapter-title 'Design proposes, Workmanship disposes', Pye began to clear the confusion with an alternative approach, based on analysis of objects (particularly their surface qualities) and a maker's understanding of the realities of making things.
By the 1980s - perhaps because of The Nature and Aesthetics of Design (1978), which combined material from the earlier book with a firm statement of the designer's personal responsibility in enriching the environment - Pye's writings had become something of a cult among a new (and still small) tribe of crafts writers as well as craftspeople. That there is now less sheer slop written about the crafts than there was in the 1970s must owe something to Pye's almost underground influence. But in considering the writings, one should not forget that much of his woodwork is, quite simply, beautiful. There are examples in the V & A, at the Crafts Study Centre, Bath, and the Crafts Council's loan collection. Those inspired to read Pye's works should go and look first.
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