Long ago I heard that good artists borrow, but great ones steal. I have no recollection of where I heard it or who spoke it. On the surface it's an odd claim, because theft is not often praised, and the thief rarely lauded as great. So, I thought about it (for a long time because I'm not too smart) and eventually decided the best way to understand this aphorism is in terms of possession. If I borrow something from you, it still belongs to you. But if I steal it, then I've made it mine. We could argue about the accuracy of this second claim in relation to your car, television or iPad. But I don't really care about that. Let's think about what it means in terms of artistic creativity—and furniture makers are artistically creative.
If I borrow a design detail from you, then all I do is lift it directly from your work and plunk it down in mine. I make no effort to alter it, to weave it in seamlessly, to make it my own. It remains alien to my design aesthetic. A knowledgeable person would see my work and say, "That bit there is taken from Maker X, and it doesn't really fit here." The worst case of this is the person who simply copies wholesale from another maker and attempts to pass of the design as his own. (This happens. Within the last year I saw a person present a table as his own when every design detail and even some rather unique techniques were borrowed from a regular and very well known Fine Woodworking author. No acknowledgement was given to him.) However, if I steal a design detail from you, then I take it in, digest it, and weave it into my design vocabulary. Only then do I use it. It's no longer recognizably yours. It has become a seamless and natural part of my own work. That takes skill, and I have no problem doing it or having it done to me.
And this brings me to an email I received from a maker in France who has been reading my blog. He sent me photos of a box he made that was inspired by box 5. I was thrilled to see it. There is no greater compliment than to be told that you've inspired another furniture maker. It encourages me to keep designing and making boxes. You can see photos of his box below. When viewed next to a photo of my box, the connection is obvious. However, you can also tell that the maker made an attempt to produce a box that is truly an expression of his design aesthetic and not mine. From the wood selection, to the joinery, to the fact that he used inserts instead of paint on the inside of the box. (By the way, I love the wood choice for those inserts.) He also changed the arrangement and size of the individual compartments.
So feel free to steal from my work, but please don't borrow.
By the way, if you'd like to know more about the history of the aphorism, Google reveals that T. S. Eliot (although not the first person to use it in some form), explained it pretty much as I do here. However, I did not know this until I sat down to write this entry. He explains it better than I do, and was a way, way, way better poet than me, too.
I love furniture design, and smart techniques. This blog is about both.