Beauty Matters, the Boat Project, Part 1
The idea for Beauty Matters began with my Auckland TEDx talk called ‘Carving Reindeer’ in 2013. I first gave a short Beauty Matters talk as a ‘Ten Minutes of Brilliance’ item at the 2014 Living Futures Conference in Portland Oregon USA.
Ten minutes became an hour when I extended the talk into a full lecture, which I have since given regularly to architects, designers and educators across the USA, New Zealand and Australia. Responding to requests for a written text, I then turned it into a book, which is now looking for a publisher.
A key chapter in the book looks at boats and the question, why are traditional boats from every corner of the planet invariably so beautiful, despite an incredible variety of form? I could not resist launching on a practical exploration of boat forms that combined my naval architect training with my experience at building shell forms for lighting using CAD.
All around the world people have been making boats for millennia. Their variety and ingenuity are staggering. Few people can resist the exquisite beauty of a fine bow cutting evenly through undulating calm water, an arrow of rippling wavelets peeling off on either side.
But water is not always calm, it can rage violently and it is a hard master. There is no room for gimmickry in boat design, nor can it be learned in a classroom. In the same way that a surf board shaper has to be a surfer, so a boat builder must know the sea. Their design knowledge is based on a lifetime of following the movement of water, of cultivating an eye for the perfect line, and allowing the feeling for form in their hands to guide their tools. Design is inseparable from experience and from making. I find this form of design rather more authentic than much of the ‘stuff’ that is churned out by today’s design industry.
I built my first kit-set kayak as a teenager; I studied naval architecture at university; with my family I sailed my own yacht from Europe to New Zealand, threading through the Pacific Islands over several years. So it was inevitable that I would be drawn back to boats in my quest to understand the role of beauty in human culture.
Some of the finest seafarers of all time have been the Polynesians, who have made some of the fastest and most beautiful boats. Their creations include the crab claw sail, proven to be the most efficient overall sail ever designed; and the amazing thofothofo from Aua and Wuvulu Islands which is as unique as it is impossibly beautiful.
But to what extent is beauty a consideration for the Polynesian canoe maker? Or is it more of a practical tool for achieving the perfect form?
So I experimented by building different craft, not as a nostalgic ode to tradition, but as a way of gathering knowledge and understanding. I married traditional forms to the modern skills and techniques that I have developed for my lighting design. In this way I made my own version of an ancient British coracle, the thofothofo, and a dugout river canoe, all using the thinnest of plywood.
I also adapted the crab claw sail to modern windsurfing and because it sailed so differently I ended up having to design and build a custom board for it. That led inevitably to SUP boards. Part 2 will describe the making of the first of these boards. I will be making a second one as a demonstration at the World Wood Day event at the Long Beach Convention Centre, CA from March 21–25, 2017, where I will also give the Beauty Matters talk one evening.