Regulae Stultis Sunt (Or How an Act of Desperation was my Salvation!)

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Blog entry by Darrell Peart posted 08-06-2010 04:32 PM 2570 reads 2 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch

(This is a little essay of sorts I actually wrote a couple of years ago and posted on my website.
Popular Woodworking has since published a shortened version in its magazine – I hope you enjoy it.)

Rules are for Fools

My eight grade math teacher, Mr. Gayda, was fond of saying, “Rules are for fools.”
Although this little maxim sounds like a rallying cry for anarchists, Mr. Gayda was a man of many rules and by no stretch of the imagination a member of some radical organization . I took his meaning to be more along the lines of: “Society has many rules and they are there for a good reason – but it’s foolish to follow them blindly.” Mr. Gayda’s philosophy has stayed with me and over the years has taken on added meaning.

I recently asked my seven-year-old granddaughter, Victoria, “Are rules for fools?” She replied with enthusiasm, “NO!” I told her she was correct. But life isn’t so black and white. Good rules are there for a reason and understanding why they are there is the most important part of a rule. Blindly following the rules has contributed much to the world’s suffering.

There are rules for every aspect of life. Art and furniture design are no different in that respect.
Back in the BC (before computers) days of T-squares, I had many of the rules prominently displayed on my drawing board. My designs were infused with Fibonacci numbers: golden rectangles were abundant. Without fail, secondary mass would play second fiddle to primary mass. I thought I was doing everything right and I admit I had a few “acceptable” designs, but nothing that had any real fire in its soul. I had the rules in an iron grip, but they were not taking me where I ultimately wanted to go.

In the year following 9/11 my orders dropped off (as most everyone’s did). There came a point when I ran completely dry of work. Previous to this my comfort level was about a 6 month backlog. I was now in the panic mode! If nothing came in soon, I may have to get a real job! I had spent years getting to where I was, and was not prepared to let it slip away without a serious fight.

But what to do? For some reason an old Star Trek episode popped into my mind at this point in time. Spock is in a dire situation and facing certain death. He had done all the possible logical things to save himself. Faced with a seemingly impossible dilemma, Spock concludes that the only logical thing to do is the illogical; he must rely upon his intuition, which he does, thus saving himself with only nano-seconds to spare.

So given the fact that desperation was setting in, the Spock episode was on continuous loop and Mr. Gayda’s maxim was still making the mental rounds as well, I decided on a course of action.
I had a file cabinet stuffed full of never-built designs: all lacking ‘fire’. It was time to re-visit these designs and this time forget the rules. I would rely on intuition with the only constraint being the function of the piece. I spent several weeks reworking the designs. I posted the results on my website. To encourage commissions, I offered a discount on the first commission for each of the designs (just a note here – I no longer offer discounts). I was overwhelmed by the response. Not only had I clicked into the right groove artistically, but I was backing up orders in a decidedly down-market! For the first time I could feel real fire in my work.
An act of desperation had rejuvenated my portfolio and in so doing had re-launched my woodworking career in the right direction.
I still believe that rules of design are valid. I refer to them when giving design advice, but they no longer rule me. After many years the rules have been fused into my consciousness. They have become a part of what I “feel” when I am designing.

There is only one eternal rule: ........”No Rule is so sacred that it cannot be broken”

Inspiration and intuition are the major players in artistic pursuits. Without them, art is lifeless and sterile. The rules play a part but must be subordinate to intuition.
I recently read Louis Sullivan’s biography and was not so surprised with his approach to design and his views concerning the rules of art. Sullivan is considered the father of the modern skyscraper and was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright called Sullivan “the Master.” Sullivan was an active architect in the late nineteenth century when skyscrapers were in their infancy. Up to this point most buildings were lower and more horizontal, so naturally the horizontal line had been historically dominant. Early skyscrapers were designed following this established rule. Louis Sullivan, who is credited with the phrase “form follows function” (actually it was Horatio Greenough who first said it), intuitively realized that the dominant horizontal line did not apply to extremely tall buildings. Sullivan’s skyscrapers were the first to accent the vertical line, as skyscrapers do to this day.

A quote from Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats (1901-1902) explains his views concerning the rules:
“……formulas are dangerous things. They are apt to prove the undoing of a genuine art, however helpful they may be in the beginning to the individual. The formula of an art remains and becomes more and more rigid with time, while the spirit of that art escapes and vanishes forever. It cannot live in text-books, in formulas or in definitions.”

“Regulae Stultis Sunt” (in English “Rules are for Fools”) is a gross simplification of my views, and on a literal level it is a bit too black and white for me. But to me it is a symbol and represents much more than those simple few words can convey.

I am about to put the finishing touches on a new shop building. As you enter the shop there will be brass letters embedded in concrete that say, “Regulae Stultis Sunt”. But also on the wall near the brass letters will be Louis Sullivan’s quote.

Rules are not bad: Just don’t follow them blindly and remember “no rule is so sacred that it cannot be broken.” In artistic pursuits let your intuition and inspiration rule the day.

Darrell Peart

-- Darrell Peart - Seattle - - author G&G Design Elements for the Workshop

15 comments so far

View 559dustdesigns's profile


633 posts in 3217 days

#1 posted 08-06-2010 05:01 PM

Thank you, for these well written encouraging words of inspiration. When woodworking, we must keep “the real fire in its soul”. I like this, it gives me hope we can make it through these tough times. Thanks for this wonderful blog post.

-- Aaron - central California "If you haven't got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?"

View a1Jim's profile


117159 posts in 3626 days

#2 posted 08-06-2010 05:08 PM

Wonderful post Darrell all very good points . I’m very good at not following rules.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 3398 days

#3 posted 08-06-2010 06:14 PM

Hard to argue with ”No Rule is so sacred that it cannot be broken” however since your talking architects let me add this little twist on the ‘venturism’ (Robert Venturi) of advocating for ‘complexity and contradiction’ (otherwise known as rule breaking) in design, ‘clarity and diction before complexity and contradiction’ or in other words you need to know the rules in order to break them.

As to ‘inspiration’ one should approach it with a skeptical eye as well. Louis Kahn supposedly said he asked a brick what it wanted to be and it replied “an arch”. In response to this ‘quote’ Venturi is claim to have have said “The brick lied.”

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View Darrell Peart's profile

Darrell Peart

362 posts in 3637 days

#4 posted 08-06-2010 07:21 PM

Thanks everyone,
jlsmith5963 – I agree. Most of us (including me) need to not only understand the rules but we need to infuse them into our subconscious and before we can break away from them.

Intuition is a tricky thing and it can certainly lie to you – the trick is to “train” your intuition before you let it loose – again I believe this usually means a serious study of design so that you “feel” what is right based on your experience.

-- Darrell Peart - Seattle - - author G&G Design Elements for the Workshop

View Tony Strupulis's profile

Tony Strupulis

260 posts in 3173 days

#5 posted 08-06-2010 07:25 PM

The engineer’s version of Sullivan’s quote is “Function follows function”. I spent all those years learning to be an engineer, now I’m trying to be an artist.

-- Tony -

View antmjr's profile


262 posts in 3233 days

#6 posted 08-06-2010 08:04 PM

It’s a fascinating subject. I for one think that the rules (and the exception to the rules) form the language of an artist. The most fascinating thing is the develop of that language, from the very beginning (when the language is still simple and in progress, full of research, of tries and mistakes) to the end of a career (when it becomes somewhat classic and perfect, but devoid of the fascination of that youthful researching); even F.L.Wright is no exception, although he was able to start again many times in his long career.

-- Antonio

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35128 posts in 4450 days

#7 posted 08-06-2010 08:35 PM

Darrell an interest discussion. I’ve copied verbatim some pieces that i’ve made. On others I’ve looked and then drew my own, making my own decisions as to how I want this to be done.

Other time is telling someone else that it can’t be done that way.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View Div's profile


1653 posts in 2990 days

#8 posted 08-06-2010 08:39 PM

Thanks for this post Darrel. Fantastic read and much to ponder! I’ve favorited this one.

-- Div @ the bottom end of Africa. "A woodworker's sharpest tool should be his mind."

View antmjr's profile


262 posts in 3233 days

#9 posted 08-06-2010 08:41 PM

jlsmith5963 wrote:
Louis Kahn supposedly said he asked a brick what it wanted to be and it replied “an arch”. In response to this ‘quote’ Venturi is claim to have have said “The brick lied.”
just out of curiosity, is there a double meaning (lied/laid) ?

-- Antonio

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297 posts in 3398 days

#10 posted 08-06-2010 10:10 PM

The comment is open to interpretation, so it’s possible that’s what he meant but Venturi made his name as an iconoclast critiquing the bombastic attitudes of the ‘heroic’ period of modern architecture (see his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture), so I have always interpreted it as a critique of the rather pompous nature of the statement that Kahn was capable of divining the ‘truth’ of how a material should be used (don’t get me wrong I think Kahn’s work is brilliant but his writings not so much). It is the equivalent of saying (with the proper sarcastic tone) “Oh really, is that so?!”

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

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215 posts in 3611 days

#11 posted 08-08-2010 02:23 AM

Thank you

View DrAllred's profile


137 posts in 2872 days

#12 posted 10-23-2010 07:30 PM

I just read this and I love it, I am printing it out to carry with me and possibly place those quotes in my shop, hope it is OK.

I get to the shop and just sit there trying to follow plans, well, I have this bad habit of reading the plans and trying to follow them and I get stuck, when I place them to the side I start working and only refer to them when needed, mainly for measurements, is that Wrong, I think not.

I believe in what your saying and will work on my Art and not Formulas, see, I am a Tech head and in my full time job rules are not to be broken and formulas rule. I just need to sit and listen to my heart and not my brain when I work in the shop.

Thanks for the encouraging words.


-- David, Mesa Arizona

View Jamie Speirs's profile

Jamie Speirs

4168 posts in 2906 days

#13 posted 11-07-2010 11:19 PM

Darrell That was a great read.

Much Wisdom.


-- Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own. --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

View Darrell Peart's profile

Darrell Peart

362 posts in 3637 days

#14 posted 11-07-2010 11:28 PM

Thanks Jamie

-- Darrell Peart - Seattle - - author G&G Design Elements for the Workshop

View devann's profile


2246 posts in 2742 days

#15 posted 03-30-2011 08:57 AM

Yes Darrell, the above is a good read. I’m reminded of my artistic endeavors as a young child how my kinfolks always encouraged me to make more art. My father would tell me “don’t let others tell you what you can’t do, show them what you can do.” As an artist I enjoy trying different mediums and genre, rules don’t apply so much. There are some rules, things in the foreground are more in focus, background a little fuzzy, but the sky doesn’t always have to be blue or the grass green.

Being a carpenter I learned that there are some rules that can’t be broken, but most of these have to do with the laws of physics. Of coarse there is no absolute. A wall can be out of plumb, breaking a rule, but only a little out of plumb or it comes crashing down, the penalty for breaking the rule.

It’s getting late and I’m rambling on, but I do enjoy the mixing of the two crafts and breaking the rules as I go. Just look at my recent artistic endeavors, I’m seeking peers in the current folkart,tramp art genre. I know that I can’t be the only person making pictures out of wood the way that I do, but I have not come across anyone yet. Like the hexagon table that I buiild with a 32 piece top. It’s so simple, somebody else has to have done it before.

Thanks again Darrell for the encouragment.

-- Darrell, making more sawdust than I know what to do with

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