Practicality vs. Art

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Blog entry by Todd A. Clippinger posted 04-10-2007 07:55 PM 2817 reads 0 times favorited 28 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I posted a new project this morning and Chip made a comment about practicality vs. art. I should have replied in the blog format but I did not realize it would be quite as long as it turned out to be, it’s not too bad but I don’t know how to get it into the blog without retyping the whole thing. I am interested in all your comments and will have to refer you to the project I posted to read what Chip has started.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

28 comments so far

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4196 days

#1 posted 04-10-2007 08:05 PM


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“Well Chip, I never thought posting a simple bench could turn into a thought provoking and challenging situation. (I did not plan on thinking this hard today.)

Personal Thoughts:

On Practicality: I think that the bench hit “practical” mode when I added the drawers to the underside of the seat. It makes better use of the space that it takes up. That was the big selling point of the original bench in comparison to what I was shown to base the design on. (Side note: I don’t believe the original bench I saw was a true historical shaker bench. It was referred to as such for its’ simplicity of design.)

Did the bench “practically” use 100% of the space that it sits on? Of course not. There could have been more cubbies added or holes in the back to accomodate umbrellas or something. But ultimately, by adding the drawers a very convenient and practical feature was added while maintaining visual harmony in balance, proportion and integrity of the desired style. (That just about blew a cerebral gasket for me.)

The mahogany sofa table I designed was originally sized to accomodate a shelf midway for holding an extra row of books. That would have maximized use of available space and still looked good. But the wife decided she liked it better without the shelf, and most would agree it still maintained good proportions. I would still label it as practical because the bottom shelf accomodates storage and display in our small house. Reasonably good use of available space with great looks.

On Art: I believe that defining what is art, and what is good or bad art is very subjective and that makes it difficult. Some would say the simple lines of the Shaker asthetic or Asian asthetic is art. Some would say the mahogany table is more artistic than the bench.

I would not consider that the sofa table designs are in the studio furniture realm, but they do possess an intruiging visual quality to them. But isn’t that relative to what people see on a daily basis? Isn’t the quality that makes many things look interesting, simply the fact that they are alien to our normal daily visual diet?

At what point does a project cross the studio furniture threshold? Is it simply that, it is so much more abstract than what we are used to seeing that it is labeled as “art” and “studio furniture”. What if all the furniture anybody ever had for the last century looked like Gary Knox Bennet and Wendell Castle designed it. Where would the simple lines of the Shaker design then stand? Would that be considered “out there”? With Bennet and Castle’s designs as our only point of reference, then the answer would probably be “yes”. Imagine going into oak express and seeing what we now consider as abstract, actually just being the norm.

Practicality and Art: I do not believe that practicality and art have to suffer a dichotomous relationship. Art does not have to be devoid of practicality, and practicality does not have to be vacuous. As incredibly difficult as it may be to put definite boundaries around these two terms, I think I go with a fairly moderate stance on them. But that is relative to culture, heritage, religious influences, and values based on a white, middle-class American upbringing.

Thanks Chip, I’m a just a mass of melted down grey matter goo now.”

Just like that, brother. I’ll save my comments for another entry, just to avoid confusion…

-- Ethan,

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4183 days

#2 posted 04-10-2007 08:18 PM

Phew… Todd, that is a mouthful!!

it is a fascinating topic—I’m just thinking of the “art” that people respond to with a “that’s not art” (isn’t it?) or… “a kid could do that”.. (isn’t that still art?)
And then I think of the “things” that most people pass by while others have to stop and savour…

yes indeed.. a fascinating topic.
Thanks Chip for asking, Thanks Todd for mushing your grey power around it; and thanks to Ethan for the technical support at getting it into the blog

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4121 days

#3 posted 04-10-2007 08:37 PM

Thanks Ethan. I just noticed that the blog is set up to make it easier to get photos into from the various accounts. I will be working on this soon.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View cheller's profile


254 posts in 4131 days

#4 posted 04-10-2007 08:50 PM

In a previous life, before I became a professional computer geek, I worked in administration at an art college. During my time there, almost 8 years, I saw some pretty wild creations labeled as art. It seemed to boil down to if you could explain it as art, it was art. Most of what was produced was not of the conventional “isn’t that pretty” school of thought, although there was some of that too. One of the painting students, in particular, had an amazing ability to capture light on canvas. But I digress.

With the exception of the Design department, where creations were expected to stand on their own, most student evaluation was done by critique. In a typical critique, the student would stand alongside their work and be quizzed about the motivation, use of materials, etc. Some answers would be esoteric, while others would be more practical of the “I really like the way the red and blue interact” variety.

What all this means is that any of the work we see here on LJ could be/is art. The motivation may be different with each piece – practicality, money, peer pressure (thorsen table challenge), skill development or purely aesthetic or spiritual (I’m thinking of a lot of Frank’s work here). But each of the pieces is crafted with care, and can be described as art.

-- Chelle

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4183 days

#5 posted 04-10-2007 08:58 PM

I think it is usually Obi that posts the definitions and I thought that it would be appropriate here:
Noun. The products of human creativity. The creation of beautiful and significant things.

the key words that stand out for me are “products” (something on produces) and “significant” (whatever that might mean to someone). If it has no trigger for you then it isn’t significant and if it isn’t significant then it isn’t art—to you, anyway.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4196 days

#6 posted 04-10-2007 09:13 PM

I’m already brain-fried today, Todd, so I’m not going to add a comment that even somewhat resembles yours, though I could probably find one within me at a later date.

I’ve always equated “practicality” with “functionality”, though there are some minor differences. Indeed, I think the definition of “practical” is lost amongst most of our U.S. citizens these days. Is it practical to have a riding lawn mower when you own .15 acres of land? No, but one of my neighbors has just that. I think he ends up mowing more of his two neighbors’ lawns than his own, just trying to turn it around while mowing his front yard.

In regards to art, if you’re going to call it “practical”, then I think you have to consider it “functional”, hence the correlation.

There is a “piece” at the St. Louis Art Museum that has been there ever since I can remember (at least since gradeschool, so we’re talking the early 80’s). It is about 20 feet tall, and is basically a rusted, roughly welded, two-level steel rack that holds a large number of panes of glass. Most of these panes are broken, with jagged edges and big chunks of glass missing. And most of this broken and missing glass is arranged on the floor in front of it. I say arranged – that probably isn’t true. I’m sure it is some masterful Pollock-esque random configuration in their eye. People have oooh’d and aaaah’d over it for years.

Personally, I look at it and think two things, “glass slivers” and “tetanus shots”. I certainly don’t think it is functional and I definitely don’t consider it to be art.

On the other hand, if you go down into the basement, in this area with hardwood mahogany floors and mahogany hand rails, you’ll find several rooms filled with medieval armor and weapons. In one case is a 17th Century English crossbow. It is solid wood, with ivory and silver inlay throughout. It is a beautiful piece of art, and I can’t imagine the endless number of hours someone spent on it – the quality of craftsmanship is outstanding. And it is also highly functional – I imagine at some point the cord was locked into place, a bolt was inserted, and then someone aimed it at another person and discharged the weapon in an attempt to kill them.

It is the epitomy of functional art, in my book.

In regards to furniture, you can place two chairs side by side (or in this case, the first picture is of two chairs and then the second is of another chair…) and say the first one is practical, but not necessarily “art”...

and the second one could be labeled as practical art…

(as my idea of “art” is pretty jaded, I won’t try to show an example of “impractical” and “not art”...)

What’s the difference? Both can be used to rest in or eat at a table or sit by a fire, and you could probably be comfortable for an extended period of time in either one, making them both “functional”. But the second chair obviously stands apart, artistically. Someone went to much greater efforts to pay attention to wood selection and design proportion – in addition, they added details to the chair that were not really necessary, but added a great deal of character to it.

What’s my point? No idea – except that I agree with Todd. Functionality and Art are not intrinsically associated, but a marriage of the two is very much achievable, and generally my goal in woodworking.

-- Ethan,

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4183 days

#7 posted 04-10-2007 10:18 PM

and so we walk the twisted trail of understanding and describing what is “art”...
I guess it goes back to that word “significant”—broken glass and rusted iron isn’t really significant to me either, unless of course I cut myself on a piece. Then the “art” and similar pieces would carry significant meaning for me and would evoke an emotional response, which is the goal of art. I think. Isn’t it?

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Chip's profile


1904 posts in 4114 days

#8 posted 04-11-2007 02:00 AM

I feel like I just ate a whole popcicle in one bite… my brain hurts. LOL.

I am willing to bet that there are as many takes on my question as there are woodworkers (or artists) in the world. I have always thought that art was a relative thing… and practicality was a little more universal.

Anyway, Todd, Ethan, Deb, Chelle… thanks for putting so much thought into your answers. Hopefully we’ll see some more interesting comments.

-- Better to say nothing and be thought the fool... then to speak and erase all doubt!

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4349 days

#9 posted 04-11-2007 02:23 AM

Well said all..

Practicality and art certainly aren’t opposite ends of a spectrum. As is was mentioned, art can be practical, practical items can be artful (but often aren’t).

Why do we create art?
Like the answer to the proverbial question “Why do you climb a mountain? – Because it’s there” the insignia over the MGM lion says it best. “Ars Gratia Artis”

Art for Arts sake.

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4121 days

#10 posted 04-11-2007 03:39 AM

I thank you guys for bringing in more thoughts. I started to feel like there were no definite answers, no boundaries, NO SECURITY. You guys have brought definition to something that is difficult to define. You made me feel secure again.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View Drew1House's profile


425 posts in 4110 days

#11 posted 04-11-2007 04:35 AM

It is interesting though… what people refer to as art… some Debbie… do say that the issue is that it provokes an emotional response… therefor it is art… I have a hard time with that but can see their point.

Sometimes things are designed to provoke negative or sad responses not just positive or happy ones and they are considered art… though not art I like. I like functional art even more than art for arts sake. It makes me happy to see or use something that is well designed and pleasing to the eye.

I think sometimes a good well balanced tool (I am thinking Plane’s here are art) while some would not agree… especially those who have never used a plane. The functionality in addition to the appearance enhance the experience thus I would like it more than another who would not have an experience with the object but could enjoy the colors and design.

I appreciate a laptop that has been well designed… Apple computers products for example… But I would not set one out to be enjoyed just because of the way it looked. However there are those who would. On the other hand… I don’t play chess but have a chessboard a friend made for me that is on an end table in my home because I love the woods used and the craftsmanship…

This is a thought provoking topic.

-- Drew, Pleasant Grove, Utah

View Jeff's profile


1010 posts in 4116 days

#12 posted 04-11-2007 04:53 AM

Here goes, Chip…

I too agree, on one level, with Todd and Ethan. However, let’s consider the definition of function:
1. the kind of action or activity proper to a person, thing, or institution; the purpose for which something is designed or exists; role.
2. any ceremonious public or social gathering or occasion.
3. a factor related to or dependent upon other factors: Price is a function of supply and demand.
(source –

Continuing with the example in St. Louis Ethan described; the jagged steal and shards of glass, and it’s function. Ethan, what is the title of this piece? Is it obscure or is it some kind or social commentary item? Is it in some way associated to a historical event in St. Louis’ history? I have never seen it and I’m going purely on your description. But, if it does have some ‘significance’ then its function is practical from my standpoint. No, you likely don’t want to sit on it but it is probably relevant if it is representational of an event, message or some other item that should not be forgotten. Almost every thing that any person is compelled to ‘create’ for ‘artistic’ reasons has a story behind it that makes it purposeful and serves a function to at least one person. It seems the intended audience has to be considered. Does studio furniture, although not for everyone, have a practical function based on the response it receives because it can be sat upon (physically functional)? Again, subject to interpretation but a worthy question the next time you form an opinion about an object’s practicality.

I have caught myself almost passing up people’s work on this site which I may have not normally given a second look because it differs from my aesthetic taste. But, I often form a different opinion once I read the writeup and subsequent comments. I read about them because of the context of woodworking, which is an interest for all of us, and find that something is completely practical not just because it’s functional. This has given me some personal insight into my sometimes opinionated position about craftsmanship.

I fear I’m straying from the original intent of this thread and I’m not really saying anything that hasn’t already been said. I’m really just commenting in the spirit of good conversation. There are way to many interpretations of terminology and it’s better to define the parameters of the context I suppose.

Chip, look what you went and started…. sheesh ;)

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

View Chip's profile


1904 posts in 4114 days

#13 posted 04-11-2007 04:54 AM

Drew makes a very interesting point about the beautiful Apple computer and the equally beautiful chess set.

There is a connection there to how “practical” radios, TV’s (even fans for goodness sake!) from 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s weren’t really considered art then but are expensive collectors items now and revered for there art deco styleing. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years Mac computers will be out on everyone’s coffee tables. A well done “practical” anything (table, chair, cabinet, etc) will always age like a fine wine?

Jeff… just get back to that SketchUp will ya… ;-) seriously, thanks for the comments!

-- Better to say nothing and be thought the fool... then to speak and erase all doubt!

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4196 days

#14 posted 04-11-2007 05:07 AM


I might actually be able to appreciate it if said piece did have some thought-provoking name or significance.

Alas, it has one of those obscure names that totally escapes me right now and the piece has no St. Louis significance.

In any case, I would classify that as something other than “functional”. I’m thinking of functional as “usable”. I think you’re using a broader definition of the term to include something that might be commemorative or nostalgic? Something that has the function of reminding people of an event or a place?

I see what you mean. Our definitions vary just a little, though.

For the record, I actually have my B.A. in Art History. I say that with one caveate. The two worst classes of my entire scholastic career were 19th Century Art and Contemporary Art. I struggled with the latter half of 19th Century Art and I abhored my Contemporary Art class. As much as I tried (and I really did try), I just never really got or understood it.

-- Ethan,

View WayneC's profile


13754 posts in 4119 days

#15 posted 04-11-2007 05:09 AM

This is a bit deep for me….

...but then as it has been pointed out to me, I am only a dog

Practical is a subset of Art as I see it. Anything can be considered art. It is in the eye of the beholder. From there it becomes supply and demand. The more people that consider it art and desire to own it, the higher value it can obtain.

Practical is related to needs and needs are driven by circumstance. If I were in a better circumstance, I would have Todd design and build me a house and Mark Decou furnish it.

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

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