There are few things more humble than a chair and a beer. And there is almost nothing more satisfying after a long day’s work than sitting down with a cold one. (For a literal version, try our beer + chair pairings.) —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Paul Cade
I am an amateur chair maker and a professional brewer. The skills involved in building a chair and making beer don’t overlap very much. But for me, they each fulfill the same thing: the desire to both design something and turn that design into reality.
I’m not the first person to feel this way. Victorian-era British art critic John Ruskin and the early pioneers of the arts and crafts movement believed that both the mental challenge of designing something and the physical challenge of making it are the keys to having a meaningful and engaging work life.
“The best designers have dirt under their fingernails; the best craftspeople have a pencil behind their ear.” —John Ruskin
Over the last century, we have made incredible leaps in production technology. Industrialization has given us the ability to build things never before imagined and given the average person access to the type of products that were once available only to a wealthy few. I admire Charles Eames’s vision to “make the best for the most for the least,” a reference to quality, people, and cost, respectively. And I do believe that the modernist designers of the 20th century did wonders to democratize beautiful products. But at what cost? I am not a Luddite; I’m not suggesting that the pre-industrialized world was altogether better. But I do think we need to examine exactly what we have lost over the last hundred years—and if there is anything worth salvaging, particularly the relationship among the designer, the manufacturer, and the user.
DESIGN + PRODUCTION
Chairs and beer are pretty special to me. A well-designed chair instantly communicates how you should interact with it and what to expect while using it. Take the simple folding lawn chair: As soon as you see one, you know the chair is designed to be outside; when you touch it, you immediately understand how light and easy it is to move. You can plan your entire day around this information. Grab a picnic basket, a book, and a few beers and head to your favorite outdoor spot.
The same goes for a well-planned beer. The specific combination of malt, water, hops, and yeast, added at the exact right time and temperature, gives the end user a good idea of when and where a beer should be enjoyed. These characteristics didn’t happen by accident. It all took careful planning and the accrued knowledge of thousands of generations. A well-designed product seems effortless but in reality takes a great deal of thought.
While a chair and beer cannot be great without thoughtful design, it’s also true that even the best-designed chair or beer will never be great if it isn’t produced with care. Every step in the production process requires hundreds of tiny actions, from the first cut into the wood to the last stitch in the upholstery, from milling the malt to putting the beer in its final package. Even a small misstep can be the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
The value of a handcrafted item is not necessarily superior quality. In fact, mass production can ensure quality standards that are unobtainable on a small scale. Beers produced on a large scale often have less off flavors and are more consistent than almost any craft beer. The production process is typically mechanized to eliminate human error to the greatest extent possible. (Budweiser is a good example.) But the craft beer consumer isn’t deterred by the small imperfections or slight variations that come with small-batch production. In fact, these “flaws” can be part of the appeal.
The real draw to craft beer is the relationship that the end user has with the designer and maker.
Having a relationship with the designer and maker of a product changes a common item into something more, something meaningful. For me, it’s simple. It goes back to a basic Ruskin-like desire to both design and make something. I believe that all people have this urge, but this need to create cannot exist in a vacuum. If a beautifully designed and expertly crafted product falls in the woods and nobody is around to experience it...well, you get the idea.
By using products that are designed and built by the same person, the user is fulfilling the final and necessary step in this sequence. Rather than being merely consumers, they have been transformed into a true patron—a person who uses their means not just to survive in this world, but to contribute to their fellow humans’ fulfillment and advance the collective design knowledge of humanity.
What does all of this mean? Be a patron to someone. Take your time, be discerning. Find a product to love and be willing to spend the extra money on it, if necessary, because it was designed AND made by the same person. More importantly, be a designer and maker yourself. You don’t have to sell your products or even share them with other people. The real reward for designing and making isn’t external; it is fulfilling the human urge to create. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up sitting in a chair that you designed and built, drinking a beer that you designed and made. Take it from me, it feels pretty good.
BEER SEATS I’m a firm believer that beer is contextual. A beer can only be as good as the circumstances surrounding it. And as anyone who has been on a long flight knows, sitting itself isn’t necessarily pleasurable. It, too, needs context, like sitting down with a friend after a hard day’s work for a good meal—or sitting in a chair with a beer perfectly paired to complement its style and vibe. The beer should highlight attributes of the chair, and the chair should enhance the flavor of the beer…or maybe this is all just a funny way to talk about beer and chairs.
Acknowledgments: To the brewing staff at Goose Island for making beer with me every day. And to Chris McCleary, Mike Bremmer, and Mark Nemesek for making chairs with me.