Duck Duck Book

64 – tools of the imagination
12.11.2009, 11:47 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Tools of the imagination : drawing tools and technologies from the eighteenth century to the present / Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino, editor.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2007.
[MCL call number: 720.28 T671 2007; two copies, no holds]

It can be said that tools are simply mundane — they are a means to an end and nothing more.  But it’s also true that a dedicated practitioner of a particular craft is likely to develop a preference for particular types of tools, and eventually to come to rely on a beloved individual ruler or chisel or level or brush or what have you.  Why do artists become so passionate about their preferences for one sort of tool over another, so devoted to their own beloved instruments?  Habit, tradition, the preferences of one’s teachers, and other factors all surely have a role.  But another reason is that people who create know their work.  They are specialists in the fabrication of their own craft, and therefore they understand why one pencil is good for line sketching, while another is best reserved for lettering, and a third for shading. 

Many people who regularly use tools also find themselves building tools, devising new variations on old tools, and sharing their tool-making skills with other craftspeople.  In a sense, these artists have two media: the medium in which they engage their artistic energy (painting, sculpture, music, carpentry, or whatever), and the medium of tool-making.  An appreciation of this latter art is the inspiration for Tools of the Imagination — essentially it is an historical and thematic exhibition of architects’ and draftsmen’s tools.  Tools for inscribing circles, arcs, and spirals make up the first chapter, tools for creating straight lines the next, and so on. Many of the tools included are outdated, but ingenious — like the graceful volutor (on pages 16-17), which draws spirals, or the pantograph (pages 82-83), a mechanical device that looks like a large, frightening insect, which assists the artist with hand-drawn enlargements and reductions.  All in all, the tool portraits are lovely and fascinating.

Unfortunately, though the book presents an elegant array of antique tools and does a decent job showcasing contemporary tools, there seems to be a bit of a gap between tools used before about 1900, and those used after the beginning of the computer revolution in the early 1960s.  While reading I often found myself wondering what lay in that gap.   Would a compass manufactured in 1930 or 1970 or 2000 look significantly different than the compasses from 1850 (on page 8) and 1890 (page 10)?  I might find out elsewhere, but there is very little in Tools of the Imagination to enlighten me.

Tools of the Imagination also suffers a bit from its own high design.  The text is printed in silver ink, which is beautiful but can be hard to read when the light conditions aren’t entirely perfect.  This isn’t really a severe handicap, but it does highlight how endless the pursuit of good design can be — a book is a physical object, part of its strength is its portability; yet this book has been made so that it is hard to read under low light or in bright sun, thus decreasing the strength of portability in this particular book.  I found this rather ironic, considering the topic at hand. 


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