November 25, 2014

Tannery Machines: Beautiful Forms from Function

In machines there are a surprising range of elegant geometries, shapes and forms that seem sculptural but that emerge from their designed purpose. I continue to be engaged by them in my painting. The famous saying of modernist design is that "form follows function", or as Louis Sullivan actually wrote, "...form ever follows function." The beautiful sweeping curves of the blades on a cylinder are perfect for their function of scraping. A touching expression of this is in the poem "Famous" by Naomi Shihab Nye (thanks to my friend John Fairley for introducing me to this marvelous poem, which you can read in its entirety at the link.)
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
But because it never forgot what it could do.

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a parchment making workshop at the tannery of the supplier of parchment for my paintings, Pergamena. A couple of months ago I attending a brief workshop at the Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth in which Jesse Meyer, the presiding genius of parchment at Pergamena, described the traditional process of making it. I wrote about the workshop here. When I walked into the factory I was entranced by the machines, machines that have taken on the jobs that were formerly laboriously completed by hand. I didn't find out the purpose of every machine I photographed, but I do realize that they were made for a specific job. What seems purely aesthetic is the choice of color, as in the red and yellow paint above....

...and the brilliant red bounded by blue of the door on this large drum, used for soaking and dyeing.

Though not strictly a machine, I include this angled table because I find its form so appealing and simple.

On this machine, a sander, it's the very low-tec crisscrossing string that animates it.

Of course there are times when we see faces in inanimate objects.

And how beautifully effective are the teeth of gears! effective aesthetically while being functional.

The festooning of cobwebs and dust add nostalgia to the clean forms of handle, standing erect, and wheels.

I don't know if the cross-shaped piece is a handle, but whatever it is, I like its juxtaposition with the long  bar alongside it, both in color and form.

Here is another rich pairing, of an orange plate with pierced holes and a flattened cylinder with angled lines.

These last two photos are of the side and back views of a single old machine, one used to measure the size of pieces of parchment and leather. What a marvel that someone developed a tool such as this and how wonderful in the rhythms of its complexity. I'm not alone in finding machines inspirational; a couple of weeks ago I did a post on "Machines in Art". I could never invent the variety of compositions and forms that I find in them.


  1. The artist eye capturing these photos is so sensitive, thank you for showing the beauty.

  2. This is a stunning series of photos, pairing well with your paintings. I am enjoying both! Thank you for your painting, your blog and all that you share.

  3. thank you, Dona and Lynette; I'm so glad you enjoyed this post.

  4. This affirms that there was - is - indeed a time-machine in the 19th-century, through which people travelled, taking note of Altoon Sultan's work, returning to make those things, and place them where you would find them.
    No. That diminishes your part in it.
    You are a genius.