When it comes to “tradition,” I’m firmly on the fence. I champion innovation, and try to practice it in my work. The cost of innovation is easy to see, in the small collection of instruments that I’ve made that are consigned to a shameful life on the wall of my shop, reminders of the fragile balance in this enterprise between innovation, and what dependably works. I’ve had a breakthrough or two, as well, that I could never have discovered if I built instruments from blueprints all the time. But some old ideas are old because they are still the best. The same is true of objects, for me.
As the offspring of antique collectors, I spent countless childhood hours in auction galleries, and the payoff was the occasional box lot of old junk, purchased for a quarter or so, to keep me amused and enthusiastic about being someplace that most children would find intolerable. As I handled each one, a cast iron toy, an old pair of spectacles, an ancient school primer, I imagined the opening of a special Christmas present, the sudden gift of sight, or the trepidation of a first day of school, the time when, for however briefly, these objects were the focus of someone’s life, and then tried to imagine the sad journey of increasing irrelevance that each thing had endured that led ultimately to its deposit in this box and thus into my hands, where its story could be told to an eager listener.
Later, in the course of doing historic restoration for 25 years, my fetish for old objects was legitimized, as it became necessary to acquire a collection of old woodworking tools, particularly molding planes, in order to duplicate the occasional short piece of molding, using the implements that had created the original. These planes cut a variety of profiles on the edge of a board, and before 1860 or so, door trim, baseboard ogees, window sash, etc were all formed with the planes that a carpenter had in his toolbox. The planes themselves were treated with great care, which is why you can still buy a great example, skillfully made by master plane-makers around 1800, in perfect working order for about 20 bucks.
Besides the maker’s stamp, usually there is at least one owner’s mark as well, and when you pick one up and start cutting a bead on the edge of a board, it feels like the previous owners are watching you. They have the best patina there is, too, one that can only be achieved by 100 years of rubbing hand sweat into the wood, and if you doubt me on that, check out any mahogany handrail in any 150 year old house, and tell me if you’ve seen or felt anything as sublime.
Many people think of the Victorian era, with the gingerbread porch trim, the wide hardwood moldings, the multi panelled doors, as the peak of American craftsmanship. But I like to point out that it was a modernist movement, a celebration of the machine age and of mass production. All those architectural elements came factory assembled, even the door trim, with its bulls-eye plinths, were created to speed the carpenter’s work by eliminating mitered joints. It would take a man a day to make 20 feet of 4 inch wide hardwood molding with all the contours of Victorian era trim. So right about the time that the Stanley company came out with the #55 plane, an endlessly adjustable monster with over 50 blade profiles that was promoted as being capable of duplicating any molding profile, it was obsolete.
They continued to sell for many years because they are extraordinary objects. Yes, of course I own one. But if I have to run a bit of vintage molding, I’ll reach for the good old wooden ones. The #55 only gets taken out of its box when I want to marvel at the intricacy of its engineering, which is only more amazing because of the various gorgeous rosewood hand grips and the floral engraving on the nickle plated body. Such flourishes would never be considered by a tool maker in the 21st century. But then, no 21st century maker expects that the buyer will leave a tool to his son eventually, and he to his. That was the assumption with this plane, and it perfectly reflects the cultural values of its time.
But values change, and people tire of any fashion that reminds them of the old values, and after a while, Victorian “gingerbread” was torn off porches, miles of natural wood trim was painted white, and the intricate architectural details that once seemed so fanciful , (and lately have once again, albeit now molded from PVC), began to feel ordinary and out-dated.
Too traditional, if you will, proving once again that nothing is quite as “traditional” as the abandonment of tradition.
Several movements took hold to provide relief, most notably the Arts and Crafts movement, that reintroduced the aesthetic of honest workmanship by craftsmen to replace the tyranny of mass production.
The Art Nouveau movement also , I think was a response to the rigidity of the excesses of geometry imposed by Victoriana, featuring flowing lines that seemed to capture forever the mood and whimsey of their creators at a particular moment in time.
I’d make the case that the Art Nouveau movement heavily influenced Orville Gibson when he designed the F style mandolin, and the headstock in particular, with its flowing,asymmetrical, and almost whimsical lines, even the vase inlay reflects a common Art Nouveau motif. His lyre-shaped one-off that became the graphic symbol of the company also falls firmly in the style. It was probably a tough sell to the production folks at Gibson, but the point was likely made that if a beautiful sounding instrument could be identified from the 20th row by its distinctive headstock, it would be good for the brand, and worth the extra 20 minutes in production, the occasional snapped off piece, and the retooling of the tuners to fit the new shape. There’s no disputing that the point was well made.
And there’s no disputing the beauty of the headstock that Gibson designed, and that Lloyd Loar embellished with intricate bindings. It perfectly embodies the time and place in which it was created. Its visual appeal has endured. Perhaps too well.
What torments my thoughts in those moments when mandolin thoughts torment me, is why hundreds of obviously skilled luthiers in this country would endeavor to duplicate that headstock design on their own instruments. If it is an attempt at tribute, I doubt Mr Gibson or Mr.Loar would appreciate the effort. It has made their creation ordinary, no longer telling the observer the age and origin of the instrument from the 20th row, or even the third.
It is forgery masquerading as tradition.
The headstock no longer speaks of the ebullient spirit of a master at the peak of his craft in a post-war, pre-Depression America wanting to cap off his masterpiece of acoustic design with a touch of fancy.
Certainly he would understand the endless copying of the acoustical box, a design that has proved its worthiness, and probably would take in stride the duplication of his body scroll design, the concept not being entirely original to him, although I suspect he might scratch his head at the compulsion to replicate every angle, curve and binding detail of his . But the headstock, well it strikes me as an impersonation as vile as check forgery. I mean no disrespect to those highly skilled makers who practice this, but I imagine the ghost of Orville Gibson standing over you at night, moaning about the headstock being a blank canvas, other than considerations of mass and balance, so why would you paint the goddamn Mona Lisa over and over and over again?
HIS Mona Lisa.