Quality as Work


In the middle of the 20th Century, while Mary and Howard Butt, Sr. were collaborating on the vision that would become Laity Lodge, American designers Charles and Ray Eames were busy making significant contributions to modern industrial and graphic design, architecture, and furniture. The husband and wife team pioneered designs—and design thinking—for Herman Miller. Their Eames Lounge Chair is now an iconic symbol of mid-century modernism.

In 1978, shortly after Charles Eames’ death, design critic Ralph Caplan penned these words about the designer’s philosophy and work ethic, words that are pertinent to our ongoing pursuit of quality in the Canyon and beyond:

…Because art was an attitude that could infuse any worthwhile activity, Charles was dedicated to what he called “taking pleasure seriously.” There was nothing he was more serious about than pleasure, and nothing he found more pleasurable than the high seriousness of art and design and science and work and play.…

What did he mean? He seems to have meant that art consisted of doing something communicative uniquely well. Art was realizing the best of yourself and then sharing it. Sharing it alone was not necessarily art. Neither was excellence alone, until it had been shaped into a form that let you share it with someone. Quality, then, was a matter not only of how well you did something, but of how well you were able to communicate it.

Again and again Eames demonstrated in his work that quality was not an article of faith, but an operation – something you labored at.

And, later, perhaps notably for our work in Communications: “The details are not details. They make the product…It will in the end be these details that…give the product its life.”



[update: a few more thoughts on Quality from Robert M. Pirsig,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values]:

“Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. […] some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. … But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile?

Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the betterness?… So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

“There is an entire branch of philosophy concerned with the definition of Quality, known as Aesthetics. Its question, What is Beautiful? goes back to antiquity.”

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

“A person who sees Quality and feels it as [he/she] works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what [he/she] sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.”

“…Technology is simply the making of things. And the making of things by its own nature can’t be ugly or there would be no possibility of beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things. Actually, a root word of technology, techne, originally meant “art.” The Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.[…]Real ugliness is not the result of any objects of technology. Nor is it […] the result of any subjects of technology, the people who produce it, or the people who use it. Quality, or its absence, doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use.

“…The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is—not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean, or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way.

“…There’s a beautiful way of doing it, and an ugly way of doing it, and in arriving at the high-quality, beautiful way of doing it, both an ability to see what “looks good” and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that “good” are needed.

“…Typical of modern technology [is] an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable. […] Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.”

“We have artists with no scientific knowledge, and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it’s ghastly. The time for real unification of art and technology is really long overdue.

“[…] Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial to technical work. It’s the whole thing. That which produces [peace of mind] is good work, and that which destroys it is bad work. The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through. […] I say inner peace of mind. It has no direct relationship to external circumstances. It can occur to a monk in meditation, to a soldier in heavy combat to a machinist taking off that last ten-thousandth of an inch.”

“But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all, but simply performs the acts of his life…”


» Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar described the virtues of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as three sisters in a dance. He wrote that if Beauty were removed the other two sisters, Truth and Goodness would soon follow.

In what ways does our work act on the stated belief that “… a community needs artists, designers, and architects to keep Beauty present, just as a community needs lawyers, plumbers, gardeners, accountants etc.…” to help keep the other sisters in the “dance?”

» Thomas Aquinas’ described Beauty as having three characteristics: integrity (or perfection), proportion (or harmony), and brightness (or clarity). Aquinas’ second definition of Beauty is:“That which being seen, pleases.” (id quod visum placet)