Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice

Invited to speak to some 600 conferees at the annual conference of the Society of North American Goldsmiths in Memphis last month, I protested that I had never met a goldsmith and wouldn't know what to say to one if I did. “Oh, we're not all goldsmiths,” I was assured, “SNAG is the premier organization for metalsmiths of all kinds, including silversmiths and blacksmiths.” It would be hard to resist an organization of professionals secure enough to embrace the acronym SNAG, and I didn't. It would have been even harder to resist a conference program that began with the “Blessing of the Tools,” an ancient tradition going back to the English guilds.

Did these people really believe their tools were subject to divine intervention? Well, why not? I seemed to believe it. I have never blessed any tools that I know of, but I certainly have cursed a lot of them. Participants were urged to bring a hand tool to Memphis for the blessings ceremony, and many did. I did not. Apart from being unable to conjure up a tool that would get through airport security, I could not think of one appropriate to my daily life and work. I am free at last of hammers, wrenches and Phillips screwdrivers, and was never any good with them in the first place. A corkscrew might be more like it, but an anachronism in the coming age of screw-tops. I thought of bringing my mouse, but the idea horrified my son, whose garage is a storehouse of genuine tools because his hobby is rebuilding old cars. “That would be sacrilege,” he said. I had to agree. True, the mouse is an extension of the hand; but it is just as much an extension of the computer. And my computer doesn't need a blessing—my computer needs an exorcist.

And, as it turned out, I needed no props. Those of us who arrived empty handed had our empty hands blessed by the Anglican priest who, for all the church's present conflict over issues of discrimination, did not discriminate between body parts and artifacts. I woke the following morning with clean hands and a pure heart, but a head that was increasingly aware of how ill-equipped I was for this mission. Not only did I not know any goldsmiths. The only blacksmiths I ever encountered showed up in western movies when a horse needed shoeing.

Stalling for time, I began my talk with a riff on the suffix -smith, which seems to mean nothing more than someone who works with metals. The significance of metal in industrial society supposedly accounts for the popularity of Smith as a surname in England and America. But I remember my bewilderment as a child upon being told that Smith and Jones were the two most common surnames in the country. No one in my hometown was named anything like that. Our townspeople had names like Bielski, Roskovski, Mojak and Voinevitch. As it happens, though, since the town's principal employers were steel mills, the grownup male population actually were all metalworkers. I doubt they had any more truck with smiths than with Smiths. They worked on bridges, barges, ships, tanks, tunnels, sports arenas and tall buildings—most of what later came to be known as “infrastructure.” “Hot metal” hasn't always been the province of nostalgic typesetters. We understood it as the stuff of blast furnaces that lit the landscape for miles around and left massive, brutally lovely towers of scrap. Richard Serra's sculpture makes me homesick. The work of Tom Joyce, a blacksmith at the SNAG conference who makes imposing artifacts from scrap iron and steel, had the same effect, reminding me that I grew up seeing what more sophisticated people waited years to discover: rust is beautiful.

I confessed to the SNAG conferees that as much as I had already come to admire goldsmiths, blacksmiths, silversmiths and tinsmiths, for that matter, I have never liked being called a wordsmith. It suggested the people in advertising and PR who refer to their firms and offices as “shops” because it lets them feel closer to real work. One day the marketing vice president of a manufacturing company called and asked if I was available to consult on a project. So I met with the man, who said, “They tell me you're a pretty good wordsmith.” He was charged with writing a new mission statement for his company and needed help. “I have an idea of what I want to say,” he told me, “but I can't put it into words.”

“What is it in now?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, “You know what you want to say, but you don't know how to put it into words.”

“My problem exactly,” he said.

“Can you tell me what form you have it in now?” When he gave me a puzzled look, I prodded: “Line drawings? Photos? Dream sequences? A mockup? A clay model, maybe?”

He couldn't say, and I couldn't help him. At least I didn't help him, concluding that his problem was not what he said it was. He didn't have an idea. What he meant was that if I were to have an idea and I put it into words, and he liked it, he would be able to identify it as an idea he would have had if he had one.

And that, I decided, offered a more solid reason for not liking wordsmith. It implied that the process was about words, when it really was about ideas.

But meeting with people who spend their lives making everything from brooches to security gates out of metal, I had late second thoughts. I saw now that, while that prospective client was clueless, so was I. It is not true that the writing process is about ideas rather than words. How could it be, when words are a medium through which ideas are shaped and exchanged. Marshall McLuhan became notorious for saying confusingly, “The medium is the message.” Actually I think his formula had a typo. It should read, “The medium has a message.” The smiths, accustomed as they were to taking direction from the materials they worked in, knew that all along.

Photo credit: Valentin Casarsa (iStockphoto) 

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.