On the Sixth Day of Christmas…

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Six scrap metal remnants,
Five… snow… man… rings,
Four carved from a nut,
Three disc men,
Two simple blocks,
and a snowman family straight from the sea.

Concept Sketch

If you have ever dallied among the tents of a craft show, you have undoubtedly seen cute, little animals crafted from junkyard scraps. I always admire the contrast created by hard mechanical objects depicting soft organic. So, I took a trip to my local hardware store. This is the result.

…and here are a few of my metal snowmen from year’s past.

Click here to see the fifth (and 1/2) day of Christmas.

On the Fifth (and 1/2) Day of Christmas…

On the fifth (and 1/2) day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Five… more snow… man… rings,
Four carved from a nut,
Three disc men,
Two simple blocks,
and a snowman family straight from the sea.

We’re talking tectonic minimalism here. The question of the day is, “what is the bare essence of a snowman?” Do we need eyes, buttons, scarf, pipe, etc. to capture that essence?

The answer: Something round and sporting a top hat appears to be the bare minimum that most people perceive as a snowman. Adding a carrot puts it on firmly on solid ground.

The next question: how many ways can you place the carrot and what does that do to the design?

Finally, does adding color reinforce the design or detract from it?

It’s obviously subjective, but I lean toward the purity of the unfinished, sculptural snowmen shown below.

Something fun to ponder: Notice the visual difference between the two snowmen below. It is entirely due to the position of the carrots. With the carrot positioned at the top, the wood ring appears as a body, while at the bottom it appears as a head. It is so cool that such a minor alteration causes such a major impact!


Click here to see the fifth day of Christmas.

On the Fifth Day of Christmas…

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Five… snow… man… rings,
Four carved from a nut,
Three disc men,
Two simple blocks,
and a snowman family straight from the sea.

On the fifth day of Christmas, you must have rings. Lords a leaping are expendable, and maids a milking? Seriously? let’s face it, nobody wants the turtledoves, either, but rings are essential.

So, today is about rings.

Glazing the ornaments


Click here to see the fourth day of Christmas.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas…

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Four carved from a nut,
Three disc men,
Two simple blocks,
and a snowman family straight from the sea.

Australian Bull Banksia Nut

What do you get when you clamp a nut from an Australian Bull Banksia tree onto a wood lathe? Nothing – until you turn it on and jam your chisel into the spinning nut. Then all hell breaks loose.

The nut has a hard, lumpy skin and a wood center, but between these is a layer of fluffy seed-like material that breaks apart on contact, flying through the air in a torrential blizzard of  skin chips and fuzz. I’m hoping to torch my workshop before I have to clean it.

Good times.

All four of these ornaments were made from a single nut. The three larger ornaments are designed as table decorations, while the smaller one above hangs on the tree.

Click here to see the third day of Christmas.

On the Third Day of Christmas…

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Three disc men,
Two simple blocks,
and a snowman family straight from the sea.

I thought it would be a piece of cake to whip out a few clay discs and turn them into snowmen. Not so. Simple idea, painful execution. This is a lesson you learn early as an architect – what is easy to draw is not always easy to build (we learn it, we just don’t always follow it).

What I didn’t know was that the glazing you paint on clay turns into liquid glass when baked in the kiln. If the glaze touches the kiln, well, get out your chisel because it isn’t coming off in one piece.

And guess what? Clay shrinks as it dries. the holes you think are big enough for the wire to thread the discs together, aren’t.

What’s more, if you aren’t careful (i.e. impatient and sloppy), the glaze fills up those holes. It cannot be drilled out. Believe me, I tried.

Did I mention how brittle thin discs of clay are after they dry? Not so brittle that they can’t be tossed into a Ziplock and crammed into a backpack for the trip to the kiln. Nope. Not that brittle.

But, as I say to Beck, quitters never win, and winners never quit. And, the true craftsman never blames his tools. And, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

Oh, and my all time favorite, if you don’t fail, you aren’t trying hard enough. I tell Beck a lot of stuff.

Click here to see the second day of Christmas.

On the Second Day of Christmas…

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Two simple blocks,
and a snowman family straight from the sea.

Robyn’s reaction: “How cute! I assume I’ll get the bodies later?”

I thought I’d explore a new medium this year. As a first attempt in sculpting with clay, these minimal, tectonic snowmen are a bit unrefined, but are nonetheless good examples of time-tested design principles (or, as Robyn would say, the type only an architect would love):

  • Simplicity – using minimum elements to get your idea across often leads to bold and powerful forms.
  • A Strong focal point – creates order from chaos.

    Adding a hat band: Notice how your eyes bounce back and forth between the red and the orange
  • Contrast of texture and color – the shiny, glazed orange carrot is much more special due to the contrast between it and the colorless, unglazed head and hat – more so than if everything was glazed.
  • Strong proportions. The head is an exact cube and the cylindrical hat fits within an imaginary cube of the same size.
  • Breaking from convention. Using a cube-shaped head vs. the expected round causes the observer to think about the object.
  • A combination of straight vs. curved forms provides interest.
  • When everything is special, nothing is. Color is only used on the carrot. If the hat was glazed black (yes, black is a color), for example, the carrot would have less impact than it currently has (on the other hand, it would look more like a snowman! 😉 ).

Click here to see the first day of Christmas.

On the First Day of Christmas…

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A snowman family straight from the sea.

Guess which one is which?

Many of you know about my Christmas tradition of making a snowman ornament for my wife, Robyn. Read about it here. This year I depart from the tradition in a couple of ways.

Because this is my twenty-fifth year of ornamenting (and to make up for neglecting our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – my bad), rather than one or two ornaments, I decided to clean out my mental closet and purge ideas that have been festering for years (I’m sure you’ve heard of Fester, the Snowman). At the rate of one or two ornaments per year, these ideas would never all have been realized and were weighing on my pursuit of new things. The forthcoming twelve days of Christmas will add up to a few more ornaments than previous years. A lot more.

In doing this, I run the risk of marginalizing a 25 year tradition by breaking my own rule: if everything is special, nothing is (o.k., I didn’t invent the rule, but I try to live by it). On the other hand, Robyn is bound to find one she likes.

However, she may find it more difficult to decorate the tree next year, having now to consider weight and asymmetrical loading. I’ll provide a structural diagram. 😉

I am also taking a few liberties with a classic song, the least of which is counting down to Christmas instead of up from it. My apologies in advance.

This first day of snowman ornaments arose from seashells collected over the years since our boy, Beck, was born – souvenirs from our trips to the beach previously languishing in a dusty, old box, never opened (yeah, we probably should hire a house cleaner). I may have desecrated their purity with wood and glue, but at least as ornaments they will live again, once a year, along with their memories.

You may have noticed that these are not the typical shells people collect. They are worn by sand and water to expose their inner beauty – proof that beauty is only skin deep! To us they are far more interesting than the complete shells you find in every tourist shop.



Time Off to Play

Robyn, Beck and I spent a few days at Universal Studios, Florida last week and discovered how far theme park design has advanced in the past decade. The rides are visually stunning and physically immersive, to the point where fantasy blends with reality and reality blends with fantasy (and reality blends with reality – it’s confusing). And yet, the most fun we had was running and laughing, playing hide-and-seek in the playground and dowsing each other with water cannons – proving once again, the simple things in life still rule!

Robyn and Beck Bjella at Universal Studios Playground
I captured this photo of Beck and Robyn playing hide-and-seek, yet neither knew the other was there. Both assumed I was shooting a picture of them alone.

Robyn and Beck Bjella at Universal Studios Playground

Of course, my proudest moment… My son, the future Duffman. He even has the right shirt. A dad can dream…


A Refined Kitchen Designed with Unrefined Materials? Yep.

Two wrongs may not make a right, but often the unrefined makes the refined. Take this kitchen, for example. The floor and eating bar are exposed concrete while bolted steel carries heavy timbers and crowns the cabinets. The countertop backsplash is a raw steel channel, in contrast with the shiny, granite countertops and finely crafted mahogany cabinets.

Something special is created from the juxtaposition of common and fine materials. By way of contrast, the unrefined materials make the refined materials appear even more so.

I love this massive center island support. You could drive a truck over it. I don’t know if it will stand up to kids, though…