Two New Essays (and a short meditation) on Design

Earlier this year I was assigned two topics, both on the subject of local designers and builders (Michael Swart of Swart Amplifiers and Mark Bayne of the CFCC Boatbuilding Program), to research and report on for the March issue of Salt Magazine. I delved into the project with my usual verbose vigor and submitted two thousand-word essays, unaware that my word limit had shrunk to a scant two hundred and fifty words each. And here, dear reader, we catch a glimpse into the strange and collaborative process of creating prose for publication.

My marvelous editor at Salt, Isabel, is responsible for the finished stories turning out as well as they did. She endured my ramblings with poise and grace, and wasn’t afraid to dive in with her editorial knife and “kill my darlings,” in the interest of creating pieces that were far tighter than what I originally gave her. Brevity is the soul of wit, she said. And she was right. We went back and forth via email, cutting here, clarifying there, and came out in the end with two much shorter, but still meaningful, stories, now out in the world to fend for themselves. What is left is the beating heart of what I was trying to say; all that was considered to be verbal excess now lies dead in a .odt file somewhere on my hard drive, and echoes down the halls of memory.

Yet, afterwards, I still felt a slight pang of missing what I knew was once there. One of the wonderful and dangerous things about a blog is that I am free to ramble. I have no word limit. Perhaps a little excess, every now and then, is a good thing. Everything in moderation, including moderation, as Wilde said. So, partly because the topics of both essays happen to be about the creative process of design, and partly because I happen to like a few of the phrases that didn’t make it to the printed page due to spacial constraints and am unwilling to let them die entirely, I’m publishing the initial drafts of the two essays below, for comparison. Why not? I’ve already written them. See them as they were originally intended to be seen- fat and full and meandering as life can sometimes be.

So please enjoy the final drafts here, and if you’re interested, scroll down for a peek behind the scenes.

For the Love of Tone

an essay by John Wolfe

Forget about Menlo Park: Michael Swart, tube amp guru and founder of the Swart Amplifier Company, is the wizard of Carolina Place. In his workshop on Wrightsville Avenue, he leans casually against a classic wintergreen VW Bug, arms crossed, peering at me from behind thick-framed square glasses. To cross the threshold and enter his shop is to pass through a portal which transports you backwards in time. Every piece of machinery in here – everything except the new pedals and amplifiers he is building, stacked half-assembled on a side shelf – is vintage. From the VW to the rows of Honda and BSA motorcycles to the old French moped with the engine on the front wheel, these machines are from a time when the fact that things were built to last is proven by their continued existence in Michael’s workshop.

“I don’t know what it is, man,” Michael tells me, his hand resting fondly on his Bug, “even though I was an eighties kid, I’ve always had something for the fifties and sixties. Each thing almost talks to me, gives me a story – and if I get something new, I don’t have the same appreciation for it. I mean, look at a VW, at how manual everything is. The windshield wiper fluid is squirted by the pressure in the spare tire. It’s a feeling you have.”

I know just what he means about the pleasure of using a well-designed machine from the past; the first draft of this essay was composed on a manual typewriter. The elegant simplicity of how the design physically amplifies and transfers your action is satisfying in a way that electronic representations of the same device never can be, even if they produce the same result. It’s like driving a stick shift vs. playing a driving video game, in terms of feeling. An ancient and physical sensation of pleasure, of responsiveness, the communion of human intention with mechanical manifestation.

Michael is famous for building guitar amps which produce exactly that feeling of directness. There is as little electrical interference as possible between what the musician plays and what the audience hears – a feat which takes quite a lot of engineering. Michael is self-taught, engineering-wise; the Swart Amplifier Company grew from him building his own gear to play on. “I would go play out,” Michael tells me, “and people would always ask, ‘What amp are you playing?’ And I would say, oh, just something I built. The real lightbulb moment of, I should probably do this, was when I was looking for an old Fender Champ on eBay, and they were like nine hundred to fifteen hundred dollars. I already knew how to build something; I just wanted something vintage. So I went to the Starway Flea Market [off of Carolina Beach Road] and bought an old Supro for like forty bucks. And it was a really cool looking box. I contacted my uncle who was into woodworking, and asked him, can you build a box like this? So he built the first probably twenty cabinets, and we just started selling them on eBay. I contacted my old college friend Kelly Holsten and he built the website. And basically, every time we put an amp up on eBay, it sold. I think we sold five or six amps the first year, and then I started developing an amp that had reverb and tremolo– that’s what I always wanted to do.”

The result was the Space Tone Reverb, the signature guitar effect of Swart. “I’m very proud of it,” Michael says. “It’s very different from anything else that’s out there.” This is due to the circuitry. Michael starts dropping words like transistor and capacitor-driven and reverb-tanks and I, the drummer with the fine arts degree, get lost, technically speaking. But the point is that other guitarists and gear-minded musicians who have strong opinions on things like transistors and reverb-tanks, agree with Michael Swart; they like both how different his effect is and how his effect is different.

These guitarists who agree with Michael, their strong opinions matter more than mine when it comes to shaping music. They are people like Joey Santiago of The Pixies, who plays a Swart in his post-Pixie band The Martinis. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco plays a Swart, as well as one of the guys from They Might Be Giants. Even the Crown Prince of Jam himself, Trey Anistasio (of Phish phame), plays a Space Tone. There’s a framed photograph of Trey on the wall of the staircase which leads upstairs from the shop to the studio, the testing ground for what is built below. Michael leads me up and opens the door to what looks like (for a musician, at least) Heaven on Earth.

The ceiling is high and cathedral-like, and gathered like a congregation below are an array of amplifiers (Swarts, of course), a rack of guitars, an old Hammond organ and a Wurlitzer “somebody had just thrown out by the side of the road” which Michael repaired, which now rests near the corner desk that holds the computer and the mixing board. Sunlight filters in from a big window behind his wet bar. My eyes are drawn to the drum kit in the far corner and to the surfboard hanging on the near wall, a late-sixties Hawaiian Noserider longboard on which Michael learned to surf. Two strange bent wires protrude from a black box plugged in to an amp: Michael Swart owns a Theramin.

“Here,” he says, gesturing me over to something which could have been a prop taken from the set of a schlocky sci-fi movie, the type that MST3K would spoof, a plywood plank holding exposed circuitry and several what look like shrunken lightbulbs, which turn out to be tubes. “This is what I’ve been working on,” he says, flipping a switch to warm up the device, which he tells me is a new kind of push-pull amplifier. “It’s still a prototype; I haven’t released it yet.” I remark on the tubes, which, as they warm, glow a soft orange. He smiles. “I grew up with an old Silvertone stereo in the house. I would turn it on and peek in the back to watch the tubes glow. It’s like, looking at space: you can actually see electrons flying from this plate to that plate.” Tangible, visible. On this amp, with the tubes exposed like this, you can actually watch the notes you play become the sounds you hear.

It strikes me that what this machine really amplifies is not just sounds from a guitar. Michael Swart’s amps are really an attempt to bring intangible and subtle thoughts, electric pulses already inside of us, firing around between the neurons in our brains, out into the big world of vibrating molecules. To amplify quiet feelings, simply and directly; to bring them tumbling out joyfully through his speakers. A transmission of private emotion – making feelings seen and heard and felt in all their richness and depth by everyone who encounters them, by shaping the way they sound.

He plugs in his red guitar, switches the amplifier ON, and begins to play. Chords cascade sweetly from the speaker. The tone is grand and fat, rounded out and full, filling the tall cathedral space with an aching sonic beauty, the notes like a seraphic choir soaring over our uncovered heads. Michael twirls a dial, strums the strings, and, as I watch, projects the impulses inside of his secret self into a rich sound which reverberates through the room, spins upwards through the roof and floats into the stratosphere high above Wilmington. The sound rises straight up through the sky and into the wide empty void of space and, as the tubes glow below, it warms the hearts of the stars.

And…

From Thought to Hand to Wood

An Essay by John Wolfe

Like all good workshops, the shop at CFCC School of Wooden Boat Building is loud and well-lit and smells like sawdust. Inside are big saws and drill presses, stationary planers, vaccum-hosed tools whose jobs I can’t begin to fathom. Outside the big bay doors in the back, overlooking the blue vein of the Cape Fear River, rows of finished boats glisten in the sun. Sleek sailing dinghies, elegant and fragile as upturned shells of walnuts; stout little work skiffs, heavy with the promise of fish. All the dreams and fantasies which tie themselves up in boats are present here, with an added secret feeling of peeking behind the curtain to witness where creation first begins.

Mark Bayne is the lead instructor in this program. He is a lion-built man, with a mane of greying hair swept back, and a builder’s sense of pace and directness. He speaks with efficiency; he has work to do. His shop will produce three new boats this year. A career boat builder, he graduated from CFCC’s inaugural boat building class in 1979, and has now boomeranged back to gift his experience to the next generation.

On a balcony overlooking the shop floor is the loft, where design takes its first step towards reality. Lofting, as Mark explains it, is just life-sized marine drafting. The floor is white and gridded, overlaid with full-sized organic curves from which classic boats are crafted, scaled up in pencil from smaller plans hanging on the rear wall. The next step: manifest these shapes in wood.

On the shop floor below, I interrupt two students doing just that. Kent Harrell, retired engineer, grew up (“at least, I attempted to,” he adds, grinning) in Eastern North Carolina, and learned to water-ski behind a Simmons Sea Skiff. He’s wanted one ever since. After twenty years of waiting, he’s finally building his boat. At the moment the Simmons is a stack of lumber on the floor, a model on a table, a dream in his mind.

Zach Medeiros, a husky black-bearded young man with a perpetual half-smile, doesn’t know of a single boat that was built exactly to its plans. “There’s always changes along the way,” he says. For instance: when they built the Simmons model and flipped it over, they realized that stringers in the design made an inaccessible place where water could collect, which might eventually lead to rot in the hull. So they’re nixing the stringers and using plywood instead.

Outside on a dock on the river, beside the MARTECH catamaran, floats a twenty-four-foot long Harker’s Island-style white skiff. She has varnished wooden ribs and lots of flare in the bow which gives her a dry ride and that classic Carolina styling. She’s fast, too: Mark has clocked her at 40 mph. “[Last year] the school needed to replace a similar boat [used in boat handling and marine sampling classes],” Mark says, “so I built them this one.” No plans, no lofting. He had an image in his head, shaped from a life of boat building, and just built it. The students who helped got to see a straight transfer: from thought to hand to wood. The highest form of design isn’t plans on a page. It’s a process which looks a little bit like magic, conjuring fantasy from the mind and converting it, through hours of careful labor, into reality.

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