This is a three part commentary on custom knives. The fourth part will be a review of the Filip De Coene Hybrid Slipjoint.
Someone once said that if you don't occassionally knock fence sitters off the fence, eventually everyone ends up there. So I put this commentary forward with a warning: this is my opinion and my opinion alone. I am well aware that many disagree with me, but I have thought about this for a long time and I am willing to back up what I am saying with arguments and examples. I am putting my asbestos suit on. I haven't worn it since my Tenacious review and it is getting musty.
Before I went to law school I wandered around academia for a while, studying philosophy in graduate school. Being a grad student in Boston is like being an elderly person in Florida--society revolves around you. Going to world-class museums and meeting famous intellectuals was a regular occurrence. In fact, I rode an elevator with Jacques Derrida once. I was tasked with getting the famous French intellectual off the T and into an auditorium for a talk. He was, well, all of the things that come to mind when I say "French Intellectual". I saw John Rawls in person once about two months before he died. I drove Tim Scanlon home after a long party. I drove him home not because he was drunk, but because, as a quintessential Bostonian, he did not have a car; he lived within walking distance of his Harvard office.
In all of these random encounters and free time as a philosophy graduate student I often visited the Walter Gropius Center on Harvard's campus. It was a place for graduate students to meet each other and when that became insufferable (which happened quickly) I would wander some more, ending up in an art museum or the peerless Harvard Film Archive. Eventually I started reading everything I could about Walter Gropius.
He was a really interesting guy and through researching him I found out a great deal about art, architecture, and design. Gropius founded a school of art in Germany between the two world wars called Bauhaus School. A few of the people that worked there had bizarre tastes and habits that again fit what the mind calls up when you hear the phrase "bohemian art-weirdo". But others had a minimalist take on things. They themselves were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England who were in turn influenced by the Shakers in America. A focus on how a thing is used and how to build things well and simply was essential to the predominent aesthetic that emerged out of the Bauhaus School. It was this research that led me to an appreciation of good design. I also had a friend at the time that was something of a renaissance man, a designer, sculptor, mechanic, philosopher bum. We chatted a lot about silly stuff, but the thing that stuck with me was an appreciation for simplicity. Even now when I am doing wood working I am always striving for an object as simple as possible in order to accomplish its intended purpose.
All of this is a long, roundabout way of saying that I like simple, design-first things. A lot of what I like is encapsulated in Deiter Rams 10 Principles of Good Design. I also really like the look, the evolution of Shaker, Bauhaus, and Japanese design seen in furniture by Thomas Moser. Here is one of my favorite pieces of design ever, the Moser Continuous Arm Chair:
Maloof Rocker either. Both seem to speak to a design aesthetic that is unique, simple, and useful.
It is something that the custom knife world has, in many cases, completely forgotten. As I see it, the vast majority of custom knives are nothing more than box cutters with rhinestones glued on them. Sure the rhinestones might be Moku-Ti bolsters or mosaic pins, but the effect is the same--there is very little design and a whole lot of ornamentation. This gaudy stylistic choice is something that I find entirely unappealing. Furthermore it seems to be fallow earth to plow. How much more ornamentation can one knife really take? How many shiny baubles can be glued, pressed, riveted, and bolted to these things? How many more swirly patterned steels and other metals are needed?
I appreciate all the work that goes into these knives, but in the end, they are still a boring tool with rhinestones. They are the knife equivalent of Rococo interiors that were popular in 18th Century Europe:
These custom knives, crusted with oranmentation, and covered in swirly metal, are, like their Rococo counterparts--design vomit. Take every shiny bit and bauble and CRAM it on a knife, charge $1000 for it, and call it a masterpiece. Blah. Give me something new, something simple and well made. Give me a design first, decoration second custom. Please, someone. I'll buy it, and I think a lot of other people will too.
The custom makers seem to be even a step behind some of the more innovative production companies. I'd place the Spyderco Dialex Junior up against many custom knives in terms of design chops.
Custom knives, in general, seem to break down into three aesthetic categories: 1) the Cow Boy; 2) the Klingon; and 3) the Pimp. You can mix any of them--Cowboy/Pimp, Cowboy/Klingon, Pimp/Klingon and so on. The problem with all of these designs is that they are not really all that innovative and instead more decoration than design. I am not saying this to be offensive, but simply as a commentary (see blog title) on the state of custom knives in general. There are exceptions of course, and I will get to those. Next post I will go into detail about each type and why I think they indicate that custom knives, by in large, are a stagnant form.