Industrial Art Gallery

Foreword by Sean M. Burke

One day in about 1997, I was poking around in a mostly uninteresting used bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sifting aimlessly through books in the sciences section, when I stumbled on a bland-looking old Book with the title Engineering Descriptive Geometry.  The books around it had straightforward titles (Geology, etc.), but I drew a complete blank when I tried to imagine what "engineering descriptive geometry" would refer to.  I opened the Book and found out: "engineering descriptive geometry" means manually doing everything that is now done by CAD programs on computers.  It's plans and blueprints — not of buildings, but of machine parts.

I wasn't surprised by the idea that people used to laboriously do something that computers now do automatically.  After all, my grandmother once told me that decades ago, she had a job as "typist" in the days of inked cloth typewriter ribbons, Underwood typewriters, and a total absence of White-out.  But the difference between laboriously typing in documents, and laboriously hand-drawing plans with rulers and compasses, is that a well-typed page is merely correct, but a well-drawn plan or blueprint can be just correct -- or it can be correct and a thing of beauty.

And this Engineering and Descriptive Geometry was full of example plans and diagrams that were as carefully composed as a still-life painting or a Neo-Classical fresco.  The surprising thing about these drawings is that they were gratuitous -- they just did not need to be that nice.  The illustrator could have simply drawn what was necessary — a partial sphere with a bit of shading, or whatever.  But the illustrators put a dazzling amount of attention into the shading and the different line-thicknesses and a dozen other details that are not only gratuitous, but which you are generally expected to not even perceive!

This struck me as a deeply strange kind of art.  After all, the usual model for art and design these days is that you make something that's a statement on some level, and then you try to put it where people will see it.  And that approach certainly doesn't apply to people carefully embedding an aesthetic sense in a place where it is not just unnecessary, but is actually unlikely to be noticed.

I have no grand resolution to this.  I'll simply note that I bought that first Book I found; and for several years thereafter I collected books in a similar vein.  This little web gallery is my selection of the best of the illustrations from those books.

Some illustrations are spare abstract designs, like a modern art mobile or a circuit board.  Other illustrations are as lavish and intense as a thousand yards of bright paisley fabric.  Sometimes the illustrators seemed to show off how easy they could make it all look; and sometimes they seemed to lose themselves in the busy task of making something perfect but human.  My suggestion to you is simply flip thru these pictures, pause on ones that you like, and remember that they each took a few hours to draw so that they could end up so clear and fascinating.

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