More Glueing. More Doing.

Theirs’ was an imagination that went for the humdrum and the routine. And within that routine, little flurries of activity that gave the game its soul. Behind that landscape, there was a fierce desire to get it right. – Jean-Pierre Gorin, describing a group of model railroading hobbyists in his 1986 film Routine Pleasures.

Besler And Sons Backyard Bbq Photo Dongxiao Cheng

Besler And Sons. Backyard Bbq. Photo by Dongxiao Cheng.

Reading an article in a journal. Watching a software tutorial video. Swiping through a feed of social media content. Staring idly into the distance. If you are anything like us, these are all activities that you have probably participated in recently, each demanding varying degrees of effort and motivation. Considered together, they start to describe a category of actions that increasingly occupy our collective time: Not quite work, strictly speaking, but also not activities that we would feel comfortable describing as “leisure.”

The effort to separate work from play, and the apparent inevitability, despite our best efforts, that the two will eventually collapse back in on each other, is evident all around us: from the “Weekend Warrior” venerated in D.I.Y. culture, to the gig economy and life hacks that emphasize the disciplined structuring and monetization of time through a litany of tasks, side hustles, followers, and likes, which quantify our ongoing efforts to rise to the dubious status of “influencers” in both social media and, presumably, real life.

Likewise, in academia, we recognize the inevitability of spillover in how we apportion our time; the drafting of a routine curricular email somehow manages to claim an entire evening spent hunched over a laptop at the dining room table. The home inevitably feels more like the office inevitably feels more like the academic studio.

Besler And Sons Concrete Bag Photo Dongxiao Cheng

Besler And Sons. Concrete Bag. Photo by Dongxiao Cheng

Click to download: Concrete Bag.

In the space of the office, we tend to feel more comfortable making unqualified assertions about how we use our time. This is what elevates it from idle activity to the status of a “job,” with budgets, schedules, and deadlines. Perhaps it is  the certainty of paper that feels so reassuring in its ability to decisively assert the distinction between work and play. The credibility of a printed piece of paper lends credibility to the labors that it represents: an invoice, a spec sheet, a receipt, an essay.

Perhaps this phenomena is most concisely represented by the labels that are used to distinguish certain categories of published material. For instance, an elementary school student might begrudgingly bring home a “workbook,” often printed on the pulpiest of newsprint; its pages replete with empty boxes or void underlines demanding to be correctly filledin. And a sympathetic parent might offer-up, as an incentive, an “activity” book, which typically includes word searches, connect-the-dot drawings, mazes, illustrations for coloring, stickers, cut-outs, and other more tactile and ephemeral pursuits. While these puzzles and diversions surely involve some measure of prescriptiveness in their outcomes (after all, what fun is a maze if any sequence of turns yields success?), the emphasis is on leisurely diversion rather than completion.

Besler And Sons Lawn Chair Photo Dongxiao Cheng

Besler And Sons. Lawn Chair. Photo by Dongxiao Cheng

Click to Download: Lawn Chair.

Judging by the shift in terms – from the explicitness of “work,” which has a clear and objective state of doneness, to the soft ambiguity of “activity,” which may never be complete – we might hope to find some clarity in the distinction. However, in this example, the terms “work” and “activity” seem to relate not only to the contents of the page, but more so to defining what is expected from the audience. A “workbook” requires, and in fact, demands the reader’s participation in order for it to fulfill its purpose as a tool of instruction. Whereas an “activity book” seems to be unburdened by a specific pedagogical agenda, it simply offers a series of idle distractions in exchange for the reader’s time and limited attention. There seems to be less urgency in a mere “activity” than in the obligations and duties that comprise “work,” and less of a mandate to convey some overarching message or meaning in the process.

Published in 1905, The House That Glue Built stands out as a printed artifact that uniquely aspires to resituate the more workerly tasks of architecture as sources of leisure, while simultaneously shifting the leisurely associations of an activity book into sources of diligent labor and self-discipline. Conceived and written by Clara Andrews Williams and illustrated by George Alfred Williams, it unfolds as a sequence of interior spaces – moving page-to-page from the entry hall, to the library, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, and nursery – in a house that is both a book and an instruction manual for how best to furnish a contemporary domestic interior. Accompanying each unfurnished architectural space is a page of haphazardly oriented accessories and accents, including tables, candles, chairs, books, and ornately framed paintings, ready to be carefully cut-out. A textual story on the facing pages describes the eponymous Glue family’s tour through the house and the decorating process, offering narrative clues for the best orientations and layouts of the inventory of items, a sort of cheat sheet for the reader, who is expected to neatly and correctly glue each item into place.

Besler And Sons Power Drill Photo Dongxiao Cheng

Besler And Sons. Power Drill. Photo by Dongxiao Cheng

Click to download: Power Drill.

Connecting the Williams’ work to broader themes and aspirations of the Arts and Crafts movement, curator Christie D. Jackson points to the proscriptive role that such paper activity books played as domestic guidebooks in defining not only the decorative ideals of the era, but the imagined vocational and societal reinforcements that an exercise in proper interior furnishing would accomplish. Specifically, Jackson notes the level of detail embodied in the illustrated reproductions of furnishings, such as the Niloak vase and Stickley tables, chairs, and clocks, among other recognizable Arts and Crafts staples.

"The illustrator’s precision in replicating the movement’s aesthetic is clear—and unusual. Other period cutout books were less thoughtful in their execution of illustrations, often containing copied or recycled images in order to be produced quickly."1

Besler And Sons After Work Photo Dongxiao Cheng

Besler And Sons. After Work .Photo by Dongxiao Cheng

Over a hundred years later, when copied and recycled imagery serves as the proverbial glue holding our visual culture together, and paper documents always exist first as digital files, as transient as the hard drives and servers they reside on, perhaps we’re slightly less enamored of the supposed proscriptive or societally corrective capacities of design and décor. Rather, we find that our attention tends to dwell on the implications of mass standardization and mainstream availability of building materials, tools, and methods that would have been historically inaccessible or otherwise privileged.

So, with a similarly “fierce desire to get it right,” we offer here a sort of addendum, or a late entry to The House That Glue Built: A PDF of a concrete bag, a drill and a lawn chair unfolded and flattened for the diligent reader’s use and reassembly. If you opt to download, print, cut-out, and glue together the various pieces, you will find that this model has a particular scale – it is sized to fit within the PDF page dimensions. Although construction tools and materials, like lumber, drills and bags of concrete, have quite specific qualities, there is a strange legibility to the constructed PDF, the paper model, particularly when it comes to portability and document formats. If you are so inclined, you can duplicate and assemble as many bags of concrete, power drills, and lawn chairs as you like.

Or not. It is your time, you can spend it however you wish. But why not do something productive?

Besler And Sons Tool Pile Photo Dongxiao Cheng

Besler And Sons. Power Drill. Photo by Dongxiao Cheng

A version of this text was also published in the print journal PIDGIN Issue 24.

  1. Jackson, Christie D. "From the Collection: With Paper and Glue: Building the Commercial Success of an Arts and Crafts Toy." Winterthur Portfolio 44, no. 4 (2010): 351-86.