The Hands That Seat You: An Interview with Ben Ashley
Whether your furniture was made in China, Germany, or the USA, it's easy to forget the human hands behind each piece. Too often, brilliantly skilled workers remain unsung behind the name of a more well-known designer or company in which they work. That's why I was inspired to examine a pair of tried and true human hands to learn their prospective on design.
These hands belong to Ben Ashley -- a 33-year-old craftsman and perhaps one of the last true welders in our time. He’s been a musician, cook, stage builder, and Google fiber project engineer. As a professionally trained all-round welder, he shares his thoughts on the age-old profession, mass production, and transferring energy into his work.
I had the honor of meeting and interviewing Ashley during a summer internship at a bespoke furniture design company in 2016. (The following transcript reflects excerpts from our recorded interview.)
What do you love about welding?
Just like every trade there are only a certain amount of people doing it at any given time. For me, it’s a lot of pride factor. There aren’t very many welders in the world. And even beyond that, there even fewer welders that can do all of the processes. Most welders are trained in one process and they stick with their process and they never really go beyond that. I’ve made it part of my purpose to weld anything anywhere anytime -- and do it proficiently. I like to say that I’ve never had a weld break. It’s mostly pride and it sounds really vain, but it’s a large part of it.
What’s the coolest/craziest thing that you’ve built?
Always my own sculptures. The things that I design and make.
What do you design?
Well, I like to do garden art. The thing that I’m most proud of was this butterfly that I made that was like eight feet tall and the bottom of the wings stuck in the ground to support roses. It just worked out really well. It was probably the best executed design that I’ve had. Most things that I’ve make work out, and there’s always somethings I don’t like about it, but that specific piece—everything about it is perfect. And that’s the thing I’m most proud of it. Getting a drawing from somebody that is square, it’s got set measurements on it, basically a box...there’s not really any pride in that for me. It’s not a vision coming to life for me. It’s just a drawing.
How has working in furniture for the past 3 years changed your perception of it when you’re out in public?
I pick everything apart now. Anytime I gain an understanding of anything, it expands my scrutiny in the world. If I see a polished stainless steel product somewhere, I’ll look at it to see what they did. If I can’t tear it apart and make fun of it – then I learn from it.
Do you think a profession as old as welding can persist with all this technology? Does technology threaten it at all?
I think the biggest threat in the finesse of the trade is production. We have to push so many products as fast as we can. I think. The technology is going to continue advancing, but that’s really an advantage for us. More energy efficient welds can be made. We can use less fuel in our trades. I don’t think of technology as a hindrance. I think it’s a way to better monitor what we do. To be able to teach somebody better.
I want people entering he trade not to just become a pipe fitter and only weld tig. There’s designations like this throughout the welding world. I honestly feel sometimes like I’m the last one to do what I can do younger than 50. I want welders coming into the trade to have that as a goal -- to weld anything, anytime, anywhere. Because you’re not a welder if you can only do one thing.
You mentioned pride and feeling it in your work. Our generation doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for tangible pride. Analog’s become digital. A lot of makers – furniture makers -- love being able to create with their hands. There's a lot of fulfillment. Do you personally feel that’s enough without the recognition? I can’t name a famous welder, but I can name Eames and Starck.
On an individual basis, it’s more than just what work is. It goes into a spiritual level. And not everybody believes the same way. Some are deeply religious and some people believe we live and die and that’s all that is. But the fact of the matter is, in physics, energy never increases or decreases. It only changes forms. We are energy. What we do is changing the shape of energy. It can become positive or negative. So for me, pride is enough to continue what I’m doing. I don’t need a newspaper article about it. It is nice. There have been instances where I’ve been recognized. That’s nice. But it doesn’t feed my kids.
I think that more than the recognition, putting the good that you have inside yourself into the work you do is important. You have to care about what you’re doing. If you don’t care about what you’re doing, whether you’re building furniture or welding the 50th mile in a 300 mile pipeline, you still have to care about what you’re doing. Even people who work in fast food, they have to put the good that they have in them into what they’re doing or they’re going to make a sandwich that tastes like crap. Just from the energy that they put into the labor. A lot of people aren’t grabbing onto that because they don’t feel like they’re being fulfilled by their employer. Which is true. Part of that relies on the employer to truly appreciate that somebody is selling their time. Time is something we only have a very finite amount of, and nobody knows how much time they have. So, why would somebody want to do good at a job, selling their time for this rate that may or may not proportionate to the profit of the company?
What do you think is the bigger picture?
Everything we do is an energy transfer. Everything we do is either positive or negative. And if we don’t have a reason to make it positive, the result is negative. It’s a very intentional thing that becomes positive. If you don’t intentionally make something positive, it will probably be negative. 90% of the time it’ll be negative. So, it’s important that we pay attention to what we put out in the world. The world is a product, it’s what we make it. There’s been studies showing you can positively talk to one plant and negatively to a different plant and the one receiving positive energy will do better and thrive and produce better fruit. That’s indicative of all life. All life is intertwined. Everywhere we go. No matter what you want to think about it, we rely on the other organisms on this planet to in some way help us. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Even the rocks in the ground depend on what we do above ground to continue their metamorphosis. Everything matters. Every single thing matters.
I have a responsibility to everything around me that whatever I put out is positive. Ultimately, I can’t always keep my frustrations to myself and I take it out on something that isn’t being shaped. I might beat on a dumpster with a pipe for a minute or I might throw a piece of scrap across a room, but that piece of scrap isn’t going into anything. I put my waste into other waste. I don’t let it go into things that are going to go into other people’s houses. Or in situations where people are going to be working around dangerous equipment. I’m not going to put negative energy into a machine by kicking it.
I just try to perpetuate the circle of goodness as far as I possibly can.