Innovation is an involved process with seemingly opposed forces. It is a mixture of carefree creativity and painstaking precision, intense planning and serendipity, fearless confidence and sheer terror. It is an edge so thin that it would be mystical were there not those who are willing to seek it out and occasionally conquer it. That is why an innovative spirit is something that must be worked at, sought after, yearned and fought for.
As a man who wears many hats, Michael Corning never lacks for something to do or problems to solve. He is as passionate about his job as part of the Engineering
Excellence Group at Microsoft and his work on the planning commission for his hometown of Woodinville, Washington, as he is in his evening job in woodworking, in which we finds many useful similarities. When you discover the amazing parallels between them, it is not at all surprising.
Finding the “best in innovations” is what his job at Microsoft is all about. In a company with over 40,000 employees, there are those who are quietly working and utilizing great methods of which others may be unaware. “It is our job to find those practices and spread them throughout the company,” Corning says. Finding new ways of doing things and solutions for old problems is one way he stays creative, and just one of the elements in his woodworking.
“My job at Microsoft and my night job of woodworking have an amazing amount in common. Everything is created twice. The first creation is always virtual; it’s always in your head. It’s called design. Design is always discovery, not creation. In fact, as a mimetic engineer, I side with Michelangelo and Da Vinci: the form we’re looking for is already there in the context, in the stone, on the wall, in the wood, in the computer program. A form always has the property of goodness of fit with the context. David, The Last Supper, my ladder-style quilt frame, or an application I wrote at work called Socrates — they all fit the context well or not.” Michael continues, “And what’s really weird is that all of us ‘know’ this and few of us are conscious of it.”
While he considers his woodworking career only to have started a year ago, the seeds were planted early. “When I was ten, I went to Japan with my father. As we stood in front of a Shinto Shrine, he said that it was built without nails. I decided then that someday I would build something without nails.” True to his word, in high school woodshop he used salvaged wood from a rail car to make a pool table-without nails. Even as a teen there was a fearless determination behind every project. For many years footprints of his handiwork could be seen at Sunset High School in Beaverton, Oregon where he made the press box for the athletic field. The ambitious high school woodworking team also successfully took on building an entire house which was later sold at auction. However, Michael’s woodworking skills were latent for many years as he pursued other aspirations which led him to his work at Microsoft. Still, the parallels kept emerging, and woodworking kept calling.
In 2001 he started a major remodel of his home which continued until 2006. After ripping out floors, changing doors, remodeling bathrooms and completing major reconstruction of the bottom two floors of his tri-level home, he continued outside replacing an old deck with a covered landing, building an outside storage shed and starting a two-year project re-architecting the landscape.
“Over all those years I accumulated a lot of tools and even more experience. I made my wife, Katy, a believer. Now when I walk through home improvement stores with her and say, ‘I could build that.’ she doesn’t shake her head anymore.” No matter what he does, Corning puts his all into it. “From my very first purchase, I resolved to spare no expense on tools. I was going to buy the highest quality I could afford. I didn’t want the tool to be my excuse for poor workmanship. I didn’t want my tools to limit my craft. I found the Laguna Tools Web site, and tried to learn as much as I could from it.”
Ever innovating, Corning resolved to make woodworking his future retirement business and utilize the investment he made in his tools. Testing the waters, he built his wife a medicine chest. True to his creative nature, he wanted his furniture to be distinctive. “I resolved to use an irrational number, phi (approx 1.6180339), in all my designs. I discovered that I could carve a logarithmic curve across each of the cabinet’s doors, and if the curve touched two tangents on each door, then the cabinet was faithful to the Golden Ratio (phi).”
Realizing a need to find a more marketable product that could be both easily made and sold, he continued to consider design options. “The idea of quilt racks came to me one day when I was walking into Tully’s Coffee to get my Venti Mocha Shake. My fellow planning commissioner, Susan Webster’s store is right across the street. All I did was to look up and see the sign over her establishment that says ‘Quilt Shop’. So I asked Susan if I could sell quilt racks in her shop.” The process of design and development began and “Now I have three designs, including a ladder style that uses the Golden Section to space the rungs,” says Corning.
Michael’s skills gained at Microsoft repeatedly come into use in his woodworking. When confronted with space issues, he tackled the problem with a critical mind. “All design is done in a context, and every context has constraints and forces. A good design comes to terms with these things. The first constraint of my context is that I use my garage, and unless I open one or both garage doors, I’m working in a fixed 400 square feet. The other constraint is my Laguna TSS. There’s only one place that saw can be to maximize the size of sheet goods I can cut. I need infeed and outfeed tables for the Laguna, so I can’t make the benches any taller than 33″. So I’m using a planer bench design matt teague described in fine woodworking, but I added two twists: I attach my benchtop bench to the other side of the planer. The planer/bench top pivots around so one or the other tool is ready to use. Since I need an infeed/outfeed table for the planer as well as the Laguna TSS, I incorporate the planer bench with two other benches at either end of the planer. The table top had to be 33″, so the same planer out feed table acts as the Laguna’s indeed table.”
If you ask a woodworker what he gets out of woodworking, the answer is somewhat abstract. It is more than the satisfaction of a finished work, and more than the process. It is a calling that cannot be ignored. You become infused with thoughts of design, the thrill of a finished piece and the desire to create. “I just came out of the shop tonight. I’d been sculpting the stiles of the quilt-frame ladder I’m working on. When you pass your hand over this simple little ladder, you feel like your caressing a baby. It’s surface is smooth and fair, and you can’t help but smile,” he says.
In the process of innovation, every ground is new ground. You live on the edge of success and failure, stretching your abilities to the absolute limit every time you step in your shop. “Some people call this experience ‘being in the zone’. Basically, you get in this altered state of consciousness when your skills match your challenges and both are above a certain threshold. You get this state only when you’re working at your limit. When you are at your limit, you are just a breath away from feeling fear.”
“I love the process of design. The methods I use to design software are the same as hardware, in my case, wood. I need a critical mind in my day job, and that same attention to detail out in the shop. I deliberately use the Golden Section in my woodworking design so that I always have the chance to do it better next time. In fact my motto in the shop is, ‘every cut is practice.’ This means I don’t hack anything. I cut and fit each piece as if it was furniture destined for the White House. I may only be making a bench for the shop, but I pay the same amount of attention to each of its joints as I do for my quilt frames.”
“I always try to do something every day that scares me, including in the shop. Everything I do today, I strive to do better tomorrow,” says Corning. And that is the very heart of innovation.
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