“God can see it.”

In May 2011, designer Richard Seymour gave a TED talk in London entitled “How beauty feels.” He introduced this talk with a very charming story that was passed down to him by his father:

“When I was little — and by the way, I was little once — my father told me a story about an 18th century watchmaker. And what this guy had done: he used to produce these fabulously beautiful watches. And one day, one of his customers came into his workshop and asked him to clean the watch that he’d bought. And the guy took it apart, and one of the things he pulled out was one of the balance wheels. And as he did so, his customer noticed that on the back side of the balance wheel was an engraving, were words. And he said to the guy, “Why have you put stuff on the back that no one will ever see?” And the watchmaker turned around and said, “God can see it.” Now I’m not in the least bit religious, neither was my father, but at that point, I noticed something happening here. I felt something in this plexus of blood vessels and nerves, and there must be some muscles in there as well somewhere, I guess. But I felt something. And it was a physiological response. And from that point on, from my age at the time, I began to think of things in a different way. And as I took on my career as a designer, I began to ask myself the simple question: Do we actually think beauty, or do we feel it?”

(Richard Seymour)

I love this romantic illustration of the importance of detail and the discipline demanded to create truly beautiful things. It is this very practice of putting care into everything, especially when “only God” sees it, that leads to true and complete works of art. This design philosophy was also championed notably by Steve Jobs at Apple, who inherited the attitude from his own father. Early in the immaculate Walter Issaacson biography on Jobs, there is a story of him and his father was building a cabinet together. Jobs’ father says that the back of the cabinet should look as good and be built as well as the rest. Jobs elaborates on the lasting effect of this lesson:

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

(Steve Jobs)