Do You Embrace Happy Accidents?

Maloof's “Happy Accident”: The hard edge.

I attended a lecture about fine furniture-maker Sam Maloof on Saturday, the Huntington Library and its botanical gardens a calm oasis after the ferment of BlogWorld.

Describing Maloof’s practice, Harold B. Nelson, curator of the elegant new exhibition “The House that Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley 1945 – 1985,” displayed a chair whose finish glowed like honey. Its lines seemed purposeful and true.

But, that purity was born from a mistake.

Maloof, who hand-carved many of his pieces, rather than use the lathe, was in his workshop one day, bringing life to a chairback. The Californians deviated from their east coast and European artistic colleagues by creating a rounded-over aesthetic. According to Nelson, as Maloof worked the wood, his hand slipped, carving a hard edge into the round-over.

Instead of chucking the chair, Maloof stood back to consider. Although it wasn’t what he’d meant to do, the hard edge added something to the soft line of the California round-over style. The hard edge, a “happy accident,” became part of the Maloof signature.

Now, you can bet that Maloof’s original accident didn’t look like the hard edge in that photo above. It could easily have been an ugly, squiggly gouge, a wound to the wood. It would’ve taken time to truly find the hard edge and perhaps even a few more accidents – happy or otherwise – before he perfected it.

The hallmark of an artist is the ability to see the potential and the willingness to let accidents happen.

We Need a Bigger Boat – and More Time

There are some classic stories of happy accidents in creative fields. One of the most famous is the failure of the mechanical shark during the filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Day after day on the watery sets around Martha’s Vineyard, “Bruce” the mechanical shark failed to slice through the waters on command – or he sank to the sandy bottom. Out of almost complete failure, Spielberg conjured cinematic magic: it was the unseen menace that created such breathtaking tension. Had Bruce swum back and forth across screen from scene to scene, the audience could have embraced his familiarity and relaxed. Not knowing – and letting the audience’s imagination take over – made “Jaws” far more powerful than seeing the shark.

Some happy accidents have become our apocryphal tales, like the one about Newton and the apple.

It takes patience to give space to possibilities like these. Patience and space require time, and that’s something many of us have precious little of these days whether we work in creative fields or corporate offices.

Still, happy accidents can be encountered as long as we’re in the frame of mind that embraces the idea that even mistakes teach us and sometimes turn out to be rather spectacular.

Have you discovered a happy accident in your writing or other creative work? How did it transform the final piece? What surprises did you encounter along the way? Do you think accidents are truly mistakes or just the creative mind searching for new possibilities? I’d love to hear what you think in the Comments section.