Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century

by | Mar 4, 2014 | Art, Tables | 7 comments

We have not had broadcast TV in our house for about 15 years.  We live under a hill and don’t get a TV signal, but up until 15 years ago we had cable.  Then, for some reason having to do with raising a teenager, we got rid of the cable.  We would watch movies occasionally on videotape, or later on disc, but not TV, which it turned out we didn’t miss.  Now our household has moved into the age of streaming media, however, and besides an occasional movie we have started watching shows made for TV;  and it seems to me something has changed.

I’ve watched a few episodes of a TV series called Sherlock, which was broadcast initially on PBS in 2010.  There are many obvious references to the last PBS treatment of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett, but the story is now set in the present, with all the accoutrements of the internet age.  Holmes and Dr. Watson have been transplanted into our day, along with Inspector Lestrade and various others;  and the plots are heavy on information-age complications, to which Holmes’s skill at detection seems particularly suited.

In order to tell the story in our day, the writer changes a lot of things.  There are many references to the original Conan Doyle stories;  the writer is clearly familiar with them and expects the audience to know them too.  But the plots are entirely new, and they seem constructed to impress the viewer in ways that are even less plausible than previous treatments of Holmes.  In every episode I watched, the plot required me to accept at least one key turn of events that I found completely illogical, but which led to a visually vivid conclusion.  In addition, both Holmes and Watson are clearly creatures of the post-9-11 era, who do not expect fair play from their adversaries and do not offer it either.  In the first episode, Watson executes the murderer in cold blood.

I found that first episode troubling. There is something missing here, some reassuring pattern to things, that was always present in the traditional Holmes canon.  That may be what makes these shows contemporary.

Perhaps I am especially bothered by this because it hits too close to home.  When I design a new piece of furniture, you might say that I am similarly disrespectful of familiar patterns.  I increasingly make use of irregularities in individual boards, finding dramatic contrast – when the piece is successful – between such features and the more regular elements of the design.  The rules of taste I learned when young have become something to react against.

In a small table just completed, I found a new opportunity to reconsider the relationship between the design and the material.  I used the figure in the boards I had as inspiration for the design, so that the design and material are interrelated, somewhat in the way of the natural-edge pieces that George Nakashima made famous years ago.  The picture of the tabletop in progress, below, shows one of the ways the piece realizes that idea.  Three cherry boards are glued up to make an 18” top that is approximately square, but the joint lines between them correspond exactly to lines in the wood figure .  These irregular joint lines are further emphasized by the inclusion of dark brown veneer strips, sandwiched between the cherry boards along each line.

I can’t remember ever seeing this done before, and this tabletop represents something new for me, the result of exploring the figure in the boards.  This piece abandons previous assumptions in the interest of discovering something new, which – for better or worse – gives it something in common with that TV show.


  1. yr wf

    I think traditional furniture uses materials like wood as a means to an end. Here you have begun to explore wood, with furniture as a means to an end.

    • Robert Zlomke

      You’re right, Evelyn. Even though this little table is intended to be useful, it’s fair to say that the usefulness is not an end in itself but an opportunity to explore the material.

  2. Becca Lawton

    Love the analogy, Bob! Well done–in wood and words.

  3. pete

    This is quite interesting, and not unrelated to music. John Cage, for example, was into \”chance\” music, wherein natural occurances led to music. One example is 4’32\” of silence, where the conductor keeps \”time\”, and nothing happens other than nature, like coughing, shifting in seats etc. Another is drawing musical staves on a piece of paper, and then using the imperfections in the paper as musical notation. This second is most related to yours.

    On another note, I love redwood burl tables, a no no these days I am sure, which are organically shaped. In architecture, is Coubusier (sp?) similar, fitting the building to the site?

    Regarding the television, unfortunately it is a very rough world out there. If you wish to be overwhelmed, see Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, etc., or our recent fave, True Detective. Breaking Bad was also striking. That’s \”fiction.\” For a lot of folks, life is cheap. Recently in Syria they cut off a man’s arm for stealing. In Iran, a man will have his eyes gouged out. In many countries in Africa, homosexuality is a crime, and females are often castrated. The western world, with all of its downsides, is quite tame.

    See ya,

    • Robert Zlomke

      Pete, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I hadn’t thought of relating these notions to music, which as you know used to be a great enthusiasm of mine, but I will. And I made a redwood burl table last year – it’s on the web site – which I think fits right in today. Have a look and see what you think.

      To return to the discussion of television briefly: I think the relationship between a violent world and the way violence is used in television is a complicated one. The scene I found troubling was no doubt intended to trouble viewers like me, for whom Holmes was always a good boy scout. Perhaps such scenes are necessary to eliminate the Victorian baggage that Holmes carries, so that we can see the character with fresh eyes. Looking at anything with fresh eyes seems like a good thing.

  4. Bill

    “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.”

    ― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

    • Robert Zlomke

      Thanks, Bill. To me, writing and woodworking also resemble each other, much more than they used to. In both cases you’re creating a structure outside yourself and hoping that it will make sense to someone who’s not inside your head; and there is a physicality about writing that is hard to describe.


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