Design Matters: Look Beneath the Surface

Find valuable design lessons (and templates) in furniture ‘bones.’

By George R. Walker
Pages 20-22

The average Jill might look at the little chest of drawers shown on this page and say, “What a nice furniture piece; it’s perfect for a nightstand. What kind of wood is that?”

The average Joe might reply, “It’s tiger maple, and has some interesting post-and-rail joinery.”

The somewhat more historically versed Fred might say, “It’s a dowry chest circa 1830, crafted in the style known as Empire. Note the large drawer on top and decorative split turnings on each side post.”

All three would be right, but their views are much different than what a furniture designer sees. A designer sees by visualizing a space and observing the relationships of shape, contrast, transitions, light, shadow and texture – which is very different from how most folks look at the world. It’s human nature to look at the surface, not taking the time to look deeper. By doing so, we often miss many valuable lessons and shortchange ourselves on a rich source of ideas and inspiration.

Look at the Bones
Furniture in this Empire style never inspired a large, devoted following, and even today it’s sandwiched in the shadows between the iconic furniture from the 18th century and the craftsman styles that ushered in the 20th. But our job as artisan designers is to look below the surface and try to see the bones at the heart of a design.

This actually requires pulling away from several common mindsets that can hinder us. One is the tendency to idealize furniture from the past and view it as something in a glass case, not to be changed or improved upon. At the other extreme is the mindset focused on discovering something new and untried, always striving to push the boundaries. Both these views have their place in our furniture-building tradition. Artisans have always looked to masterful work as standards to be appreciated and studied, and conversely the desire to seek out new expressions is a natural outgrowth of the creative mindset.

Yet both camps can miss the mark in how our woodworking tradition has always kept itself alive and fresh. One tends to freeze the tradition, while the other often ignores work from the past in search of new horizons. The important questions are not, “Has this been done before?” or “How does this rate against some standard of perfection?” Instead, they are, “What is the creative potential in this object? Is there something hidden in the bones of this design?”

Blog: Read more from George R. Walker on his Design Matters blog.
In Our Store: George R. Walker’s DVDs, “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design,” and “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings.”

From the December 2012 issue #201
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