Chris Schwarz's Blog

How I Design

About a decade ago, my boss Steve Shanesy told me something about design that knocked me flat. When he was a struggling custom furniture maker, he took some time off to do something that few people do.

Create a new style of furniture.

That is one of the most ambitious personal projects I could imagine. I wonder if there has there been a new style of furniture created in my lifetime. Does James Krenov’s work constitute a new style? Sam Maloof? George Nakashima? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know how one mouth-breather of a woodworker (me) goes about it.

And because I never tire of hearing how other people design pieces, I thought I’d share with you the convoluted path I’m taking this week to make a simple thing for our fall 2008 issue.

I like old furniture , anything from Ancient Egypt to World War II interests me greatly. So when I set out to build something I hit the books to look at as many examples of furniture and decorative objects from that period as I can. In this case, we decided to build an 18th-century wall cabinet for the fall issue, so I cracked open all my books from Wallace Nutting, particularly “A Furniture Treasury.” This out-of-print book is available in many forms and is fairly inexpensive. I paid $20 for my two-volume set at Half-Price Books.

I might not look at wall cabinets when I scan these books. I look at lots of casework pieces and their proportions, mouldings and the arrangement of the components, such rails and stiles from doors.

When I’m saturated (a few trips through the treasury will do that), I’ll start sketching. It’s not formal. I just draw without regard to perfectly straight lines or dimensions. I sketch in the car while waiting for the kids to finish track practice. Or in the few minutes of peace I get between the bedtimes of the two kids. I sketch things that I’m sure won’t work just to give them their day in ink.

The more examples I draw, the better the chance I’ll hit something I really like. I don’t use the Golden Section or any other mathematical formula. It’s all gut.

Then I fire up a CAD program on my laptop and try to turn the sketches into something that can be built and has some dimensions that make sense , a dining table that’s 30″ high, for example.

While In CAD I’ll make a few variations that take advantage of the cut-and-paste power of the program. I’ll move the drawers and doors around. Add a cupholder. With this wall cabinet I tried it with two doors (like the Nutting original), one door, then a door with a drawer.

Then I show the CAD drawings to others and ask them which ones they like. Why they like it isn’t as important , though I always ask. Maddy, my 12-year-old, liked the two-door version of this cabinet because of the symmetry and that you could display two contrasting pieces of pottery behind the glass panes. Katy, the 8-year-old, liked the drawer because it could be used to “hold little things.” Lucy, my wife, declined to put a dog in that fight.

Next stop: If I have time, I’ll knock together a prototype in poplar to see if it looks awkward. Prototyping always pays off in two ways: I make small adjustments that improve the design, and I’ll typically keep the prototype for our family.

– Christopher Schwarz

10 thoughts on “How I Design

  1. Neil

    Chris:
    Last defined period of furniture was Ettore Sottass, Memphis Group. Turned the the Milan Furniture Fair on its ear in 80 or 81(?). Many big times designers created in the philosopy and through that time period.

    So what ever happen to your boss Mr Shanesy, what designs did he come up with???

    Very good points in the discussion here, love this line from JC Collier…."artistry" can live in the cabinetmaker’s quiver……..very nicely stated.

    No triangles, no fibunocci for me……good old fashion sketches, "gut" and the most detailed view is drawn fullscale. I learned over time never to leave a design too early…..the biggest mistake individuals make, they rush the process and leave to early.

    Neil

  2. David

    For those (including me) that are deficient in mentally translating 2-D drawings into 3-D pieces of furniture and make maquettes out of cardboard or insulating foam, I’ve an alternative idea. Insulating foam has the downside of leaving little pieces of itself all over the shop, and just like foam packing peanuts, the electrostatic charge they build up makes sweeping them up a nightmare. Cardboard, at least the packing type, is sometimes aggravating to cut because it’s heterogenous; the outside cuts easier than the inside honeycomb.

    So instead, try picture frame matting material. It’s made of compressed paper so it’s easy to cut and environmentally friendly, comes in every color you can think of, comes in large sizes so you don’t have to hunt for a piece that will accomodate the entire cabriole leg you’re working on, and is homogenous in cross-section so it doesn’t "run". And lastly, it’s cheap – about $5 for a 32" X 40" sheet (one inexpensive source is Jerry’s Artarama – http://www.jerrysartarama.com)

    David

  3. Aaron Hines

    Chris, from the perspective of a professional furniture designer, your process looks pretty good. There’s really no magic to the process, the ‘magic’ is the drive to make something that’s your own vs. build a copy of someone elses work; the rest is knowing how to use the tools appropriately. The golden mean is a nifty lay-out tool, but its not the only ratio of proportions that is appealing (you really have to work hard to make it unappealing, I think). CAD is a powerful tool, but don’t use it as a crutch; try making models (full scale if you can) from cardboard or scraps of plywood. Only when you physically see the piece can you get a true feel for the size/scale, proportions, etc. Even 3D CAD can lead you astray, dispite making pretty pictures… Oh, and I’d say that asking for the "why" when getting opinions is just as important (maybe more?) than which version gets the most votes. The "why" can give you much deeper insight into your own designs, but also help you see why the old masters built/designed things they way they did.

  4. J.C. Collier

    All design begins as a result of a perceived need. From that perception we proceed in a way that supports our individual desires, proclivities and notions on how to fill that need.

    Your drawings indicate that your entry point for the design began with classical forms; arches, golden section and other divisions of the plane supporting the physical needs of a purpose-built object. Whether it fits the parameters of "good design" is the topic, I’m guessing, whereby we can attribute certain definable aesthetic and performance goals for the object. These considerations foster good design.

    As an aside, a work of "art" transcends the mere physical to touch on the metaphysical and even the spiritual. Understanding this, "artistry" can live in the cabinetmaker’s quiver along with our other fletched and sharpened skill sets.

    But I can argue that good design is easy as long as one "speaks the language" and maybe that’s where any discussion on design should hail from. I, for one would love to have a graphic wall chart that illustrated all of the classic forms with their attendant nomenclature. I’d buy that puppy and it’d be on my shop wall by sundown. Maybe framed if it was purty.

    always,
    J.C.

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Good points all. As to why I don’t focus on as much on "why"… I find that many times we invent reasons to support our gut instincts (which sometimes we cannot explain).

    I like to hear "why" they like or dislike a design. But it can be a red herring if you chase it.

    As to cardboard, I actually use insulating foam when I make mock-ups. You can rip it on the saw! Or you can use a knife.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Chris

  6. Dale Smith

    Chris,

    Great idea for an entry. I also love hearing how people create their designs.

    Just a couple of notes here from my experience, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is modest:

    Taking my example from some residential architects who spent "pre-design" time with clients learning how they lived, I like to interview people for whom I build furniture. I try to find out what sorts of materials and forms they like, how they’ll use the piece and whatever other hopes they have for it. I’m not just taking orders here; it evolves into a conversation, and we both throw ideas in.

    One of the architects I alluded to said that building a home on speculation is like fighting a bullfight without the bull; likewise, so far I’ve enjoyed these conversations and found them useful in directing the design, which then proceeds to drawings and models.

    I also want to put in a plug for the practice of making full-size cardboard models. Although cardboard is probably not ideal for all sorts of forms, I used it recently for a small table and found it extremely helpful. I grabbed the cardboard out of the office recycling bin and in about two hours had knocked together a model. To make 2" square legs, for instance, I set the table saw blade to 45 degrees, set the fence to 2" and started ripping. With a little cellophane tape, these mitered pieces go together quickly and look crisp. I stabbed mortises into the legs with a utility knife.

    Making adjustments is just like making the original model — quick, easy and cheap.

    A last point about cardboard: Other than the initial table saw ripping, making cardboard models is a quiet pastime. Working in my basement shop, I can tape the parts together and make all the "joinery" while my family sleeps upstairs. Since that’s when I get most of my hobby time, the "quiet" factor is important to me.

  7. Christopher Schwarz

    Ethan,

    Choosing the wood for each component is one of the most important parts of the design and construction process for me.

    I go through a lot of wood to find the quarter-sawn stock for the rails and stiles, the right cathedrals for the panels and on and on. And the smaller the piece of furniture, the more critical each choice becomes.

    I’m thinking of doing this piece in walnut or cherry. I quite like working with both species and they are appropriate to the design. I think this also would look good in white pine.

    Chris

  8. Ethan Sincox

    I agree with Katy (and it’s not just because she signed my Workbench book, either).

    Chris, do you consider wood selection (in general – species – and specifically what boards) to be a part of your design process? Or does that take place in a different step for you?

  9. Christopher Fitch

    I have long thought that the design process in woodworking has never received enough attention. There is so much focus on the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘why’.

    Here’s an idea Chris… How about Woodworking Mag. or maybe Popular Woodworking have a series of articles from a number of experienced woodworkers on how they approach the design process.

    I think it would really be well-received.

    If you do it, just give me credit…

    🙂

  10. Ron

    I’ve tried CAD, prefer napkins, scratch paper and scrap wood. I must admit CAD has advantages – letting the minds juices flow is not one of them.

    Of coarse, this means "adjustments" have to be made in the shop if something is not quite looking right but that is expected.

    Any errors and it becomes a prototype on the spot. 🙂

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