Chris Schwarz's Blog

How to Impress the General Public with Your Woodworking

louisXVI_secretarie

The following blog entry might seem snarky. I assure you it is not.

I’m interested in what impresses people when they view a piece of furniture. In fact, when a fellow woodworker shows off a piece of furniture, I observe the other people in the room as much as I observe the piece itself.

So here is a short list of things that seem to really impress.

Big Furniture
To me this is crazy, but people are always impressed by big honking pieces of furniture. There is something about contemplating an object that is bigger than you are. This is why elephants (otherwise uninteresting and ill-tempered mammals) get so much attention at the circus or zoo.

The funny thing about this fact is that bigger pieces of furniture get much less scrutiny than little pieces. My theory is that people have only so much scrutiny to spend on a piece. So if it’s a big piece, the maker can be sloppier and get away with it. Small pieces get away with nothing – zilch.

Figured Woods
People love highly figured or wildly colored woods. Just like making a big piece, making one with figured woods can distract the viewer from the joinery or the overall design. The wood carries the day.

A couple caveats: You can overdo it. And you have to be careful about who your audience is. Australians, for example, are not impressed by deep red woods – they have too many of those all around them. You aren’t going to impress a South American with purpleheart – they use that to build bridges.

Glossy Finish
A high shine impresses many people, even those who say they like understated things. There is something about a huge, shiny and red object that amazes us (think: sports car). Even if you don’t like shiny finishes, lots of people do.

escalloped-shell

Carving & Inlay
If you have these skills (or know someone who does) these elements always elicit praise and admiration from the peanut gallery. Like using figured woods, these elements can quickly be taken too far. But slapping an intarsia eagle in the middle of that drawer front is probably a good idea.

feet

Bun Feet
When all else fails, put bun feet on the thing. I swear there was about a 10-year period where I had to bolt bun feet to almost everything I built for customers or family members. My theory is that most people don’t know much about the language of furniture – the words “plinth” or “ogee bracket feet” aren’t in their visual or verbal vocabulary.

But they know bun feet.

Oh, people dig ball-and-claw feet. See “Carving & Inlay” above.

Dovetails
Even machine-made dovetails say “this thing is well-made.” You might think that hand-cut dovetails look better, but most non-makers I know can’t tell the difference until someone explains it to them. Even then, many modern machine-made dovetails easily fool a non-maker.

What Doesn’t Impress
That’s my short list of things people like. In looking it over, I have to conclude that something is wrong with me because the things that I care about in furniture – proportion, harmony, texture and an almost receding presence in a room – almost never come up when people look at furniture.

But I guess that is why I make my own.

— Christopher Schwarz

golfers_seat

21 thoughts on “How to Impress the General Public with Your Woodworking

  1. Potomacker

    I think the visual vocabulary for most consumers today is that of industrialization. Shiny surface finish is certainly what automakers use to imply high quality. Consistently smooth and regular surfaces is what industry produces and what compels so many woodworkers to sand every last bit if exposed wood to 1000x. Handcraft has been normalized by the predominant standards.

  2. lbaker112

    I like to watch people as they view a piece of my furniture for the first time. Regardless, of the glitz and glitter a piece may or may not have, I look for one thing to know if I’ve at least met expectations. If they’ve got to walk over and touch it or pass their hand over it, I believe I’ve met the mark. Of course, I like to hear them say, “Wow” too! And if they say “Wow” and walk over and touch it, well…there you go. Thanks Chris for your excellent blog.

  3. jerryolson19

    I would suggest proportion, harmony and texture could all be present in an Ikea piece or as to a “receding presence in a room” does camouflage paint qualify? What about good stock selection, well executed workmanship and fine finish on a piece?
    Have we seen your attempt at a Ball and Claw foot or an acanthus leaf carving ?

  4. kjonz

    Just a note about the bench pictured at the bottom. The filename is listed as a ‘golfers bench’ which I think is someone’s joke. It really is called a ‘mourner’s bench’ and was a feature of churches in the revivalist tradition…(I know this because I’m a retired Baptist minister.) After the minister’s sermon, there was an ‘invitation’ to respond to the message. Those who were ‘under conviction’ of the Holy Spirit came down to the front and sat on this bench while ‘mourning’ (grieving) over their sins. When they had ‘prayed through’ (experienced forgiveness) they would give testimony to the assembly. Although this pictured bench is a New England design, quite a few small rural churches in the southern Appalachians still maintain this tradition, although many of them deplore the fact that the mourner’s bench doesn’t get as much use as formerly.

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      Actually it is called a “golfer’s bench” and is an English design. Not a joke. It was reserved in a church for parishoners who had golfed on a Sunday when they should have been observing the Sabbath, or so says the book where that bench is featured (“Furniture: Its Story.”)

  5. Damien

    I agree. That’s a nice piece of writing.
    I suppose a familiar audience has different eyes to those less coherent on a topic. I dislike shiny, too much ornamentation and (being Australian) don’t excited about red wood; unless it’s a bar-top with a schooner of beer on it.
    However, I also am repulsed by mass produced “vintage”, “shabby chic” or “recycled” furniture – and none of those “styles” meet your criteria for what the general public find attractive.

  6. Jonathan Szczepanski

    Chris – Many of the things you like – proportion, harmony, texture, etc. – tend to be things that are more difficult to identify, and describe in a few words. I think that’s why you will hear things like “Nice dovetails!”, “That’s some sweet birds-eye maple”, or “It’s so smooth!” very often. What you won’t hear often are observations like “I like how you balanced the composition by adding the relief, to offset the weight of that strong figured walnut. It really draws your eye into the piece instead of getting lost in the grain.”

    Most of the time, especially when talking to clients/customers, it’s phrases like “I don’t know what I like, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

    This also ties back to your comments on tool reviews. People like checklists. Furniture must be good if it has features like:
    – bun feet
    – high gloss
    – exotic lumber
    – dovetails (I hear that’s important)
    – etc., etc.

    It’s much more difficult to describe a composition and the harmonies found within it, then to check things off a list.

    1. Straightlines

      Chris, that’s a good article and as an architect I experience exactly what you describe and I too observe the observers for clues.

      @Jonathan, yes, you are correct and the term for what you noted is “visual literacy,” or illiteracy as the case may be. In a viewing/reviewing situation, it is implicit that the audience share feedback so they know they have to say something, whether they have the appropriate tools to do so or not, and that being a dialogue situation, they understand that they will be judged to some degree by what they say.

      Once people are at a loss for how to analyze and then express what they are seeing and feeling, the fear sets in, and they gravitate to the obvious, and therefore safe features. Then there’s the whole education/exposure mess (those are not equivalent), the oppressive burden of classic American & British 18th Century styles, and the outsized baloney of mass marketing and advertising — hey IKEA & HD I’m talkin’ to you — that step in to befuddle our clients and reviewers. Lastly, because I’m a woodworker and absolutely love all the visceral, body experience parts of creating and then possessing fine wood creations, I want to handle the workpiece, smell it, operate it, and explore it intimately. I suspect most people aren’t comfortable getting that close to the piece, and all those applique type treatments are visual triggers that allow them to keep a safe distance while still providing that necessary escape hatch for their reviews. Particularly, IMO the the high-gloss finish screams, “fingerprints and smears, don’t touch me!” and that sets the tone by leaving no option but to stand back and just look.

      The other thing that’s interesting in Chris’ comments about size, is that when architects and builders go through the official end of project review of the work quality, there are actual industry standards for how the reviews are performed. For instance, architecture finishes (i.e., those things people see) are to be reviewed from no closer than 5 feet, unless otherwise stipulated, at least the nit-picking can only include observations from that close. On the other hand, cabinets must be reviewed by operating them, so the reviewers are up close and potentially rubbing their hands over the work. The key here is that both the builders and reviewers share a common standard and can achieve a clear consensus.

      — Bradley

  7. Brent

    You forgot molding and trim. My wife is more impressed by the trim than hand-cut dovetails on my small cherry tool chest. She says they and the brass handles are what makes it pretty. In fact I think she like it more than the curve front nightstands that I made with coopered frame and panel door and saber legs.

  8. JanetB

    You’ve obviously never seen an elephant in the wild. Please curb your snark on topics you are ignorant about.

    1. Thomas

      Maybe if you were sitting in a properly proportioned, hand oiled and waxed, hand stitched zebra leather, ivory inlaid Roorkhee chair, you might appreciate an elephant in the wild. Don’t forget the pith helmet and a high caliber side arm. Your followers (readers) would buy that t-shirt for sure.

      1. Straightlines

        MISTER Schwartz! I am deeply offended at your doubling down with that vile, demeaning, vicious, cold-hearted snarkism! ….And Senator (channeling Strom Thurmond), did I mention it is insensitive to those cute pandas all the world over, you meany????

        Appropriate penance would be an article that includes an elephantine or panda-proportioned piece adorned with honorary elephant or panda intarsia. Perhaps trunk & ball legs, a.k.a. “pea shooter legs?” Sleeping-panda bun feet? I would be willing to allow a combination piece, instead of a piece for elephants and another for pandas; for instance, an elephant body trunk or toolbox carried on carved panda-feet feet.

    2. lematt52849

      Gotta love it when people comment on something they haven’t thoroughly explored…I don’t know CS personally but I have read his stuff and watched hohours too numerous to try to count of his videos; I believe I can speak for him enough to say that he’s probably seen lots of real life elephants and respects them just fine. I believe that Janet B may have missed his delightful (corny at times, perhaps) sarcasm and wit penned into his words. I’m betting that if she had spent as much time ‘with’ CS as I have, she would have understood the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ way he approaches virtually everything and would have laughed at the analogy. Kinda takes the fun out of sarcasm if you have to explain it to the unaware….

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