Chris Schwarz's Blog

Why You Might Hate Modern Furniture

If you know me through my writing, then you likely think that I prefer traditional furniture to the more contemporary forms.

That’s not exactly true. What I really prefer is traditional construction – quality and appropriate and sensible construction. The style of the furniture isn’t as important, and the pieces I’ve built for our home run a range from the 18th century to stuff that would look good in Ikea – if Ikea actually made furniture that was worth a damn.

The problem I have with contemporary furniture is that it is generally made one of two ways:

1. To a price. The manufactured contemporary furniture (from Ikea and worse) is made to have a shelf life. Once you pass the expiration date, the furniture will wobble, peel or commit hari-kari on you.

2. It is made outrageously. The work of contemporary makers I’ve examined tend to overbuild pieces or radically underbid them. I’ve seen pieces that are built to be used by the cockroaches after we have been returned to the primordial ooze. I’ve seen pieces that are unlikely to make it to the next presidential election. Good furniture construction is a balance. You have to know how your material will behave through time.

That’s why I prefer furniture made in a traditional manner. It has obeyed the rules that allow it to survive generations or centuries.

So why don’t Americans build contemporary furniture with traditional methods? Well in some ways we are too cheap to pay for it. Or we are now used to ugly and temporary things and cannot conceive of nice furniture that costs more but lasts longer.

Or, in my case, I am afraid of fashion.

The so-called modern styles of the last century haven’t held up very well. Contemporary furniture from the 1980s – think: stacking waterfall tables – look ugly to the 2011 eye. Yet, period furniture and other forms of so-called “brown furniture” have looked appealing to me since I was a kid.

It’s easy to build something that will stay together for 100 years. It’s hard as heck to build something contemporary that will look good in 100 years.

So we default to the old styles.

These thoughts, which have been stewing in my head for decades, started to boil over this week as I was teaching in Germany.

Since the 1970s, Germany has fully rejected its traditional furniture forms, which were heavy, dark, ornate and carved. Even in the traditional monastery where I was staying, everything was contemporary, from the furniture to the handles to the chairs.

And yet, it is well-made for the most part. Extremely well-made if you get down on your hands and knees and look. This appreciation for quality goods extends through many parts of the German psyche, from house building to car construction to furniture making to food.

But as I looked at the furniture all around me it was evident that hand tools would not be much help when building it. The machines and the furniture are designed to complement one another – to build each other up.

This is a design challenge for all of us who are interested in modern forms and the old ways. Can the two things be united on a regular – instead of an intermittent – basis? Can we make contemporary furniture that will look good and last a long time? Should we?

I have some hints. In Germany, the woodworking design books celebrate both Japanese and Shaker forms. And they look to nature for assistance with form and proportion. Two of the cabinetmakers’ personal toolboxes I inspected this week had modern lines but had handles made from branches with the bark still on them.

It is something worth trying to sketch up in a notebook sometime you are waiting in the doctor’s office or at the DMV. Who knows? You might produce a new style – Early Wilbur Pan, Roger Renaissance, Mid-Madge.

— Christopher Schwarz

25 thoughts on “Why You Might Hate Modern Furniture

  1. Furnitology

    Chris…….its Apples to Orangutans?? I don’t get it.

    The final premise of the post is a wonderful thought. Why not create a style of furniture, it’s been done before and is being done again as I write, but the means to your arrival is like comparing Apples to Orangutans.

    Why is it that the woodworking magazines (ie:PopWood, FWW. WOOD) cater to the hobbyist but always use industry for fadder. It’s always the usual suspect IKEA, “if they actually made furniture worth a damn”…. as founder Ingvar Kamprad ponders his billion dollar worth. I’d say he’s created a global value that’s worth a big damn.

    This constant repetitive bemoaning that has been going on since the 80’s is old, silly and an indication of not understanding the furniture industry as stated when you write, “I’m afraid of fashion” That’s the issue in a nut shell, since the late 90’s, the furniture presentation is fashion. There’s a reason we see Kathy Ireland or Cindy Crawford, heck I go back to when fashion designer Donna Karan for example, didn’t realize how difficult it is to develop and maintain a line of furniture, we don’t hear much from Bill Blass unless it’s a reissue. But eye-wear, paint, table settings those are easier to brand. Furniture is a tough industry and doesn’t belong in the comparative realm of the hobbyist magazines. Individuals in the industry are reading Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Dwell, Domus, not how to’s. Believe me, the margins in “how to techniques” are miniscule.

    What I don’t understand is why the hobbyist woodworker doesn’t see the advantages he or she has. They can build what they want, how they want, when they want, but still this isn’t enough. The silly perception is that IKEA or Bush Furniture (another of the ilk) is ruining woodworking. I ask why???? What does anything being built within the global furniture complex have anything to do with the hobbyist woodworker??? Yeah, I guess veneer prices and lumber could effect the hobby’s cost but why should the industry effect what the hobbyist creates. They aren’t the same peer groups and it’s a non-productive mindset that has to change.

    As for the 80’s reference, in the right setting, there are many interior decorators today that will use the fashionable stacking waterfall table. This parched reference also plants the seed in the hobbyist woodworker that the 80’s produced nothing, but arguably the 1980’s was the last defined furniture period. To short change Philippe Stark, Ron Arad, Karl Springer, Paul Evans, Jasper Morrison to name just a few isn’t fair in helping to build the knowledge base of furniture design.

    The real issue for the hobbyist is that furniture design is presented in terms of wood through the hobby magazines when in reality modern furniture design is all about discovering material and how to use it efficiently and effectively. By the way, there is plenty of what are now considered traditional approaches to fabrication that IKEA has created.

    This mind-set that is pounded into the hobbyist woodworker needs to change, who cares what IKEA is doing, it’s not effecting your basement moments and they don’t build 18th century design. The key to the hobbyist woodworker is to work your bench and show your finished work to your peers.

    1. BillyLatt1

      I cannot speak for Mr Schwarz but I believe that he is attempting to make a statement on modern woodworking, not on big box style furniture stores. I’ve only been at this for a few years but I’ve already heard many times: “Why are you trying to make furniture when you can buy it so cheap?” This line of thinking will sooner or later put an end to woodworking: pro or hobbyist. Remember, Schwarz is trying to get woodworking out to the masses, not just a select few. This woodworking snobbery, that only a handful should, or could become real craftsman, will surely end the craft. For the craft to survive and be viable so that people like Chris Schwarz and magazines like PW will be there to continue to teach and thrive we need more people to think that they too can make furniture that is well crafted and beautiful and not have the attitude that we should just buy it at Ikea because it’s cheap. This is not at all to knock Ikea or it’s founder. The store and it’s owner(s) are obviously very successful. But to base success just on earnings is also dangerous. There are many drug dealers and such who are very successful in terms of earnings. That doesn’t automatically make what they do ethical.
      As far as style, sure, furniture styles have changed numerous times, yet for the most part only the “classic” styles have endured. Why? Maybe because they first and foremost are functional. They also tend to last forever if built using “classic” joinery. And, being that much of those styles were designed at the so called pinnacle of woodworking, they are ultimate culmination of style and function. Not like many modern designs, many of which either look cool but are about as useful as a wire reel, or look like real furniture but are about as sturdy as Legos.
      Please don’t think I’m trashing your opinion, it is a good one and it’s important that we are all passionate about the craft. But I really do think that they producing of cheap furniture cheapens woodworking in the worst way possible. And it’s up to all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen.

  2. Jurgs

    I have been assured my my engineering friends that things are most often designed so as to fit a particularly sized box.

  3. carlinsand

    I guess this depends on your view of contemporary.
    By definition contemporary is relative to the time in which you are living, so by definition it is in style at that exact moment. Yes contemporary styles will look dated in a few years because that moment has passed and a new one is there to replace it.
    Now good design, on the other hand, is timeless. Look at any great work of art, piece of furniture, song, it may be that you remember first experiencing it, hearing it, learning it, seeing it, and no matter when it was created, you said to yourself, “damn, that’s nice!” Regardless of the era good design always stays.
    And the real trick is…
    it stays around long enough to be remembered.

  4. jminster

    Chris,
    I was quite happy to see this post this morning as I’ve been meaning to ask about your view on contemporary furniture. In your review of Hayward’s Carpentry for beginners, you state, furniture for your swanky uncle’s house, danish unmodern and skip all this furniture except the bench and trestles. I would have bet good money you did not like contemporary furniture. While his designs would now be last midcentury contemporary at this point, their proportion is quite good. They are also made with traditional methods. This seems to satisfy your issues. Can you explain what seems to me to be a dichotomy given your post?

    I don’t know about anyone else but I can’t get as fine or accurate a surface out of the planer, jointer and table saw as I can get out of my bench planes. The wide belt sander isn’t any better.

    Thank You
    John

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      I still dislike the designs in Hayward’s books. I don’t think they have held up like Eames, Bauhaus or the so-called Danish Modern, for example.

      In fact, I don’t think Hayward himself was a big fan of the mid-century style. In his editorial letters he bemoans the rise of what he terms “peg leg” furniture. And in many cases during his tenure as editor of The Woodworker, he praised the classic English styles (he even wrote a book about it).

      And there are a lot of dowels in those Hayward pieces….

      So that’s how my mind works on this point. Good question!

  5. Ryan Mails

    Bad design, almost by definition, is the failure of an object to meet the purposes for which it was created. I build modern furniture for clients who insist on its survival for the next generation and I do that in the only way that makes feels sensible to me: applying traditional techniques and methods of construction. Because these techniques developed alongside particular tools, I use those tools.

    But, I seem to remember reading Wharton Eshrick quoted as saying he would use his teeth, if necessary to accomplish his ends with a piece of furniture. I certainly subscribe to that way of thinking, having many times arrived a challenge all but impossible for traditional tools to accomplish (at least in my hands).

    I think a crucial point here is that “traditional” is not synonymous with “craft.” And I think that what we are bemoaning here is a perceived divorce between craft and modern design. I don’t think that relationship is essential; the Vegetal chair is produced entirely within a machine, summoned more than made, and is solidly dead-gorgeous. But, I do think that a close connection between craft and modern design has, huge, huge possibilities.

  6. alegr

    IKEA is not the worst. They actually have pieces built of solid wood; and even those use knock-down fasteners, they are quite sturdy.

    Before I was into woodworking, I needed a writing/computer desk. So I found one that looked reasonable, at a local Wickes Furniture store. It looked real oak on the outside, not the fake paper grain. Unfortunately, the desk didn’t survive a trip from the store in a van. It fell completely apart. The parts were particleboard, and the joints were dadoes with a narrowest possible bead of hot-melt glue, sparsely pinned with brads. Go figure. I got my money back.

  7. xMike

    Re “overbuilt” it seems to me that that’s an amateur’s well-meaning mistake. Until I was exposed to the actual making of the internal designs of period furniture I couldn’t imagine that those designs contained enough wood and parts to guarantee sturdy, lasting pieces.

    Thus, the first cabinet that I designed and built myself will possibly last the millennium as it is grossly overbuilt. You can’t tell from the outside, but a linebacker could run into it and it would injure said linebacker without a squeak.
    That said, Popular Woodworking and Fine Woodworking hath enlightened me over the years. None the less, I had to actually make a mortise and tenon framed and paneled door before I really believed that it could be as strong and stable as cope and stick frame with a glued-in plywood panel.

    In modern terms you could say that while the older designs don’t waste materials or man hours they haven’t been “value engineered” into a state of visual acceptability with structural unsoundness that plagues much of what the bean counters push factories to manufacture.

    My personal experience in engineering and manufacturing is that people do not set out to make crap. And small to medium businesses can manage to avoid that trap. Unfortunately, large corporations’ internal values are driven by quarterly stock reports which are driven by quarterly profit numbers. Thus the internal value system drums into the heads of everyone who will survive that “no, we are NOT in the business to make xyz product – WE are in the business to make 3% to 5% more money each quarter..”

  8. samson141

    We all have to follow our bliss, as Joe Campbell used to say. For me, labels pretty much have no place in my woodworking as I make no specific style, and my own style is largely “of the moment” as I work on a project. I often plan or design my work on paper and extensively pre-build it in my mind’s eye, but anything that is at all complicated tends to present challenges and options in the building process that I would never have imagined until I was in the moment building the piece and holding the particular piece of wood I pulled from the stack. This flexibility – this sponteniety – is a crucial part of my enjoyment of the craft. I am not simply executing a preconceived plan, I am creating and reacting to the piece as it takes shape in front of me. At any rate, the results essentially cannot readily be pigeon holed with labels.

    I also don’t think preconceived notions about what will be successful are all that useful. For example, I understand the impulse to find the right balance of strength and joinery – to not over or underbuild – there is often an elegance in such a balance. And while I dislike any furniture that fails in normal use or is not functional for its purpose – i.e., underbuilt will never fly, I think overbuilt can have a charm. Look at some of the oldest Welsh stick chairs at the front of John Brown’s book – the ones hewn from massive timbers. Those are not supple little windsors and are overbuilt in many ways, but I’d love to have one. In the end, one can only judge each piece individually. There is no rule book of style; there is only good and bad furniture.

  9. aaronk

    something I’m not clear on, btw, is the conflation of traditional forms with hand tool use. Although they complement each other, are they really necessarily the same? Ok, I get that you might make dovetails by hand in a way that machines simply can’t reproduce, but in terms of overall form… I don’t really see that.

  10. aaronk

    First, to answer some of Chris’s original questions…

    YES, I firmly believe that we CAN and SHOULD make contemporary furniture that will look good and last a long time. For example, you could easily incorporate handsawn dovetails into an ikea-type piece to aesthetic and structural benefit. Design moves forward, and I would personally like to see things moving in a direction of sustainability. To me that means (in part):

    -using locally sourced natural materials
    -minimizing the use of those materials

    So no over-built stuff (a la “amish”), but rather fully functional, well-designed (structurally), and aesthetically pleasing furniture for every day use. Personally I find that the best of contemporary furniture design (I guess more in the vein of Ross Day than Michael Fortune) borrows clearly from the shaker style without just rehashing it. The shakers did things their way to fulfill their needs. Our needs are different, and our style(s) should reflect that.

    some questions to add to this discussion:

    1. do we have to make a distinction between studio pieces and stuff that is affordable for everyday folks? it might be able to last 1000 years, but if you want me to pay $1000 for a small table (approximate retail price from Moser, say), there’s just no way. I’m just using Moser as an example, btw.. it’s the first thing i thought of.

    2. can you build truly traditional styles at low enough expense to be affordable to the general public. Ok, I’m not saying that stuff has to be the same price as ikea, but there’s a large open space between the prices at ikea and moser.

    3. the stuff at “amish” stores fits into part of the space between ikea and moser, and it is horribly designed aesthetically, but ubiquitous. Is there a viable alternative?

    4. given that it’s hard to argue about taste (some people *like* the ikea design form), it seems that a lot of ikea-type furniture could be vastly and easily improved if just a tiny bit more time/$ were put into it. Instead of 2 dowels per joint, how about 4, 5, or 6?

    1. Bill

      It’s amazing that this is a discussion we had the last day with Michael Fortune in his desigh class at MASW. Michael works diligently to produce well built contemporary furniture. I’ve always been an A&C kind of guy, but Michaels furniture is a real inspiration. We discussed this “niche” between studio and furniture that is work-a-day stuff found in most homes. Furniture sales accounts for billions yearly; and there’s room for a lot of one-off furniture makers to make a decent living if they go about it right. The tough part is figuring out what piece of the pie you can produce in your shop that folks will pay for.

      Bill

  11. JWatriss

    I’ve spotted two other issues in the mix. People don’t like things that look old, as in shabby. And more and more design work is being done with computers.

    Boston has a lot of antiques. Some are nice, and in stores. Some are simply good enough, and at the end of the spring semester, they get dumped on the sidewalk in the mass exodus that Boston experiences every year. Some are well enough made that they’ve clearly made many pilgrimages to the sidewalk at the end of one college career, and gone back inside, to follow another one. Gouges, burn marks, and loss of crispness from rough handling… They don’t really look ‘traditional.’ They just look old. Sure, one could take the time to strip them down and refinish them. And some people do. But these pieces spend many, many more years looking old than Ikea pieces do. They spend years looking old. Ikea breaks, gets trashed, and probably replaced with more Ikea in a very short time span. Up until it breaks, the planar surfaces still look fairly clean.

    Can old furniture be properly cared for, and helped to continue to look good? Maybe. But in an Ikea culture, almost nobody knows how. So it’s not uncommon to find ‘traditional’ pieces that have been ‘refinished’ with house paint. But the anonymous painters don’t know how to paint furniture, so even more detail gets lost.

    -Computer design. I think that furniture that’s designed by furniture builders just looks different. The curves are different, the details and embellishments contribute properly. There’s something about building a real object, and seeing it in person that teaches so much more about design than clicking together a 3-D rendering.

    And as a result, the designers will probably never get to know their material. Or the limitations. Everything is assumed to be static and ideal, like plastic or metal. Not only will the designers never get to know the movement issues, they’ll know even less about what’s realistically available. Back when I was in retail, I had a contractor call in, looking for 700 square feet of walnut burl, to do a floor. I’m sure that it’s easy to add that particular grain texture to a floor in auto cad… George Lucas built Star Destroyers, I’m sure they can make a walnut burl floor. I’m sure they will be equally real.

  12. Mitchell

    You had me right up until you applied the German appreciation for quality to their cars. Most German cars rank pretty low on the reliability scale these days.

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      There are German cars, and there a German cars made in Mexico and the United States. There is a significant difference in build quality and reliability.

      But point taken — to a point.

      C

  13. AAAndrew

    The original Heywood Wakefield is one example of well-made modern furniture. That’s why so many of it from the 50’s and earlier is still collected and doing quite well, thank you. We have a “whale bone” dining table with dog-bone chairs and a coffee table. Both are over 60 years old and as strong as ever. Solid wood (beech), good joinery, and very few straight lines on any of it. About a decade ago someone revived the name and designs. I have no idea if the new stuff is as good as the old stuff, but if you do come across the older stuff, it’s very nicely made.

  14. Tumblewood

    Although I am definitely carrying a bias, I love the modern German aesthetic in terms of design. It seems from Germany to the Nordic regions, actually. I DO think it not only possible to incorporate the time tested qualities of “traditional” furniture and the new, almost stark, quality of “European” design, but embrace the combination as one of my personal favorites.

  15. lastwordsmith

    “Contemporary” furniture covers a lot of ground, I guess. I can’t speak for the designers of contemporary furniture, but to my eye, most of it looks like it was specifically designed around the capabilities (and limitations) of standard woodworking machinery. Hence all the straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, and flat surfaces. Personally, I dislike most contemporary pieces I’ve seen, even though I can appreciate the craftsmanship on the better pieces.

    There are indeed some similarities between contemporary and Shaker styles, but the differences in ethos are profound. Yes, both prefer “simple” shapes and reject ornamentation categorically, but the similarity ends there. The Shakers still wanted pieces to look attractive. And they were willing to retain old forms and practices that they couldn’t improve on. Contemporary designers seem to reject old forms merely because they’re old, and sometimes contemporary pieces look almost intentionally ugly. There was a time when anything visually attractive, or “pretty,” was suspect in the art world, and I’m afraid that bled over into a lot of furniture. I’m all the more glad to see Japanese-inspired contemporary pieces, which usually DO look attractive.

  16. Steve_OH

    It’s “hara-kiri,” although strictly speaking it would make more sense in this context to use the more formal name, “seppuku” (Japanese is a language that is very simple syntactically and enormously complex semantically).

    I’m not particularly fond of mid-Century modern, which is what a lot of people think of when they think of “modern” furniture. I also think that there is too much “artiture” floating around these days (to use a Schwarzism, there are a lot of “chair-shaped objects,” “table-shaped objects,” etc., but not enough chairs and tables).

    But I’m not about to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is quite a bit of contemporary stuff that I think is impeccably designed and also impeccably executed. I am especially attracted to Ross Day’s work. And I think Michael Fortune’s techniques are first-rate, although his designs don’t resonate with me as much.

    As for materials, I think the key to “doing it right” is to understand the materials’ strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly. Plywood has very good dimensional stability; MDF has high surface smoothness. Those are both useful qualities that we can take advantage of if we are smart enough to overcome the drawbacks that come along for the ride. This is really just the modern equivalent of using three species of wood to build a Windsor chair.

    Choice of process and techniques are driven more by external concerns, such as the size of a production run. Even within a single project, it might make sense to use different techniques at different stages. For example, consider a large dining set, with one table and a dozen chairs. It makes a lot more sense to use jigs and other “mechanical” techniques with the chairs than with the table. You can be efficient without compromising your integrity.

    While I agree that Americans are pretty cheap and pay too much attention to price above all else, I think the problem here is in some ways worse than just cheapness. The problem with Americans is that we want to have stuff, and our desire to possess stuff outstrips our ability to pay for it. I don’t think we can solve the problem of crappy stuff without getting people to agree to own less stuff. A few people have figured that out, and the fraction is growing, but I’m not sure it will ever grow enough to overcome the “I want more” mentality.

    -Steve

    1. tjhenrik

      Nicely put Steve. I agree whole heartedly. The Consumer Machine entices us to enjoy the high of a card swipe more than the act of possession or better yet, the act of passing an item that served your life well on to another to continue to serve theirs.

      -Tim

  17. thompmj

    Chris,

    I was reading your list of questions at the end and the first thought I had was “Shaker!” (yes, Elaine Benes be damned, I used the exclamation point). I was actually just at Ikea on Sunday and I was struck by how similar their products are to Shaker design. The difference, in my opinion, is quality of building materials, and quality of construction. Both are, for lack of a better word, junk in my humble opinion. I would also argue that “contemporary” style also borrowed heavily from Craftsman/A&C style furniture. So, yes, I think it can be done and to my totally unsophisticated eye already has been to some extent.

    Your question about whether or not we SHOULD make contemporary furniture that lasts…well, that’s decided by bean counters and their discussions of OPEx and CapEx, and SA/DE spending, and NPAT and all that alphabet soup. Makes me go cross-eyed.

    And by the way, I think the reason that I find any contemporary style attractive is because it really does remind me of Shaker, which I absolutely love. But again, my eye is untrained and unsophisticated.

    Very thought provoking entry. Thanks!
    Mike T.

  18. John Cashman

    De gustibus non est disputandum. I don’t particularly care for contemporary furniture, but wholeheartedly agree that it should be well made. The problem I often see is that “designers” think only about the form, and don’t seem to know enough about proper construction techniques. They fit parts together so they will look good, without regard to whether they will, or can, stay together.

  19. 84MCSS

    I used to subscribe to three other woodworking magazines but now only to PW because the others lack projects of contemporary design. I agree with you Chris, the real fun is not so much in copying traditional furniture, but using imagination and craftsmanship to create unique works.

  20. tsstahl

    I tend to associate “contemporary” with “uncomfortable” and/or “spartan”. That is not to say that I haven’t seen contemporary design that works (just not much of it :/ ).

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