Design by Substitution

I’ve enjoyed Chuck’s and Bob’s posts on design and recently had cause to think about them while working on a coffee table for an upcoming book on Mid-Century Modern furniture. At the risk of over-simplifying, these posts suggest an axis for approaching furniture design: on the one end, evaluate a class of furniture and synthesize elements to produce a design; on the other end, reproduce a piece to really understand how it was designed and built.

The turned legs of this coffee table designed by Finn Juhl present a challenge for the latheless.

The turned legs of this coffee table designed by Finn Juhl present a challenge for the latheless.

I had to take a middle a middle ground with my table build. I wanted to reproduce a coffee table by Danish designer Finn Juhl, but the leg featured turned legs. Latheless, I designed by substitution, searching for alternate legs that would work with the design. It didn’t take me long to find an element I could appropriate from another piece by Juhl. The legs of an ottoman would mesh with the table design with minimal alteration.

Juhl Ottoman

The tapered legs of this ottoman provide a substitute for the turned legs of the coffee table.

Solution identified, I created a template and continued with construction. I was pretty pleased with the result (not always a given with my projects). It’s as close as I could come to the original while accommodating my tool constraints.

Juhl table variation

The final table honors the original while acknowledging my constraints.

There’s a risk to substitution—you can end up with a piece of frankenfurniture that seems more like a collection of elements or parts than an organic whole—but it can be a useful technique if you’re faced with design or technical limitations.

If you’re interested learning more about design or Arts & Crafts furniture, you might enjoy my web seminar on “Unknown Arts & Crafts—Design Sources” (a.k.a. The Best A&C Designs You’ve Never Heard Of). We took a look at some of the key elements that distinguish important, but lesser-known, makers of the period. The download of that Popular Woodworking University seminar will be available soon.

— Michael Crow

Michael is the author of “Building Classic Arts & Crafts Furniture: Shop Drawings for 33 Traditional Charles Limbert Projects.” His next book, Mid-Century Modern, is due out in spring of 2015.