Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

One of the hardest things I’ve tried to teach is good design. There are lots of architectural and mathematical rules that can be applied to proportions, but many pieces of furniture just don’t dovetail. Some pieces, like some chairs, don’t fit into a proportioning system. They are made using general rules – like seat height usually ranges from 16″ to 18″ on most chairs used at tables (and tables tend to run from about 27″ to 30″ in height depending on the intended use). That doesn’t mean these pieces lack good design; it just means some pieces are good while others are better.

The sack back Windsor chairs in the photos, for example, are a pretty good study in varying levels of design execution. One of the techniques I’ve always pushed as a way to learn more about design is to look at many examples of a single form at once. When you see groupings of pieces, in this case sack back Windsor chairs, you can easily see which pieces have the best overall proportions and which have combined elements that make the piece seem awkward or clumsy.

In the case of the three chairs pictured above, it’s easy to see the chair in the middle looks very tall while the one of the left appears short. The chair on the right has a better visual balance in spite of having clunky, underdeveloped legs. When looking at the backs, the chair on the right seems broad and open while the middle and left chairs are more compact; the elements fill the space better within the bow.

In these next three chairs, even though there is some regional variation between the two Pennsylvania chairs and the New England chair, you can still get a sense of how the makers used the various elements in relation to one another, and to fill the spaces created by them. The space defined by the back and arms is most successfully executed on the chair on the left; a little less so on the middle chair and even less so on the chair on the right.

Primarily I look at the negative spaces created by the elements. The chair on the right looks like you could almost fall through the back if you fell asleep while watching your favorite sporting event on television. Compare that to the chair on the left and you see how the negative spaces are smaller and more vertical. They help draw your eye up from the seat to the curve of the back. The long, narrow spaces just give the chair a sense of verticality without making it look all stretched out like the chair on the right.

When looking at the next two chairs you can see how they used the elements to create a sense of drama. The chair on the right looks more vertical while the one on the left has more visual tension. With the legs being more splayed, and the back having a greater rake, the chair just looks like it’s under compression; giving the chair a sense of drama (it almost looks like it’s in motion). The chair on the right just lacks any visual tension whatsoever.

Small details like the chamfering of the undersides of the seat lends to the drama. The chair on the right looks blunted and clunky while on the left it helps draw the eye upward and makes the seat appear to be floating on top of the legs. The way the spindles bend as they pass through the arm and up into the bow lend to the left chair’s sense of visual compression but the straight spindles of the right only emphasize the stiffness of the entire chair.

There’s obviously much more to comparative design than can be covered in a blog post, but hopefully this is enough to get you started. By showing you a small grouping of similar pieces, the hope is that you begin to look not only at the mathematical rules of design, but how the various elements combine to create designs that either fly or fall. The more time you spend looking at groupings of furniture, regardless of style, the more you begin to develop a discriminating eye. When you start looking at furniture in this manner, you take your first steps toward real connoisseurship;  your own pieces will benefit.

—Chuck Bender

If you’d like to learn how to make Windsor chairs, and put all that new-found design knowledge to use, check out Mike Dunbar’s classic (and newly updated) book on the form by clicking here.

CATEGORIES
PWM Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Chuck is a former senior editor of Popular Woodworking, and has 30+ years of experience as a high-end period furniture maker and woodworking teacher.

1. JMAW Works

An excellent post, I hope to see more examples handled similarly. Reminds me of the comparisons in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury. I like how you didn’t judge what was “right” only how to look objectively, and intentionally give a “feel” or avoid the same.

1. Chuck Bender Post author

“Furniture Treasury” is one of the books I recommend anyone wanting to produce 17th, 18th and early 19th century furniture buy and devour. There’s an abundance of pieces to compare, and if that doesn’t help train your eye, you might just be untrainable. One word of advice for those looking to buy their own copy of “Furniture Treasury”, the last edition where the photos are clear enough to see the details is the one published in 1948 (it comes in 3 volumes but the furniture is primarily in volumes 1 & 2).

2. RWSmith13

My design sense has changed over the years and while I thoroughly would have enjoyed making a chair like this twenty years ago but didn’t have the tools or knowledge to even consider doing it, today, I find that the Internet has afforded all of us the ability to learn in a faster and better way! I’m humbled by all those that have been doing this for years…..I’m trying to catch up with all of you now that I’m approaching retirement and I have to figure out how to occupy myself without driving my other half nuts! I have started the process of building a Maloof styled dining chair with the help of an online class, a process that up until a few years ago would have been impossible but given the speed of the Internet and the improvement in cameras it should work real well.! Chuck, I enjoyed the dovetail class in Columbus and this gave me a bit of insight into design that, frankly is baffling to me but you explained it well! Thanks!

3. robert

While how they look is interesting, how they function is important. Which is most comfortable? Does form follow function (is the best looking most comfortable?) or is there a disunion?

Have we as people, over time, adapted our tastes to view the highly functional as well designed (Konrad Sauer’s K-series planes) or does appearance take precedence (stiletto heels – damned uncomfortable according to my wife)?

Sorry to wax philosophical, I guess I’m conflicted on what is good design.

1. Chuck Bender Post author

Robert,

I think the objective should be to have a functional piece that also fulfills our aesthetic needs. The problem is that, all too often, this is not always the case. When making chairs (keeping with the post), I always tried to make them as comfortable as possible while still keeping the overall proportions and the details as appealing as I can. For someone making furniture copied from, or inspired by, pieces of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries this is not always possible. If you look at a grouping of wainscot chairs, for example, you can still discern good design from bad, but no matter what you do to them they’ll still be uncomfortable (ladderback chairs have similar problems…they might just be the stiletto heels of seating furniture — very sexy, but after being it them for a couple of hours your whole body aches). Sometimes form supersedes function and it still qualifies as good design. It’s relative based on the style in which you are working and it’s about reaching a balance. The alternative is to never build anything because you’re never going to be able to achieve a perfect design that provides perfect functionality (Konrad’s planes come darned close though).

And no problem with your waxing – the post is meant to start a conversation, not end it.