On Design

May 1, 2008

A question from a reader:

“I know this is a broad subject but any help would be appreciated. I am thinking of going into business and I wish to avoid the IKEA look-alikes and plywood specials you find everywhere. I’m also aware of my own limitations as I am almost too practical when it comes to designing furniture. My designs always seem to be based on use and material costs. How can I separate my work from “Joe IKEA” ? “Thanks C.”

Dear C,

Joe IKEA is a pretty powerful guy. Separating your work from his will take effort, a vow of poverty, and design skills. Some people think that design cannot be taught. I disagree. I think, and our Mastery Classes at the The Northwest Woodworking Studio show how you can introduce design concepts to everyone. What each person does with these concepts is a matter of personal effort.

Now a lot of groundwork, both good and bad, has been laid for everyone in their past. If you grew up with plastic covers over your furniture like I did, you know what I mean. If Mom thought that Early American Maple was a style of furniture and not just a stain, then you know what I mean. If you had a wagon wheel as your headboard, you know exactly what I mean. You bring your own ideas to this design table in other words. From this starting point you can learn an amazing number of ways of looking at the design world and you then can decide how you want to design your own work.

So, remember grasshopper, that the first rule of design is that you must steal from the best. Someone once said that bad designers copy while good designers steal.

Open your eyes first. You live in a designed world. Everything including the plants and trees around you have been designed by someone. It might be Ma Nature or any of several gods depending upon your point of view or it’s a Nike design or General Motors or Knoll International you’re staring at or using or putting on, but someone somewhere has had a hand in how the things look that surround you. Start by observing.

Sunflower seedhead whorls don’t just happen by accident. Neither did Gerrit Reitveld’s Red and Blue Chair. Design is at work in all these things. Start looking and deciding what you like and don’t like and most importantly, why. Because once you start to understand what you like and dislike you will start to develop a vocabulary. And a vocabulary of design will allow you to create things just like a vocabulary of words allows you to speak. You are born with neither lexicon. Start learning by observing first.

As for my own designs, and this is the shortened version of a very long discussion, I design my work to meet several needs. First I need an idea. Some kind of starting point be it a slice of zucchini, a Mackintosh chair, or a tapestry. Something needs to kindle my imagination. Next I ask what is the function of the piece, what will it do. How many drawers does it need? How big or small does it need to be? Then what is its intent? A very different question. What are you trying to do with the piece? What is its goal: grandiose shouting like Rococo or simple restraint like Shaker? How will the structure then affect the design? Will you use 16d nails or ½ blind dovetails? Bent laminations or bricklaid curves? What is the texture or delineation of the piece? Is it carved, inlaid, painted, hardwared? There are many ways of building a simple piece of furniture, but ask these questions to yourself as you go along and certain elements of your own style will start to emerge. Then continue to work hard at it. Look around, keep a notebook, and jot down your ideas. Have fun with it.

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Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 11:03 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. If you are taking a vote, my choices are source: Chippendale and then using your order: Rococco, 1/2 blind dovetails, bricklaid curves overlaid with veneer, and carved. Then carved some more. And, if you really want to irritate the instructor, add some Marlborough feet, if for no other reason than that they are easier to implement than ball and claw feet.


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