Designing is one of the most fulfilling aspects of making furniture. It allows you to have an influence on the furniture’s look and feel, as well as the dimensions and functionality. Yet, from a learning or skill-development perspective, it is also one of the most elusive elements of furniture making to understand, let alone master. If you challenge me to design on command (Ready, Set, DESIGN!) I can’t necessarily create a great design the way I can perform a specific skill— say cutting a set of dovetails, or building a drawer. In my mind, that’s because successful design requires inspiration, creativity, and epiphanies. And those elements are a bit esoteric and don’t easily lend themselves to being taught or practiced into existence.
Now don’t get me wrong; many years ago I couldn’t design furniture. Today, I’m a capable designer, but it’s taken me years to begin to understand where my creativity comes from, and I still can’t explain how epiphanies come about. I have spoken to countless furniture designers—formally trained (i.e., industrial designers, arts school and design school graduates, etc.) and self-taught, and when I asked how they design furniture, I have never gotten the same answer twice. No two designers profess comparable processes or methodologies. But there were some common threads or themes present, so I decided that if I took a deeper look at these common themes I might be able to better understand how furniture design happens. And ultimately, I believe this approach is what allowed me to get to a point where I could be creative, at least at designing furniture.
In its simplest form, furniture design is a two-step process. First, you come up with an idea (i.e., a drawing), and then you develop a means for building your creation (a fabrication process, prototypes, cut-lists, etc.). This post focuses on the why, how, and what of the first step and the creativity necessary to make it happen. An earlier post Evolution of a Design talks about the fabrication and prototyping process.
Why Study Design?
Design is essential to the evolution of a complete furnituremaker. Generally, new woodworkers learn furniture making by following a how-to magazine article or taking a class, or a similar follow-a-drawing and cut-list prescription. In the beginning, I followed this pattern. There’s nothing wrong with this path; it allows you to focus on developing and enhancing your skill and there are those who say that mastering skills is essential to evolving as a designer.
But once I reached a certain skill level, executing someone else’s plan eventually lost its romance. I wanted additional challenges, and developed a yearning to introduce originality to my furniture. So I started tweaking others’ designs—and the results were not pretty. It didn’t take too long to realize one of my limitations was that I didn’t know how to design furniture, and I realized I wanted to learn. Therein lay the challenge: how do I develop the abilities that will allow me to create drawings instead of being a person who just follows the drawings?
There is some historical context to support the notion that those creating the drawings don’t execute them, and vice versa. Frank Lloyd Wright, Harvey Ellis, and LaMont Warner were all recognized designers of arts and crafts furniture who are not known for building furniture. During the Arts and Crafts era, Arthur Wesley Dow and William H. Varnum had successful careers teaching others how to design, not build. But I believe these instances point more to the fact that design is a complex endeavor that can easily consume a full, and successful, career. Remember, one of the keystone tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement was to bring fulfillment to the lives of builders and return superior craftsmanship to the decorative arts through the collaboration of designers and builders.
What Is Design?
But before I began, I felt I had to answer the question: what is design? For me, it’s the creative process—the generation of an idea of what (to steal some engineer’s jargon) the form, fit, and function of a piece of furniture will be. Physically, it’s nothing more than perhaps a cocktail napkin drawing that simply serves to capture what I’m thinking. That’s it.
Next, I decided I had to have a concept or theory of how it came about to act as a starting point, or road map, of what I should study. I came up with this statement to describe the “what” and “how” of design:
The epiphany that happens when an inspiration drives creativity to pluck random nuggets of design and style knowledge, mix them together, and spit out something truly unique.
I don’t intend to say that here are the five components of design that you must have, and here is the process that you must follow for it to occur—although I realize it probably reads that way. I believe the reality is that design just happens, and often we can’t explain how and why it occurs. But I believe we can prepare for it and improve the chances that it occurs. So, to that order, here is a summary of what and how I studied to prepare myself to design furniture.
Creativity Broken Down
You can see by my definition that I broke design into five elements that I believe are present when good design occurs—Style Knowledge, Design Knowledge, Creativity, Inspiration, and the Epiphany itself.
Style and Design Knowledge
I believe a thorough understanding of style knowledge and design knowledge are the necessary foundation for good design to occur.
Whether you build in one of the traditionally defined styles such as Chippendale, Shaker, contemporary or of course my favorite, Arts and Crafts, or even a relatively unique style—Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, or Wharton Esherick— all have pretty distinctively recognizable elements that are unique to them. Style knowledge is about understanding the elements, techniques, and philosophies that are unique to a specific style. For the Arts and Crafts style, this includes quadrilinear legs, through mortise and tenons, breadboard table tops, cloud lifts, ebony plugs, and spindles. A solid understanding of their form, fit, and function; their construction process; and the philosophies behind their evolution allow you to manipulate them appropriately.
I use a variety of methods to develop, evolve, and maintain my style knowledge. For me, exposure to original arts and crafts furniture is fundamental to this endeavor. I do this many different ways, the first of which is reading and research. Visiting antique stores, furniture shows (the annual Arts and Crafts conference in Asheville, NC, and Pasadena Heritage’s Craftsman Weekend are both excellent), museums (both in front of and behind the ropes), and collecting original pieces all offer varying access to original pieces. Examining, touching, measuring, and photographing these pieces also serves as inspiration for me, and gives me a sense of connectedness to those who built them.
Design knowledge also can be thought of as general design knowledge or knowledge of principles that apply to all furniture design regardless of style. A good example is the many variables involved in chair design. Seat height, depth, and angle; back shape, angle, and height all have an impact on the sitter’s comfort regardless of what style is incorporated. Design knowledge also includes understanding structural engineering. This includes characteristics of building materials; strengths, weakness, pros and cons of particular joinery methods; and an understanding of aesthetics—lines, proportions, shapes, color, and how they interact with one another. A knowledge of wood movement and the appropriate strategies for dealing with it are also components of design knowledge.
Leg treatments offer a good contrast of design knowledge versus style knowledge. Recognizing that a treatment at the bottom of a leg is intended to draw an admirer’s focus down the leg is an example of design knowledge. In contrast, style knowledge enables you to recognize a Greene & Greene leg indent as an element of the arts and crafts style and the ball-and-claw foot as an element of period furniture. Recognizing a Boston from a Philadelphia and both from a Newport ball-and-claw treatment offers another dimension of style knowledge.
Studying original works also helps me improve my design knowledge, but I have done additional things and continue to do so. I take furniture design classes and, although I’ve never explored them, I’m sure there are general design courses that would be beneficial. Attending The Furniture Society’s annual conference is another excellent way to learn about furniture design and meet other furniture designers. I also believe it’s worth its weight in gold to seek out an industrial designer and develop a mentor relationship with him or her.
Inspiration and Creativity
While style knowledge and design knowledge can be examined simply within a furniture making paradigm and still deliver a ton of value to our purpose—to reap the benefits that inspiration and creativity have to offer—I prefer to examine them with a broader lens that is not restricted to furniture design.
For me, inspiration and creativity work hand-in-hand. I need inspiration for my creativity to flow. It’s like working with epoxy—the proper ratio of resin and hardener is necessary to get the desired results. A healthy dose of passion and drive also is beneficial to creativity. Consider them the accelerator that can be added to an epoxy mixture to speed up the curing process.
I like what Wikipedia says about inspiration under its definition of artistic inspiration:
“Inspiration (from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breathe into”) refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavor[sic].”
It’s where your design ideas come from. A giant oak tree on my property inspired one of the features on my interpretation of Stickley’s double-costumer. Stickley’s original double-costumer is tall and narrow, which makes me think of a tree. This eventually led to the epiphany that the base should be splayed and create the feel of a solidly grounded tree. Here’s an image of the inspiration and a few of the prototype bases it inspired.
Another example of inspiration is the sculpting on the top of my double-costumer. The inspiration came from a background image on my computer. Inspiration lends itself to a fairly linear thought process: I saw this and thought of that. But what allowed me to see this and think of that?
I once attended a presntation on creativity given by a design session facilitator. He shared a story about a chair experiment in which a traditional dining room chair was presented to a group of adults who were asked, “What is this?” Their answers were predictable and unimaginative—a chair, a seat, a place to sit, etc. The chair was then shown to a group of kindergarteners who were asked the same question. There responses were very different—a fort, an airplane, a cave, a tree house. The children’s responses are best explained by Patrick O’ Connell (as quoted in “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page):
“Creativity … In reality, it’s the removing of the sandbags that have been laid upon you by the culture, and freeing yourself of the constraints that you’ve been programmed to deal with …”
Children don’t have the sandbags and constraints and see many things; the adults have sandbags and constraints, and see a chair. Inspiration, and the creativity that acts upon it, make it possible to look at the chair and see the possibilities beyond a seat.
So, the challenge for me was: how do I remove my sandbags and constraints? Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life was instrumental. Tharp makes a persuasive argument that one can develop creativity through preparation and the application of routines, habits, and processes. I strongly encourage anyone who wants to understand and develop creativity to read her book.
Epiphany is simply the word I use to describe the “ah-ha” moment that occurs when an inspiration causes your creativity to tap into your design knowledge and style knowledge to create something cool. Epiphany is the most elusive of the five components of design. I don’t know how to make it happen, or re-create it. A prime example is the base on my double-costumer. The project had been percolating in my mind for weeks and weeks, perhaps even months and months, when it came to me—on the drive home from work, stuck in traffic, with my mind wandering off somewhere. There was the answer: I should splay the base of my double-costumer. I can’t explain why it came to me on that particular day; it certainly wasn’t the first day I’d been stuck in traffic.
So, there you have it. Those are my thoughts on furniture design. Not really a prescription to follow, but just a look at what I think helped me evolve as a capable designer. If you’re interested in reading more on the topic, check out these books:
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
By Twyla Tharp; Simon & Schuster, 2003
Arts & Crafts Design
By William H. Varnum; Peregrine Smith, 1995
Originally published as Industrial Arts Design, A Textbook of Practical Methods for Students, Teachers, and Craftsmen. Scott, Foresman, 1916
Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color
By Arthur Wesley Dow; Dover Publications, 2007
Originally published as Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. Doubleday, Page, 1920 (9th edition)