Arts and Crafts Design

I consider William H. Varnum’s Arts & Crafts Design one of the seminal (and I don’t use that stuffy academic word lightly) books that every Arts and Crafts furnituremakers should have in their library. My copy is well highlighted and redlined, and I refer to it as often as I visit Bruce Hoadley’s Understanding Wood. 

When originally published in 1916, it was titled “Industrial Arts Design A Textbook of Practical Methods for Students, Teachers, and Craftsman.” In his original preface Varnum wrote [Industrial Arts Design] “is intended for individual student use in the High Schools, Normal Schools, and Colleges and as a reference book for elementary school teachers.” Varnum lays out  a simple step-by-step design process that is easily applied to all decorative arts objects and thus lends itself nicely to designing furniture. He sees the design process divided into three divisions, or phases, which he labels Structural Design, Coutour Enrichment, and Surface Enrichment. Varnum presents a series of “rules” through each phase, that if followed, will ensure good design.

The first five chapters are focused on Structural Design—establishing pleasing lines and proportions through the defining of masses and their subsequent division. I apply these philosophies to every piece I design. If you’re inspired by Greene & Greene cloud lifts, you’ll want to review Varnum’s thoughts on contour enrichment, because they are classical examples of it. Equally applicable, If you’re inspired by the inlays of Harvey Ellis, and want to include inlays in your furniture, you’ll want to read what Varnum’s says about surface enrichment. Finally, as mindful furniture designers we understand that a piece of furniture must be designed for the room, or environment it occupies. Ever wonder about the relationship between the color of your furniture, and its environment? Varnum discusses,and has rules for that too.

You can argue it’s out-dated, verbose, and written in grammar and vocabulary from an earlier century that’s difficult to read. However, if you look at what Varnum is saying, and compare it to almost any piece of arts & crafts furniture, you’ll see that what he believed should be taught, was insync with what was being practiced.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from this book:

“The principles herein advocated are directly related to architectural design which is to be regarded as the standard authority for the industrial arts designer.”

 “…qualities a good industrial article should posses…1) It must be of service to the community or to the individual; 2) It must be made of some durable material; 3) It must posses beauty of proportion, outline, and color.”

  • Title: Arts & Crafts Design
  • Author: William H. Varnum
  • First copyright date: See below
  • Second copyright date (if applicable): 1995 by Gibbs Smith; Layton, UT
  • ISBN: 0-87905-699-1 (for modern reprint)