What do you do with design failures?

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I’m a firm believer in re-visiting work after some time has passed. Be it writing or woodworking, a few years allows for a more disinterested judgment. If it holds up, you may be onto something. If not, there may be lessons to learn. About fifteen years ago I began to venture beyond printed plans. I built this little maple table for Barb. Although the joinery was solid, the design – not so much. It’s largely a failure in details that add up to mush to my eye. It began with a nice chunk of bird’s eye maple that I glued up for a top and aprons. I didn’t just do a poor job of joining together pieces for the top (cut from the same board no less), I managed to make them look like they were two different species of maple.

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Instead of using a crisp moulding profile for the edge, I settled for a simple round-over that always had a feeling like some rolled out pizza dough. The curved apron patterns were based loosely on some pictures from a book on period furniture but I had no eye for curves and I fell into the mire that plagues so much massed produced “Early American” furniture. It has not the grace of the fine urban originals or the folk of the back country originals. It screams, “ I don’t know Jack about curves!” Finally I topped it of with an oil varnish finish that couldn’t take spilled beverages and hot coffee mugs. Game, set, match.

 

What is one to do?

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Perhaps I can salvage the legs and build Barb another table.

More to come.

 

George R. Walker

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Tools that inspire

Note how the mechanism clamps to the beam via a wear plate

Note how the mechanism clamps to the beam via a wear plate

I’m a tool user – not a tool collector. However, I do have a soft spot for antique dividers and drawing tools. When some old buzzard moans,  ” They don’t make em like they used to”  it’s hard to find a better example than vintage drafting tools. Today I picked up these late 19th century German Silver trammel points. The detail is amazing.  Like many of these tools the craft of making them grew out of instrument making, so there’s a lot of crossover with watchmaking, surveyor, and navigation tools. Note how they clamp on the beam and DSCN3693have a wear plate to grip without marring the wood. I also like the design in the turnings. I can almost imagine that pattern in a table leg. Anyone have experience polishing German Silver?

 

George R. Walker

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Thoughts on Design from a Letter Carver

It’s really special when an artisan can design something profound in a tight discipline. In a world where bling draws the spotlight, I’m always thankful for someone who can craft an extraordinary wine, shotgun, handplane, or chair. Here’s a short video about Martin Wenham, a letter carver who offers some insights about design. Take a moment to savor his thoughts and work. I’d like to thank Dave Fisher for sending me this link.

 

 

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Workshop Worthy of Awe

A rainy day in a great workshop

A rainy day in a great workshop

Dave’s workshop is down a few steps from the kitchen, but feels like entering a sanctuary. A place dedicated to creative work. I had the privilege and honor of spending an afternoon with Dave Fisher – one talented, creative, imaginative artisan. Everything in the compact shop space had a purpose, from the razor sharp tools within easy reach of the well worn

_MG_0286shaving horse, to the decorative carvings and pictures peaking out from every nook.  Each a reminder that the pursuit of excellence is also a pursuit of beauty. We talked for hours and could have talked for days about carved wooden bowls, design, and how the curves from a Hosta leaf in the back garden can inform the eye. Dave is a great example of a contemporary artisan who is extending our craft tradition by honing both his technical skills as well as his creative intuition.

 

I’m working on article profiling Dave’s approach to design in my Design Matters column for Popular Woodworking Magazine. Keep an eye out for it.

 

George R. Walker

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Designer’s Alphabet, Z is for …………….

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durer-latin-zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Furniture designs often reflect the culture of the time they were conceived. Culture itself is a loaded word, that endless struggle between the old oak of tradition and the winds of change. At first glance that 18th century chair may seem like an easy read to a modern eye, and smugly pigeonholed as “old brown furniture”. But a close study reveals a creative work influenced by the opening of international trade routes, social upheaval uprooting crafts and guilds, and sensational archeological discoveries firing the public imagination. And that’s just a pinky dip into the zeitgeist that expressed itself in a simple old brown chair. One of the oddities of zeitgeist is that the artisans of any particular age might have had a narrow view of the spirit of their time, but what they knew was by taste and smell. We moderns look back with the benefit of history yet never able to quite reach back to taste and smell.

 

While the zeitgeist of past centuries was a series of complex tapestries, the zeitgeist of our age is an explosion. We have labels to  describe the furniture of today like green, retro, disposable, sustainable, kitschy, hip, contemporary, edgy, sleek, honest, architectural (if it has one straight line), sculptural (if it has one curved line), one of a kind, industrial, chic, and bling. Often these words are combined to create new genres like retro-industrial-chic.

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This AMC Gremlin has a “Sport Package”, not sure it helped.

 

The string that connects the zeitgeist of our age with ages past, is that every era produced designs that deserved a quick death and every age stumbled on a chord and produced something timeless that deserved living on in designs of the future. Perhaps that’s what we are all searching for as designers.

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This ends my journey through the Designer’s Alphabet. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

 

George R. Walker

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Learning to See

Can you see the bones in this candlestick?

Can you see the bones in this candlestick?

An artist and teacher I respect told me that anyone can draw.

He said, “You can pick up a pen and write letters on paper, that’s drawing – you did that in the first grade. Drawing isn’t the barrier people think it is, it’s learning to see.”

This idea of learning to see is at the heart of drawing and also at the heart of design. Look at these images from a 16th century Spanish treatise on drawing and proportions. Note how they show finished detail on the right side and the underlying simple shapes or bones on the left. From a candlestick, to a building, to the human form itself, simple shapes help the eye see beneath the surface.  Can you imagine designing something contemporary with those same bones? Could you take the bones from that candlestick and put your own spin on it? If you would like a closer look at the original book, here’s a link.

 

George R. Walker

This incense burner from a liturgical setting has these simple underlying shapes.

Incense burner from a liturgical setting.

This isn't confined to built objects.

This isn’t confined to built objects.

Even something as ornate as this column is  made up of simple shapes.

Even something as ornate as this column is made up of simple shapes.

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Note how the simple rectangles in this building align with the diagonal.

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Designer’s Alphabet, Y is for ………..

 

Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)

Yorkshire chair with a crested back. (Bonhams)

 

 

durer-latin-yorkshire chair, a regional chair form produced in the latter half of the 17th century in Britain. More broadly they fall under the umbrella of Charles II oak chairs (1660-1685). They were also produced in nearby Derbyshire, and sometimes refereed to as Derbyshire chairs.They had a few features that set them apart from the earlier Jacobean chair designs and hinted at some of the changes to chairmaking in the coming 18th century. Yorkshire chairs

An arcade is a row of arches supported by colunms.

An arcade is a row of arches supported by columns. (Bonhams)

departed from the Jacobean perpendicular chair backs with a solid plank splat, and moved to a more open back that tilted slightly to conform to the human frame. The open backs were often crested like the crown of a hill, or arcaded with a series of arches supported by small columns. To my eye the proportions are lighter than the earlier chair designs from the 17th century, perhaps a nod towards things to come in the chairmaking world in Georgian era in the 18th century.

 

Note: Thanks to Jack Plane for helping me track down some information on these chairs. I originally began looking for an American “York” chair. All roads came to nothing with only one poor example far removed from these English chairs. Sort of a dogs breakfast, cobbled together by committee. If you have a photo of an American “York” chair, pass it along and I’ll post it.

 

George R. Walker

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