Category Archives: Design Basics

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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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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Filed under Architecture, Design Basics

Break the curse of the blank sheet of paper

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

That blank sheet of emptiness taunts our self doubt.

“Imagination is the highest kite one can fly”.

Lauren Bacall

 

I remember a time when a blank sheet of paper had the power to chase away every creative thought. It’s a mind trick. It seemed like a mirror reflecting dead air and silence in my head, with not a whiff or a hint of an idea floating off in the distance.  I call it a trick, because if we could ever behold what our imagination is capable of, we would fall down in awe. Imagination is the thing that get’s you wide awake at 3:30 am rooting around the workshop making a racket and having a great time of it. But we seldom tap it in our daily routine, so a little thing like the emptiness of a sheet of paper becomes a wall too high to breach.

Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.

Cooking up an idea and letting it stew.

 

 

I said “remember” because now it’s my privilege and joy to guide many woodworkers past that stumbling block. That was brought home to me the last few weeks teaching a series of design workshops for the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers and at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. Over and over came the words, “This is awesome! I don’t have to get stuck anymore staring at that blank sheet of paper” , or “This is 1000% better, I can get off square one and get the juices and ideas flowing”.

 

Sure – the first drawings were shaky dead ends and mud pits. And yes, the trash cans overflowed with crumpled paper and the maintenance guy had to vacuum up a bushel of eraser dust. But ideas flowed, designs took shape,  and those designs improved quickly. Best of all, woodworkers who doubted they would ever break free from the blank page came in sleepy eyed on day two, after staying up till 3:30 am.

I’m not sure who was more pleased. Forty six fired up workshop attendees, or Jim Tolpin and myself who had the honor of witnessing it.

 

 

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, design workshops

What’s in your Tool Kit?

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

I enjoy a trip to an art museum. It’s more than a chance to examine great furniture on display, but to see the interplay between art, architecture, and furniture.  There is a craft element of art that applies directly to furniture building – GOOD WORK IS NO ACCIDENT. Painter Robert Genn offers timeless advise to an aspiring artist about what he really needs in his tool kit. You can read the whole thing  here in his excellent art resources website The Painters Keys. I’ve included parts of it below because it applies directly to our craft. My meager thoughts are added in bold font.

“I told him he needed six items in his kit: time, space, series, media, books and desire. This is how I laid it out for him: 

Time: Set aside a time every day. It should be at least an hour, preferably a lot more. Include weekends and statutory holidays. No substitutes for just doing it. Whether it’s learning to execute solid joinery or developing your designers eye. 

Space: Find a space that is always yours–where you can set up and work in continuity. It need not be large, but it ought to be yours. Splurge and make it a secret garden, even if you have to shoehorn it between the washer and furnace.

Series: Do a series of explorations toward tangible goals–say 100 pieces of work in one direction or another. Then start another series. In woodworking your series may be dovetails, or shellac – working the series till you reach a goal of proficiency. Or for design it could be an exploration of a familiar form while experimenting with curves. 

Media: Choose a medium that intrigues you. Realize that the potential of all media is going to be greater than at first realized. Be prepared for frustration. Select a wood species like quarter sawn white oak, figured cherry,  or maple and explore it until you fully grasp it’s potential. 

Books: “How-to” and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction. There’s never been a better time than now when it comes learning resources. Books, videos, on-line and in person workshops. Give yourself a boost (Shameless Plug).

Desire: Know that desire is more important than any other factor. Desire comes from process. Process reinforces desire and desire becomes love. You need love in your kit. Swim in the shear joy shaping wood with your hands. 

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, tools

Compass layouts on Youtube

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Nearly every guide to the building arts going back to the dawn of printing included a series of geometric layouts with a compass. A challenge to the decipher, these lessons were shoehorned together, and made worse with a flurry of confusing text buried twenty pages away.  Our book “By Hand & Eye” was written in hopes of extending our building tradition by making it relevant to the modern artisan. To that end, we put together digital animations of those classic compass layouts. You can access them through this link to Jim Tolpin’s YouTube channel . For those of you that bought our book and had difficulty accessing the layouts, we hope this offers a solution.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, Design Book

Top Ten Reasons

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Here are the Top Ten Reasons for signing up for the Foundations of Design workshop I’m teaching at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking the week of March 17th – 21st. 

10. You’ll learn proportions as a second language.

9. It will transform the way you see furniture. 

8. Port Townsend is a destination in itself, picturesque with great restaurants. 

7. Be inspired and jazz your passion for furniture building.

6. Learn the truth about mixing plaids and stripes – can it really work?

5. Going forward your furniture will be designated BFD (not what you think – Before Foundations of Design) and AFD (After Foundations of Design). 

4. You’ll walk away with the beginnings of a design portfolio you can build on.

3. Because Jim Tolpin makes great cookies.

2. Because design is rewarding, challenging, surprising, risky, and fun.

1. It’s January for Pete’s sake, treat yourself to something fun. 

George R. Walker

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Free layout tool at WIA

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Stop by the SAPFM booth right by Mike Siemsen’s Hand tool Olympics and pick up this nifty sector. It’s perfect for resizing a molding profile to suit your next project. There is  a catch. You have to build it on the spot. I’ll be there to walk you through it and give you a lesson on scaling moldings up or down.

Look forward to seeing you this weekend.

George R. Walker

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Filed under Design Basics, designing moldings