Category Archives: Design Basics

Visit the Design Graveyard…

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With Halloween just around the bend I’m reminded of one of my favorite haunts (no pun intended) for thinking about design – old graveyards. The monuments in all shapes and sizes are like a lexicon of design, sort of a mini museum without the alarms. My last blog post had a photo of an obelisk shaped town marker in Nantucket which inspired Dave Fisher to send me these obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

photos from a nearby cemetery. I had to grin inside at the thought that I’m not the only one strolling through the democracy of the dead, trying to keep my designers eye alive. Dave crafts free form wooden bowls which are featured in the November 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. He commented “To my eye, the most beautiful obelisk in the entire cemetery is the Mathers obelisk.  Much of the reason, I believe, has to do with the base (plinth?).  The quickening curve of the base roots it firmly to the ground, then leads the eye on a ride up to the obelisk itself.  There is still a clear indication of where the obelisk itself begins, but without jarring the eye on the way up.  The whole piece is organic, much like a tree rising from the ground. ”  

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Packard Obelisk

I concur with Dave’s educated eye and would add that several other examples, the Roberts and Packard obelisks, look like they took a standard monument and plopped an obelisk on top of them. Not certain I ever noticed that before until they were side by side with the Mathers example. One is a unified organic composition, the others are just combinations of parts. There’s a powerful lesson illustrated here. How often does a design or a work of art fail because it’s a busy mechanical  assemblage of parts rather than an organic flowering? I’m interested in your thoughts as you compare these different interpretations of a design.

 

George R. Walker

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Roberts obelisk

 

Mathers base detail

Mathers base detail

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Filed under Architecture, Design Basics

Training your eye for Design

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“We need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.

 Shakti Gawain

If you are new to design, telling you to trust your eye sounds like some joke that everyone’s in on except you. How do you know what your eye is telling you?

First of all, those times when your eye feeds your imagination with rocket fuel is a rare event even for gifted artists. So much so that when that explosion of  juice starts to flow, it’s wise to ride it irregardless of eating or sleeping. Magic should not be squandered.

But aside from those rare bursts of inspiration – every day our eye talks a lot. Mostly it’s like that beeper on a garbage truck when it’s backing up the alley. It tells us what it doesn’t like. A crude example of this is plumb and level. Even though we have accurate tools to measure level and plumb, most of us can do a fair job of gauging it just by eye. In fact, our inner eye is pricked when that picture frame on the wall looks tilted in spite of what a level tells us. Our eye is filled with judgments, mostly negative about proportions. We may not think all that negative feedback is that valuable. It may feel frustrating, like we hired a travel guide who tells us all the sights not to  see. But if you realize that this is the eye’s way of guiding, you can learn to listen to it and best of all, learn to train it. I may get a burst of inspiration, a spark of an idea of what I want to design. But the actual design process is listening to a series of nos that gradually morph into yeses.

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by  Author

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by Author

But training the eye? Traditionally this was done by studying masterful work. All the old design guides waxed glowingly about the classic orders. Truth is you may never incorporate a single element from a classic order in any of your furniture designs. Yet, drawing the classic orders gives your eye a reference library of no’s that are inescapable – pushing you, guiding you, until the nos start turning to yes. With a basic understanding of proportions, you can let your eye be tutored by great buildings, furniture, nature, and art.

 

George R. Walker

 

George R. Walker

 

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Filed under Architecture, 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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