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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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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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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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Designers Alphabet, X is for…….

Vintage Mahogony Planks from "American Lumberman November 1908"

Vintage Mahogony Planks from “American Lumberman November 1908″

durer-latin-xylon, Greek root word for wood. I must admit – X had me stumped. Also Xyloid, an adjective meaning resembling wood or ligneous. If I go through the designers alphabet again I may have to double up on another letter and take a pass on this one. Here’s a link to a great furniture grade wood supplier I highly recommend.  Horizon Wood Products. Great people to work with and xylon to drool over.

 

George R. Walker

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Just want it to be done

Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz, 1606-1682

One year ago Jim Tolpin and I were axehandles and elbows in final edit mode for our manuscript BH&E (By Hand & Eye).  I was struck by how much work is involved down that final stretch and I just wanted it over with.  Sort of like a large furniture project. It starts with the excitement of picking just the right figured boards to unleash something beautiful. That excitement gives way to a different kind of pleasure when the shaping and joinery begins, more like a long hike in the woods. Every good hike has a few brambles to muddle through, but the pleasure of building makes up for the hilly spots. Yet, near the end I always just want to get it done, shed the saddle and roll in some clover.

But this was different. After Jim and I high fived and broke some glass, we went right back to the fun of sending each other articles, links to historic engravings, and random thoughts about how our craft might have solved a problem. Rather than moving on, we continued to moving in. We’ve only scratched the surface as much of this knowledge can only be pried loose at the point of a tool. Jim’s still eager to test out every idea at the bench, and I can’t resist flipping over stones in the creek bed. A year later, actually three years later for the two of us, we are more convinced that the tradition has so much to teach us about how to see. And with each piece of knowledge we become more convinced that the traditional tool set is the key to breathe life into it.

I’m headed out to Port Townsend in March to share this knowledge in a design workshop. There are still a few spots left, so if you are game for a week of eye opening discovery, sign up.

George R. Walker

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