HABS photo, Central Park NY
is for Fredrick Law Olmsted (B. 1822 – D. 1903), arguably the premier landscape designer in America. His list of public parks and landscapes across the US and Canada is unmatched and chances are, any great park that comes to your mind was either designed by Olmsted or hugely impacted by his ideas about design.
Here’s a link to a site to learn more about Olmsted and his legacy. One part of his legacy was to articulate a set of principles or guidelines to inform a design. This brief statement below is but one of his maxims quoted from the above site.
A Genius of Place
“The design should take advantage of unique characteristics of the site, even its disadvantages. The design should be developed and refined with intimate knowledge of the site.”
His genius of place struck me as especially applicable to furniture design. The part about taking advantages of unique characteristics, even disadvantages – reminds me of our love of using the quirks found in wood to enhance a design. We celebrate that burled or figured grain even emphasizing what might have been a defect, making it a focal point of interest and discovery.
Maple burl drawer front, Photo by author
Six inch marking gage by Jeff Hamilton in cocobolo.
Trust your gut. The folks that cooked up the 2013 Handworks event in Iowa didn’t check with an accountant, lawyer, or MBA. They trusted their gut and banked on the idea that hand tool woodworkers are motivated by the same thing that drives hand tool makers.
Passion shows up in different ways. It drives Jeff Hamilton to dig deep and create splendid marking gages that are functional and beautiful. It’s behind Don McConnell and Larry Williams at Old Street Tools lifelong quest to unlock the secrets of wooden moulding planes from the best historical makers. Passion can be lighthearted too as the gang from Mike Siemsen’s woodworking school proved building a pine “toe pincher” coffin.
Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.
But this lightning in a bottle was mostly toolmakers and artisans quietly teaching and sharing their knowledge with other woodworkers. Time spent sharing the craft is gold and a big part of what keeps us all hard at it.
In my conversations with hundreds of folks at Amana I took away a few things:
Hand tool woodworking is alive and in fact growing.
A good number of these woodworkers are either beginners new to the craft, or veterans (Normites) turning to handtools to enrich their craft.
All seemed to share that passion for the craft.
Raney over at Daed Toolworks sized up Handworks better than I can.
Thanks again to the Abraham family and other co-conspirators. Thanks to all the participants that came from across the continent. It was an excellent ride.
George R. Walker
Architectural niche by Batty Langley
Is for niche. A recess built into a wall to house a statue, trophy, or work of art. Often niches are capped with a semi-dome. The domes were sometimes carved to mimic the inside of a seashell. Found in Roman buildings from antiquity, niches were exploited by joiners and cabinetmakers for interior architectural work. The interior space for built in corner cupboards often included the graceful carved domes with dramatic effect. Sort of sheds light on the saying “Carved out a niche for oneself”.
Niche with carved seashell treatment in semi-dome
Niche from Guntston Hall. HABS photo.
This is one of those architectural elements that shares DNA with other bits and pieces often found in traditional design. Did this semi-dome from a niche inspire the fanlights capping a doorway (also found in some glazed furniture doors)? If you have any examples of niches to share, e-mail me at georgewalkerdesign.com and I’ll add them to this post.
George R. Walker
Here’s another pic for you from The Walnut Calamity. The fireplace is recessed under a flight of stairs, which ascend from the right. Niche Overmantel. “Particularly quaint, really,” said the unusually vain woodworker, Xavier. Yep, zany!
My brother and I looked on as a gunsmith at Colonial Williamsburg expertly fit together a black walnut stock with a metal lock. Without raising an eye the artisan patiently answered our questions as though we were fresh off the boat and in need of a good rifle. That is until my brother volunteered that I was a machinist in a former life.
“A machinist” He said as he set his file on the workbench, and peered over his spectacles at me, “In that case, I’ll…. talk…… slow…. for…. your…. sake.”
I often get questions that are less about design and more about engineering. It’s innocent enough and usually no fault intended. Yet to my mind there is a quite a gap between the world of design and the world of engineering. When I think of engineering I think strength of materials, load bearing capacities, slide rules, and efficiencies. For many, engineering is the default starting point. Our education system and industry is geared towards that approach. Engineering is logical to the core; much of it is expressed in numbers and formulas.
When design comes to mind I think of aesthetics, creating something with a “delight” factor. Yes, a chair has to function and bear the stress as we lean back and rack the undercarriage – that’s a given. But a chair also has to invite us to sit and beckon us to grasp the armrest as though it were a bit of shelter from the wind. Design is about learning to visualize a fair curve and a sixth sense for proportions. It’s about gaining something I call “spatial pitch” where the eye can sense visual music in a composition.
Corinthian Capital by Al Breed, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks
Jim Tolpin and I are excited about our book “By Hand and Eye” which is just a few weeks away from going to the printer. If you are hoping for a book to help you engineer furniture, you may be a bit confused and disappointed. But, if you ever wondered what it would be like to unlock that inner ability, to gain a designers eye, this book can help you begin that journey. Sure, we do go through some nifty layout tricks with dividers that will make you a better woodworker, but the heart of the book is about learning to visualize, gaining that perfect pitch, crossing that invisible line called delight.
George R. Walker
Here’s a link to an update on the progress of ”By Hand and Eye”
John Linnell, born 1729- died 1796. One of the most prolific British furniture designers and cabinetmakers from the 18th century. He took over his father’s cabinet shop and designed and built furniture for some of the greatest homes in England. What I find striking about Linnell is his use of drawings. Note this chair sketch from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, it’s almost like an artists pre-study for a great painting.
Note that Linnell included some of the interior details in his furniture sketch
Another departure in his drawings is to leave a bit of the architectural background behind the furniture image. This drawing for a table and mirror says a great deal about traditional design. Look closely at the faint lines that show a bit of the window frames and interior woodwork and how the elements on the table and mirror align with the interior architecture. Traditional designers put an emphasis on how doors, windows, and fireplaces harmonized with a room. In the same way a large furniture piece, be it casework or a mirror, is part of the composition of a wall space. Typical of the period also is how the drawing illustrates several options for the same design. If you look at the details of the legs and ornament on the left and right side you can view two different schemes built around the same form. Even if Linnell’s designs aren’t your cup of tea, there are lessons to be learned. I’m just now putting together my “Design Matters” column for the Aug issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. In it I am exploring sketching techniques to aid the design process. Although we may not all have the artistic flair of a John Linnell, these sketches from our design tradition hold nuggets to inspire and inform.
George R. Walker
Klismos chair by Philip C. Lowe, drawing by author.
is for Klismos chair. This form leaps right out of antiquity, yet because of it’s clean lines and flowing curves, it’s been reworked and re-adapted countless times. No physical chairs from antiquity survive, but we have numerous examples depicted on painted pottery and stone relief carvings dating back as far as the 5th century B.C. The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 18th century shed light on the form as discoveries fueled the Greek revival style that swept England and America in the late 18th and early 19th Century.
Stone relief carving depicting a Klismos chair form.
The challenge when interpreting an iconic form like the Klismos chair is to find that tone or pitch that sings. Here’s a link to the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts where Philip C. Lowe built the example shown in my drawing above. You can scroll down through the page of chair plans to find a couple of stunning examples of the chair form. Here’s another view of his stunning Klismos chair.
George R. Walker
Donna was able to generate this curve in about ten minutes.
We both grinned at each other and asked – Why Not? Half the fun at a Lie-Nielsen hand tool event, are the informal jamb sessions between woodworkers. I walked Donna Hill through the steps to draw a volute with a compass just after she finished a demo on stringing using the inlay tools developed by Steve Latta and produced by Lie-Nielsen. Many of the traditional designs produced on furniture incorporate simple circles or sections of interwoven circles based on designs worked out with a compass. I can’t recall seeing a volute incorporated in a stringing design, so I asked Donna if she was game to give it a try. The example above is the result after one botched practice try on a chunk of scrap mahogany. This tool has the ability to make precise adjustments that broadens the range of possibilities beyond simple circles and sections of circles. Here are a few ideas of traditional geometric curves that could be generated with this tool. Anyone game to break some new ground? All of these are generated using compass, so in theory should lend themselves to this adjustable radius cutter. Let me know what you come up with.
Geometric layout for a scotia. Drawing by Author
Geometric layout for an oval. Drawing by author.
Geometric layout for a scrolled bracket. Drawing by author.
George R. Walker
To be more precise, it’s on it’s way to becoming a ratrod. This vise will never look this good moving forward so I took this “before” shot. I just built a moxon vise with the hardware kit from the fine folks at Benchcrafted. Unable to follow directions, I made a few minor tweaks of my own. The jaws are made of white pine. I know - I know – vise jaws are supposed to be hardwood; but I had a chunk of full 8 quarter stock and the soft pine is unlikely to mar any work; also it’s much lighter to horse onto the bench. Yes it will quickly get dented, gouged, and covered with sawcuts but I’m fine with that. I also opted to make the bottom of the front movable jaw flush with the fixed jaw. They suggested a ¼” overhang to make it easy to mount it flush with the edge of the workbench. But this way I can mount it anywhere , even in the middle on the fifty yard line without a fuss. Lastly I opted to forgo the split leather they provided to make the jaws grip. Instead I took a toothing plane and roughed up the inside faces of both jaws. It grabs like an anaconda, you might want to try it.
We had a taboo in the shop back in the day. No one wanted to be the guy who put the first big dent or gouge in a new machine. The boss would go into a tailspin and none of the fellow shop hunkies would let you forget it. Not the case with this beast. With a pair of Gramercy holdfasts it’s built to work hard and welcome abuse.
George R. Walker
English Oak Burl Table by George Nakashima 1905 – 1990 (Skinner)
If you search “live edge table”, about eleventy million images pop up of contemporary or modern furniture with a natural or live edge. Leaving a bit of the tree just as it came from the wild was the signature of George Nakashima and reflected his reverence for wood. Yet this isn’t a modern or contemporary design idea at all. Architects have been employing “rustication” in their building designs for at least 2000 years. Rustication often involves leaving portions of stone in the rough state and contrasting it with a smooth stone or brick wall. Often it’s used in the foundation which helps establish a clear beginning and gently hints that the building sprang from the earth organically. Rough cut stones can mark the corners of a wall or act as a border to emphasize a window or doorway.
This Capstone on a wall has a live edge surface that contrasts with the smooth dressed top.
Rustication can take on many forms, but all involve introducing texture to contrast with the adjoining surface. Sometimes it’s applied with a carving tool to create a natural texture or stippled to make the stone face appear weathered by water or wind. Often texture is introduced by cutting a deep chamfer between the joints on smooth stones. The fun part is that all these design ideas are applicable to wood. Case in point is this wonderful application of stippling by Wilson Burnham from Brokeoff Mountain Lutherie.
This stone face is carved to add texture and give the feeling of a natural wild surface. Note that it’s surrounded by a smooth border.
We can leave wild surfaces intact or use carving tools or stamps to create a contrasting texture. On your next visit to town, check out the courthouse or post office and take note of the rustication. Try to imagine what the designer was trying to do with it. Did they use it playfully? Was it overdone? It happens. Check it out from different vantage points. Often I just squint at it and let my eyes go out of focus. Try it. That out of focus view lets you block out detail and just see the major elements. Who knows, you may just find a spark to inspire your next project.
Here deeply chamfered stones highlight a corner.
Any design ideas lurking right under your nose?
George R. Walker