Declaration of righteous furniture design

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In all the creative fields, every once in a while someone comes along and says “Good (fill in the blank- painting, sculpture, poetry, furniture, music) should be X, Y, or Z. We could make up quite a long list and we would find many contradictions. Furniture should have the joinery visible and integrated in the design. Or joinery should be hidden and surfaces seamless. Furniture should not have to rely on ornament and should stand on its own. Vs Ornament completes a design and emphasizes the underlying form. I could go on and on. When I look at these declarations about what constitutes good design, I’m well aware that often they are important keys to understanding a new direction in style and can really have important things to add to what we know about design. But, I always approach these, what I call “declarations of righteous furniture” with a bit of suspicion. I once had a furniture builder tell me he always avoids any curves in his designs. To me he was saying, he was limiting his boundaries to what he could build with his table saw and other simple machines he was comfortable with. I’ve also heard the pronouncement – No more old brown furniture. Which leads me to ask? Since 98% of wood used in furniture building comes naturally in neutral earth tones (shades of brown), what is this saying? Is it saying wood no longer is our primary material for making furniture? We are free to fabricate it out of steel reinforced concrete or lay some veneer over a foam core? I also wonder if some of these pronouncements aren’t meant to sway consumers away from or towards something as more of a marketing ploy than really having something to say about design. I understand the desire to do something new, but struggle with ignoring such a rich beautiful design heritage we have been blessed with. So I’m going to take a plunge and list my thinking on righteous furniture, go ahead and take some shots if you disagree, but hopefully they will resonate and help you build better. My underlying foundation always goes back to the principles of good design laid down by Vitruvius, a Roman architect. He stated a good design should have three qualities: firmitas, commoditas, and venustas. Roughly translated a design should be sturdy, functional, and beautiful. The last piece of that, making furniture that looks good is really where all the disagreement and contradiction comes into play. I’m not pushing a particular style. Any furniture that’s well thought out and executed can have something to say. As an example, I’m not fond of baroque furniture or architecture. Yet you can find profound lessons in how to combine and manipulate light and dark tones in baroque furniture. For my part I’m more impressed by a nicely executed Welsh stick chair than a poor mushy interpretation of a Philadelphia highboy. That’s not to say I don’t like high style furniture. Something masterfully executed can make my heart almost stop, and I mean that in a good way.

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Tilt top table by Larry Bilderback

I also limit my interest to furniture that’s primarily wood and designs that can be produced in a traditional shop. If a design requires a hidden carbon fiber support structure or titanium castings to hold it together, it’s beyond me. That’s about the only “shouldn’t” I have in my righteous viewpoint. On the”should” side of it, as long as it’s well done, go for it. Leave tool marks, erase them, carve, bend, veneer, paint, gild, even add a little stone, bone, or metal. Ultimately it’s about making furniture the grandkids fight over when you’re gone.

I’m interested in hearing any of your declarations of righteous furniture.

George Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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23 Responses to Declaration of righteous furniture design

  1. Christopher says:

    Okay, I’ll have a go. Righteous furniture makes a conscience statement about who we are as a society. The customers of Chippendale and Townsend wanted to express their wealth through exotic materials and ornamentation. The arts and craft movement wanted to bring nobility back to craftsmanship, the Shakers wanted the simplicity of their theology to come alive through their furniture. Artists such as Maloof and Nakashima celebrated American individuality and, dare I say, Ikea demonstrates the shift from permanent furniture to disposable furniture.

    I think that as long as a maker adds to the spirit of the period, he or she at least has a shot at making righteous furniture. I suspect that the maker’s skill, motivation, influence then determine whether the piece makes the grade or not.

    But hey, what do I know?

  2. Nathan Beal says:

    I disagree with you a bit about your one “shouldn’t”. Fabricating carbon fiber parts doesn’t require much in the way of specialized equipment, only specialized knowledge, and if one has the knowledge to build with it one should feel free to utilize any material in their design. If metal, stone and bone are acceptable materials, which take special skill to work, so too should newer materials be accepted. That is to say, it sounds to me as if you are dismissing automatically any piece of furniture that uses carbon fiber, without giving it the same consideration of your discerning eye that you would give to a baroque piece. Each piece of furniture should be viewed based on its design rather than its materials, though you should feel free to state afterward any criticism that fits.
    Please realize that this is meant to be uplifting, not derogatory, and I would love to hear your response.

    • walkerg says:

      Nathan,

      You make some very valid points. I agree that the material (non-wood)shouldn’t automatically disqualify a design. I do look at and admire designs made from many materials, including carbon fiber. I must admit, I thought of it as a high tech material requiring specialized equipment. Bottom line for me though is that I’m a woodworker. I may admire or even be inspired by a chair made of stainless steel and injection molded parts, but I have no desire to add a TIG welder to my woodshop. When I said including bone stone and metal, I was thinking more along the lines of them playing a minor decorative role and being included because in small bits and pieces they can be worked with simple tools not far from the realm of the average woodworker. I have a chunk of stone tucked away under one of my workbenches. A rockhound friend of mine gave it to me. It’s soft and can be cut with hand saw, has a reddish hue and swirled grain. Someday, a slice of it might find its way into a piece of furniture. Where I draw the line, and this is just me personally, is when wood is relegated to a minor role as an accent to another material. Sculptors can spend a lifetime exploring the possibilities of working with marble. Wood is my medium and I doubt I’ll ever exhaust the potential it offers.

      George

  3. jlsmith says:

    I declare (in my best southern drawl)…

    While it is understandable, I would caution you on your steadfast reliance on Vitruvius as your ‘axis mundi’. As it was once pointed out to me a long time ago in first year architectural design studio, the single most important thing about Vitruvius is not the merits of his writings but simply that his book is the only one from the period to survive. Vitruvius is absolutely essential reading but he is one part of a much larger world of historical architectural design theory and should be treated that way. After all, all of the Greek masterpieces were constructed without the benefit of reading Vitruvius.

    Moralizing, particularly as it relates to design, is a dicey exercise. ‘Righteousness’ equates to morally correct which establishes a bipolar system of morally correct design and what, ‘immoral’ design or maybe ‘amoral’ design? Take your pick, if you are willing to label certain work ‘righteous’ how then do you describe all the ‘non-righteous’ work? This type of thinking is counter-productive to the free-flowing movement of ideas that is inherent in all design. So while I agree with your reaction to such ‘declarations’, I am surprised to see you toss this very idea away in the next few sentences. Why shouldn’t someone be free to fabricate in any material they want? By stating that some materials might not be appropriate aren’t you just following in the footsteps of the ‘no curves’ or the ‘no brown furniture’ folks?

    But perhaps the idea I take the biggest exception to is the notion that the goal of all this is immorality (otherwise known as grandkids fighting over your estate). Whether someone has grandkids and whether they find any value in the work the person has designed and created does not reflect in any way the value or satisfaction, in all its forms, that can be derived from designing and creating.

    • walkerg says:

      JlSmith,
      Looks like I may have drawn some blood on this post, perhaps some of my own. We already have a bipolar atmosphere in furniture design with some pretty well entrenched camps. That’s precisely the reason I used (tongue in cheek) reference to righteous furniture. The modernist, post modernist, and period traditionalist camps all have their taboos that entangle them. Many admire a great concert musician that strives to deliver a perfect rendition of a classical masterpiece, but I talk to many woodworkers who don’t see any kind of equivalence in someone reproducing a great Townsend or Affleck piece. It might come across as shallow to want to have grandkids appreciate my work, but the fact is, it’s important to me. As is the importance of keeping our great tradition of furniture building and craftsmanship alive for generations to come. For me that’s a piece of this. I do wish I could call upon a great true southern drawl I’m envious, only respect intended.

      George

      • jlsmith says:

        George

        Ah, the difficulty of conveying irony in a blog. So, let me assure you that I am not the source of any blood you might think you see. Being an architect and a worker of the wood I have very thick skin and I barely bleed even when I come in direct contact with sharp edge.

        Regarding my ‘best southern drawl’ that is ‘best’ as in the ‘best I could do’ which is neither great or true. So your envy is unwarranted.

        Now to be (only a bit more) serious, just because their are factions that are so entrenched that their world view is restricted to what they can see through their navel (if you get my point), that is no excuse for playing along with their ridiculous taboos. One must not give credence to the notion that someone knows how it all should be done and everyone else needs to do as they say.

        And finally, if you would have said:
        ‘Ultimately, for me, it’s about making furniture the grandkids fight over when I’m gone.’
        You wouldn’t heard a peep from me about it.

      • walkerg says:

        jlsmith,
        I appreciate your thoughtful comments. They gave me pause to think again about what is the engine that drives my creative motor. For me it’s about connections. I do a lot of work in my shop with handtools, partly because of the creative possibilities they offer but also because they allow me to connect more closely with the material. I love just about every process of building furniture (with the exception of sanding) but it’s eclipsed by the pleasure I get when the recipient, often a close freind or relative shares my excitement as a piece comes together. It’s sort of like sharing a dazzling sunset with someone except it doesn’t fade away in twilight.

        George

      • jlsmith says:

        George

        The romanticism (as in Beethoven, Goethe, and Rousseau sense) of sharing a ‘dazzling sunset’ is very compelling. How could anyone taken exception to this sort of analogy to explain why they do what they do? But, a question arises: are you saying that the way you connect to close friends or relative is by spending untold hours alone in your shop making things to give them so you can have that moment of experiencing the ‘dazzling sunset’ with them? Seems to me that spending some of that shop time before, during and even after a real dazzling sunset might even be a better way to enjoy those connections and could even leave a more lasting memory of you after your gone than a pile of finely shaped wood. Perhaps while important those connections aren’t quite as important to your woodworking as you might like to think they are. Of course, it is entirely possible that I am completely off base.

      • walkerg says:

        jlsmith,

        The connections I am speaking of are not a cause and affect kind of thing but more of a spontanious experiance that’s a bit hard to express and it’s not always about seeing my work going to an appreciative recipient. I remember having the opportunity to closely examine a wonderful example of a Newport tea table with a story stick and dividers. Late one evening the proportional scheme jumped out at me. It was like lifting the lid on an old music box and hearing something thats been hidden for centuries. Again it’s a connection but with an artisan long gone. Can’t tell you how profound that was. Other times I feel it when I share the work of other builders at SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers) meetings. Maybe the connections are not what drives me but they make this infinitely more enjoyable.

        George

      • jlsmith says:

        George

        I understand your response completely. This is what I refer to as ‘finding the thread’. It’s the thread of endeavor that runs through all of human history but is probably most easily recognized in the realm of archeology, architecture and handmade objects. I don’t used the term ‘connection’ to describe it but I understand your use. In my career, I have had the good fortune to experience many such occasions, like walking through a rediscovered villa at Herculanum and seeing the carbonized remains of the furniture (no story sticks allowed), or seeing all the various artifacts at Monticello, to name just two. These experiences can be quite profound if one is open to them. So now that that is finally settled I will stop my badgering and leave you to more productive pursuits….

    • Dennis says:

      Immoral furniture.

      Absolutely brilliant! I think I just found an inspiration for some upcoming projects (If you don’t mind, of course.)

      Dennis

  4. D Grant says:

    If you’re speaking strictly as a furniture designer, to shun any particular material isn’t particularly justified; there’s nothing inherent to ‘furniture’ that excludes non-wood materials.

    It would be akin to a woodworker saying that woodworking should be limited to building tables and chairs – there’s nothing inherent to ‘woodworking’ that excludes building non-furniture pieces.

    I think it’s just a matter of your perspective as a woodworker leaching into your perspective as a furniture designer; in discussing one matter, you’re introducing the other.

    • D Grant says:

      I should add: there’s nothing wrong with speaking as a ‘woodworking furniture designer’, of course, just as long as people know that’s your perspective.

      Loving your posts so far, always thought provoking!

      • walkerg says:

        D Grant,

        You hit it exactly, I am speaking as a woodworking furniture designer. Thats the reason for my knuckle dragging insistance on sticking to wood.

        George

  5. bpassaro says:

    I, too, always keep in mind that holy trio — utility, durability, beauty. I didn’t know that came from Vitruvius. You’re right, the last of those three is extremely subjective. But you also run across furniture that sacrifices durability (cough, ikea). True it’s all very sleek, it may be eminently useful (for a few years) and it is certainly cheap. But I have to say I find something disrespectful in that — in making something you really should know will be on the curb in five years. Assuming there’s real wood in whatever it is, that’s just a waste. If it’s just made of sawdust and glue, well, i dunno. But this is the thing I have trouble swallowing about furniture design — it’s not about subjective beauty. It’s about building stuff that is intended to be disposable.

    • jlsmith says:

      Should we also assume that all your possessions (you know, your woodworking machines and tools, car, clothes, appliances, tv, cell phone, etc) are made by hand by master craftsmen that will last for 100s of years and be passed down through generation after generation or do you only hold this ‘disrespect’ for inexpensive furniture? Inexpensive products that offer value (which I believe IKEA does) allow those who can’t afford the best of the best to still enjoy the benefits of the modern world. I happen to own a few IKEA products that are well over 10 years old and still working well and looking good, which is more than I can say for some of my woodworking ‘products’ (LOL). My point is the world is a big place with lots of different needs/desires to be met, so I see no reason to restrict goods and services because they don’t meet some perceived notion of what qualifies as acceptable.

      • bpassaro says:

        Well, no, I don’t much respect the making of cheap junk of any variety — phones, clothes, furniture, vegetable steamers or underwear (price is not what I’m talking about precisely; I’m talking about quality). It’s not about handmade vs. mass produced either — you make a wild generalization there. Mass produced stuff can be well made, certainly. And I said nothing about “restricting” anything. It’s just my definition of what’s “righteous” and not. Nothing more. (This probably isn’t the forum for a larger discussion of Ikea. Sorry I mentioned it.)

      • jlsmith says:

        bpassaro

        You just made may day, I haven’t been accused of doing anything wild in decades, lol

  6. Jim Crammond says:

    George,

    I am really enjoying your blog. You’ve thrown out some interesting and thought provoking material. I look forward to seeing your column, too.

    Jim

  7. Jim Tolpin says:

    So back to the question: What makes for a beautiful piece of furniture…or architecture? Is there a universal “something about it” going on here? Does this “something” cross cultures, periods, styles, materials? Well for me, yes there is…and I believe its profoundly fundamental: For a built form to look beautiful there must be something inherently familiar about it. But not familiar in the sense that one has previously seen that particular form and/or style (i.e. you grow up around colonial furniture so therefore if it looks colonialesque then it automatically looks beautiful..or at least “right”). Instead, the familiarity is in the gut…in our DNA. It looks right because it just feels right. If you were to invite 10 people at random out of the phone book to take a look, then 8 or 9 out of 10 would agree. What they are agreeing with you about is (I propose) what this blog is ultimately about.

    Well that’s my 2 cents worth (and worth every penny as my Dad used to say).

  8. tim Rowledge says:

    Some of you might enjoy “watches tell more than time” by Del Coates. (http://www.amazon.com/Watches-Tell-More-Than-Time/dp/0071362436)
    He argues the importance of ‘concinnity’, a sort of synthesis of Vitruvius’ requirements that brings in what I think of as ‘feeling appropriate’. I found it quite fascinating and very much in tune with what I learned many years ago at the Royal College of Art.

  9. Sean Hughto says:

    I don’t think one can really say a priori what characteristics will make something great. One might however be able to meaningfully identify the approaches that tend to set the table and invite greatness in.

    Following a “recipe,” one may arrive at a tasty and competent dish, but it takes an inspired and attuned chef to recognize the possibilities in the day’s available ingredients and how they are coming together to really arrive at something great, and especially something original. There are large doses of improvisation and fortuitity along with skill and talent in the really good stuff.

    So what sets the table:

    – great materials

    – a sincere approach (avoiding the kitsch and the trite)

    – a willingness to take risks and to fail

    – skill, talent, and patience

    – striving for quality (in the sense that term is used in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” for example

    – staying open to the possibilities through the creative process

    – accepting the inevitable deviations from the piece as originally envisioned or abstracted in the mind’s eye (some might say “imperfections”) as a sort of vocabulary for the piece to express itself (like jazz)

    There are many more no doubt, but these are the sorts of things that might lead to “righteous furniture” at the end of the day more so than a priori limitations like: “it must be wood” or “it must have exposed joints” or what have you. You don’t know if something is “good” or not until you see it fully realized – in the flesh as built and available to be experienced.

    • jlsmith says:

      A tip of the cap Sean, well played. On the assumption you aren’t already aware of it I would like to recommend David Pye’s book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship”. Any one who includes the importance of the “willingness to take risks and to fail” when discussing the act of creating should, if they haven’t already, read it.

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