One woodworker and writer who had an early impact on my approach to woodworking was James Krenov. Back in the 80’s I stumbled on one of his books at the library. His words about making planes and how it allows us to connect with the material struck a chord with me. Krenov, through his writing and teaching re-introduced thousands of woodworkers to this traditional way of working wood. The genius of his work speaks for itself. His own furniture designs were not traditional, but his use of traditional tools and time-honored techniques were an important part of the equation. For some time now I’ve been exploring traditional design. It’s not to be confused with period furniture which is one of the products of this design approach. Traditional design for me is actually a mindset. I approach design from a proportional viewpoint. I’m always intrigued that our forebears in the pre-industrial era saw things and communicated in proportional terms. There’s a part of me thinks the average cabinetmaker from the 18th century forgot more than I know about proportions. I think this because as I examine period work, the underlying proportions never fail to dazzle me. Actually when I do look at period furniture (circa 1680-1830); I’m amazed at how much the styles varied. There is a huge span from the bold turnings of William and Mary, to the slender curves of Queen Anne, to the sometimes wild carving of Chippendale, and finally the sleek geometry of the Federal era.
This broad range of design is underpinned by a design approach with a heavy reliance on proportions. That range actually proves to me that this underlying proportional approach can guide the design of any style of furniture. Another one of my woodworking heroes is Roy Underhill. Sir Roy said, “We had a saying at Williamsburg, stop trying to improve the 18th century.” From the aspect of what the 18th century can teach us about proportions I totally agree. For my part I keep my dividers close by and continue to dig out design nuggets that can enrich our designs at the workbench. A few of you may want to hear about design from a modern perspective with more up to date jargon. I’ll freely admit I’m not well versed in the latest design theories or comfortable arguing the finer points of contemporary design. Krenov knew the lowly hand plane offered creative possibilities that could not be improved upon. I’ll continue to keep searching from our rich furniture design tradition and attempt to bring it forward in a practical way.
Note: These furniture images were taken at a recent regional meeting of SAPFM (Society of American Period Furniture Makers). For more information about SAPFM and the wonderful work they do, click the link on the side bar.