Design Critique 05/07/2010

Furniture designer and builder Bob Passaro submitted this bench for a design critique. Bob poses that age old question that every artisan wrestles with. Like many of us he wonders what he might do differently if he built another. I often pose the same question. When to stop and leave well enough alone? Do you ever stop questioning, experimenting, and playing? I also wonder how many versions did the masters go through before they brought a form to it’s conclusion? It’s obvious looking at the work of the Townsends and Goddards in Newport that their work evolved and changed not just with the styles of the day, but also within those styles. You can definitely see a progression as they perfected a form. 

Your input on this is appreciated. The following are Bob’s comments –

Here are two images of a simple bench I built several years ago while
I was a student at the Northwest Woodworking Studio. I have many
opinions of my own about this piece. Some things I like, some I don’t.
I’m going to keep them to myself for the moment, till I hear what you
all think.

Since the day I finished this piece, I have wanted to build another
version and try to refine the parts I feel didn’t quite work. In fact,
I have some pieces roughed out, sitting in a corner of the shop till I
work out exactly how I want to approach this on the second go-round.
And I would love to hear others’ thoughts as I try to figure that out.
I’m not going to have a thin skin about it, so please feel free to be

By way of background, this idea came to me one evening while I was
having dinner with my wife at one those restaurants that uses big
sheets of plain white paper as table “cloths” and leaves a jar of
crayons on the table. So while we were waiting for our food, I drew
the essence of this design in crayon on the table. I think I ended up
tearing the piece off after dinner so I could take it with me.

— Bob Passaro

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25 Responses to Design Critique 05/07/2010

  1. Jeremy says:

    I really like the top, and wouldn’t change a thing about that. I think the thing that seems “off” to me is that the nature of the curves in the top isn’t playing well to my eye with the curves in the stretcher and the legs. I couldn’t say for sure without seeing an alternate version, but I think the reason those two areas aren’t working perfectly together for me is that in the lower part, the stretcher and the legs, the curves terminate in sharp points – the middle of the stretcher and the middle of the leg – whereas the curves in the top have a more natural radius and “flow” into each other. Also, I really like the contrasting-wedged through-tenons on the legs. I’d be curious to see what it would look like if there were one or two similar through-tenons per leg popping out on the top…

    One last thing I couldn’t tell from the pictures. Are the legs flared down, wider at the floor than they are at the top? I don’t know if I’m imparting an asian/Greene & Greene influence here that I shouldn’t, but some part of me just wants to see straight legs on a piece in that style. I can’t put my finger on it.

    I wouldn’t change the wood, or the “beefiness”, or the through-tenons, or the curves in the top. All of that is really working for me.

    Thanks for showing us the piece, Bob!

  2. James says:

    I really enjoy this design and I do not think there would be much I would change if I made it myself. If anything, I would relax the radius at the ends of the seat to more closely match the top radius of the bottom rail.

    Great work!

  3. aaron says:

    First off, I feel as if the design of the top carries the piece – in terms of what is most recognizable and unique, as well as the main surface that people will actually use. I like the top, and the slightly beveled ends coming off those curves are a nice touch. they make it look like the whole piece was molded rather than cut.

    that said, I dont think that the legs and stretcher complement the top. The stretcher might work as one complete curve, rather than having those two inflection points. The convex curve on the legs is an element I’ve never liked, and I seem to prefer concave.

    Perhaps a single-stepped cloud lift type of pattern would work for the bottom of the legs. Sort of like a completion of the curves you’ve made in the top (or as if you placed two of these side by side, then the tops would complete a single-stepped cloud lift type of curve). I say cloud lift because that’s the closest thing i can think of, although the corner radii of cloud lifts are rather small. Really the corner radii should be proportionally similar to the curve of the top piece. If you did that though, the stretcher would have to be redesigned completely.

    Now that I think about it more, it seems like the “molded” looking top is at odds with the definitely “cut” sides and stretcher. Was that the theory behind the design?

  4. aaron says:

    hah, yeah, pretty much what jeremy said! I also like the through wedged tenons and would love to see them through the top as well… easy for me to say 🙂

  5. Naugled says:

    There is definitely something interesting about the seat. It has the strongest design of all the elements. That being said, the stretcher and legs I think could use some design tweaks. The stretcher doesn’t seem to follow the seat. The shapes of the seat need to be reflected or contrasted in the stretcher somehow. Also the legs don’t seem to add much. The curves at the bottom of the leg could be changed. Lastly I’d drop the dark wedges in the tenon, they are visually necessary. You definitely have something here, it just needs some refinement. Nice job.

  6. Tom says:

    Straighten the stretcher. The legs look as if the faces are sculpted which I find intriguing. I would lose the fish tale ends and emphasize the sculpture.

    Personally the bench looks too heavy. I would either lighten the top or the bottom. At first I thought the bottom, then after starring at the bench for a few minutes, I think the top should be half the thickness of the legs. The top would look like it is floating away but the base is keeping it grounded.

  7. Bob Passaro says:

    Thanks! I am enjoying and appreciating these comments. Very interesting. I’ll give more of my thoughts later, but I’ll jump in now to answer Jeremy’s question: Yes, the legs taper in width, getting wider at the bottom.

    Also, I did consider through tenons on the top. I decided to opt for restraint there, not wanting to distract from what I thought was a nice and simple shape.

    I’ll mention one other thing, as it seems to be something you guys are picking up on. The initial, driving idea for this bench was the shape of the top. It happened as a quick flash of an idea. (Love it when that happens — too infrequently). The design of the understructure came later and was more work and struggle.

    Keep the comments coming! This is great.

  8. Chuck Nickerson says:

    Perhaps I’m too literal, but I’d try to have the streatcher’s and the legs’ curves match or mimic the seat’s curve.

    I really like the seat’s shape, even though it decreases the useable length of the seat. To me it suggests the Green&Green cloud-lift detail.

  9. Steve says:

    Many of my thoughts have already been echoed by the earlier comments. I liked the top, but the legs and the stretcher (which work ok together IMO), don’t match up with the top. My eyes would want to experiment with repeating the same shape of the top on a smaller scale with both the stretchers and the legs. I would want to sketch out a bench with the stretcher shaped like the top in both a simlar orientation as the top, and an inverted stretcher (i.e. with the stretcher rising towards the seat in the center). For the legs, I am wondering about taking the general shape of the top, turning onto the vertical, and using two of these legs on each end – they would sort of look like an “X” from the side with the flat center portions running together for a short while. My idea of the legs might ultimately look a little too busy for the simple form of the piece, but that is what my mind would have to experiement with.

    Thanks for sharing your work Bob.

  10. walkerg says:

    I too really enjoy the shape of the seat. In fact I could see this in teak or cypress and converted into a great bench for a garden. I have a feeling my wife will be asking for a couple. I also share the thoughts about the curves in the stretcher and the bottom of the legs. They quietly echo each other but are not really connecting with the seat which is the main focal point. I’d play around with some curves in the stretcher that echoes the seat. It could mirror it with either a concave or convex cloud lift. A part of me wonders what it would look like without the stretcher at all(especially in a garden bench version)? Or perhaps a horizontal stretcher with the cloud lift curves cut into the faces of the stretcher? Something very subtle that you only notice on closer inspection.


  11. Bob Passaro says:

    Thanks so much, everyone who commented. And thanks to George for hosting these discussions.

    A lot of these comments jibe with my own thoughts about this piece:

    * I have always liked the shape of the top. I think it has a nice grace to it. But I have felt the whole bench is a little too “blocky.” That’s the word that always comes to mind. I think by that I mean that the pieces are too heavy, too thick — especially the top. Tom had the same reaction, though Jeremy said he liked the “beefiness.” I had been thinking I would thin out the top a little bit. I might still give that a try.

    But more of you pointed to a mismatch of the top and the base as perhaps a more glaring problem. I think I agree. They don’t quite work together for me either — especially the curves on the bottoms of the legs. They seem a little cartoonish — and at some point they started reminding me of … well … butt cheeks. The stretcher I have more mixed feelings about. It’s kind of birdlike, of course, which I like in theory, but somehow it’s not working. Your comments on this have given me a lot to think about. Jeremy’s comment about the sharp points causing part of the clash is interesting. Still, I can’t tell you how many different versions of this I sketched in the original process, and I kept returning to this stretcher shape. But I agree with many of the comments here that it may be a good idea to echo the shape of the top in the stretcher somehow and maybe in the legs, too. (I’m sure I tried this at the time I originally designed this, but I can’t remember why I rejected it.) George offers the idea of just removing the stretcher altogether, which is an intriguing idea.

    Also, Aaron makes what I think is a perceptive comment about the top seeming “molded” and the stretcher seeming more just “cut out.” I think that’s true. I had been thinking about doing some more shaping on the legs — that is, not just changing the shape in two dimensions, but working more definitely in three — some shaping a la Maloof.

    Aaron also asks about the “theory” behind the design. Always a good question. Often a hard question, too. I guess I do like the notion of flight. Somebody once said they thought some of my furniture looked like it was about to “take flight.” Best compliment I think I have ever gotten. But, again, this piece feels too heavy to have achieved that. And even if, perhaps, the birdlike stretcher can be made to work — the “butt cheeks” must go! 🙂

    * Finally, it was interesting what George wrote in his introduction to this post, about how furniture designers gradually alter their designs. Anybody who has ever looked at Sam Maloof’s book knows that his early chairs — which you rarely see photos of — were so different than what came later, although you can see in them the essence of what came later. But it seems it took years before the design that we now associate with him — that iconic rocker — fully evolved. Probably it was still evolving right up until he passed away.

    It’s too bad there’s so much work involved in creating a piece only to say, “Hmmm, that’s not exactly right …” Even with sketches, models and mockups, sometimes I find I can’t fully see the end result until the piece is done. That feeling must weigh even more heavily on an architect, who probably is going to get only one shot at any given project. But, then, maybe it’s all part of the fun.

    Thanks, everybody. You’ve helped me understand a little better the places this isn’t working and given me some good ideas for figuring out how to appoach version 2.0.

  12. jlsmith says:


    I suppose I could add my personal observations to the list of comments already posted, but it seems they pretty much cover the formal (as in form) issues regarding the design and from your own comments it doesn’t seem like you are really being told anything you don’t already know. So, while the comments suggests many formal ways to modify and perhaps improve the design I would suggest that the major weakness of the design is not what it has but what it is lacking. I would argue that the design is missing a comprehensive ‘idea’ (or concept). Whether you realize it or not, I believe you suggest this yourself when you state: “The design of the understructure came later and was more work and struggle.” Did you ever consider why it was such a struggle? Could it have been due to a lack of an idea to guide your search for the form? Some of the comments hint at this notion but fail to call it out explicitly (Aaron comes closest when he asks “Was that the theory behind the design?”). Without an idea what you eventually end up with is a series of choices; you could do this or you could do that but all these choices beg the question: how do you decide between them? Ideas are really quite plentiful and they don’t have to be profound you just need to have one. What a clear conceptual idea will do is provide you with a way to evaluate the whole universe of formal (as in form) ideas. As you develop various forms they can be judged as to whether they are consistent with the concept. This isn’t an easy process and it takes a lot of mental discipline to constantly judge whether a specific formal move is consistent with the ‘idea’ but if you have the discipline it will result in a very cohesive design.

    Bob, I wrote this prior to reading your last post (I typically write ‘offline’ and then post) and decided to post it anyways without making any changes. Hopefully you will find it useful.

    • Bob Passaro says:

      Very useful, yes. Thanks for this. Ultimately, I think you are right. My furniture-making mentor, Gary Rogowski, whose program I built this for, used to ask, “So what are you trying to do with this piece?” And I would hem and haw and get annoyed. It is a difficult question, but this does provide another whole way of thinking. I’ll ponder it for a while. Fortunately, this is just a project for myself. No deadline. Yay!

      • jlsmith says:

        One of the key problems with the whole ‘idea’ thing is that to often people read ‘idea’ and think ‘BIG idea’. Any idea (almost) will do. It does not have to be ‘grand’ or ‘important’, so don’t become paralyzed thinking that the idea of the piece has to be ‘something’. It can even be something no one ever even knows about.

  13. jlsmith says:

    “That feeling must weigh even more heavily on an architect, who probably is going to get only one shot at any given project.”

    As an architect, you get use to it’s, part of the gig (but project are constantly undergoing changes even as they are built). But that is why the cliche response of an architect to the question: which is your favorite project? is ‘my next one’.

  14. Tom says:

    I want to thank JL Smith. I am struggling with a piece right now and I think you hit the nail on the head. I designed and built a piece with a significant part waiting for inspiration. How did I get myself in this position when I KNOW better? Now I need to step back and say “what is the concept”. I vow from now on to build only after I have a concept in mind.


    • jlsmith says:

      It’s always good to hear that someone finds my comments are helpful. I would wish you good luck but it isn’t really about luck now is it… ;).

  15. Kris says:

    My thoughts echo the rest of the comments so I have nothing to add there. However, as a learning experience I think this exercise is a great one and I’m glad George has decided to host these discussions. In looking at this piece I came up with my own comments and was relieved to find some of them echoed, and also delighted to find some new ways to consider things. In all I find this a very valuable learning experience and a good way to try and grow as a designer. Thanks to everyone who has participated!

  16. Clint says:

    I like the wood and the finish. I just couldn’t figure how the seat tied to the base and spanner. It really gave me the feeling of two design styles put together.

    The top feels like an organic piece. The spanner and legs feel like they belong to something more whimsical. The two styles just don’t seem to meet or share much.

    It isn’t an ugly piece. It looks nice. But it definitely feels like two pieces.

    • Bob Passaro says:

      I think whimsical is a good word for what’s going on there. But, yes, that’s not really what I was after.

  17. Clint says:

    I responded before reading other comments. Looks like I repeated the general sentiments.

    I agree with jlsmith’s advice about having an idea which you hold to throughout the piece. In reading your own comments, it sounds like you had a top, then hit upon the bird theme for the spanner afterward.

    At that point, you might have been better to either set aside the top and run with the second inspiration, or set aside the second inspiration and continued with the first until your first project (the seat top) was complete.

    As you’ve suggested, any piece made offers lessons to be learned.

  18. Robert says:

    I want to throw in a different thought. Most responses have liked the top but not the bottom. Well, I like the bottom and not the top. I like the sharp point and sharp join, and am not so keen on the ‘flow’ of the top. It looks melted, rather than crisp.
    What I would try is to make the transition in the seat from the flat section to the curves a sharp corner. Finish the seat curves either horizontal, or still lifting, otherwise there will be a feeling of droop.
    You might need to raise the ends of the stretcher relative to the middle to complement this ‘lift’ in the top.
    I think I would also experiment with the thickness of the elements.
    What is the end view of the piece? Don’t neglect it.

    • Bob Passaro says:

      Thanks, Robert.
      You know, another idea I’d been toying with is the idea of using more “hard lines” in this piece. By that I mean, something like the way Sam Maloof would sculpt rounded pieces while leaving an “edge” or what you might call a “ridge” — for instance, what you see between the top of the leg and the crest rail on this image from the cover of one of his books. ( )
      I am considering shaping the front edge so it is more rounded, less of a “face,” but has one hard line to emphasize the shape of the curve.
      Sounds like it is the shape itself that isn’t working for you, so maybe that’s not the right solution from your perspective. But I think the wide face of the front edge of the seat is too clunky and I’d like to try to emphasize it with one “edge,” as it were. I’ve never thought about the ends being “droopy.” I’ll ponder that, too.

  19. aaron says:

    robert brings up a good point. I can’t picture exactly what he means, but adapting the seat to fit the legs/stretcher might improve continuity – for one piece.

    Still, the seat design is good in its own right and worth building a more appropriate foundation for – as a second, separate peace.

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