It never fails to amaze me that many of the debates we thrash about with furniture design have been the subject of much thought for centuries, even millennia. Ornament in its many forms seems to draw fire and always seems to go through a process where we explore it, master it, then overdo it, and finally tire of the excess and come to the conclusion to wipe the slate clean and banish it. Many styles we revere today were actually a reaction to an older fashion that morphed into something a far cry from its origins. The sleek clean geometry of federal furniture was a reaction to Chippendale Rococo and it’s over the top carving. Somewhat related to ornament is structure and the views on how it should be handled in a design.
I’m not speaking about structure in the engineering sense where we make decisions about how to size a tenon, but whether we choose to make the joinery a visible part of the design composition. Designers in antiquity often took liberties in including structural elements in a building even when those elements did nothing more than stylize an ancient form. The familiar dental molding on a classical building is actually a stylized representation (often in stone) of the more ancient timber roof structure that inspired it. Often columns are sunk into a wall or depicted as flat pilasters but have no load bearing function. The building load is carried by walls of brick but the columns give the form a sense of structure. Furniture design, taking its cue from architecture has run the gamut on the treatment of structure. At times structure is left in plain view giving the idea of good honest workmanship. Other times just the opposite with elaborate measures taken to hide any hint of structure. Veneer was often plastered over all joints (sometimes with disastrous results) and sometimes extreme measures like employing full blind dovetails to hide all traces of joinery. On many modern designs, structural elements or details that hint at structure can often be highlighted and made part of the overall scheme. Drawbore pins fashioned in ebony and carved with facets to contrast slightly with the surrounding wood. In this way these structural elements take on a more decorative ornamental role. My thoughts on structure are still forming but here is what guides me in general. All the different approaches have their place. Joinery can be hidden, in plain sight, or emphasized, there is no right or wrong. Whatever route is chosen, carry it through the entire design. If you openly display joinery in one place look for opportunities to mirror it in others. If you choose to hide, then carry that theme throughout. Another aspect is scale. The joinery should be scaled in proportion to the overall piece. My own rule of thought is to scale it close to what it requires to actually perform its function and avoid the temptation to put it on steroids. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about how you approach structure or displaying joinery from an esthetic view.
George R. Walker