Many times I hear woodworkers venture their honest thoughts about contemporary design. It often goes something like this – “I’m really drawn to contemporary work, but…”
The “but” is usually followed by some head scratching mostly because the word contemporary is a wide ocean. That ocean includes wonderful interpretations of traditional forms like this rocker by Jeff Miller, to the opposite extreme of fringe artistic statements disguised as chairs. I once had a university student in a prestigious furniture program show me his “tornado” inspired pieces. Close your eyes and imagine boards slammed into ragged sections of drywall by hurricane force winds. The lumber jutting from the damaged wall becomes a table and chairs, complete with broken strands of wire and conduit. It left me speechless.
I too am drawn to some contemporary work but much in that vast ocean leaves me flat. This might surprise you, but I feel much the same way about a good deal of period furniture. A Thomas Seymour sideboard from early 19th century Boston is a page from a great symphony of work, while the uber-ornate Chippendale Gothic furniture is to my eye like a 1970’s era olive green dishwasher. Best laid to rest in another era.
My thoughts about design, contemporary or otherwise are summed up in the thoughts of Thomas Sheraton in his Drawing Book published circa 1793. Although he was introducing a new wave of contemporary furniture to usher in the 19th century, he was most concerned that designers try to grasp basic fundamentals that are timeless and true. Principles like using proportions to create harmony and understanding form, concepts that transcend the whims of fashion. Like the value of perfect pitch to a singer, these core principles never change but always stand ready for infinite waves of creativity. Whether you understand it or not, if you see a compelling design, chances are you are hearing that perfect pitch, one or more of those fundamentals hardwired into our brains.
Shameful plug here. I’ll be out in Port Townsend Washington the weekend of Aug 26th – 28th for a workshop exploring these timeless principles of design. There are still some openings and I promise it will transform the way you approach design. Hope to see you there!
George R. Walker