Design critique July 2011

bench detail by John Deerman

John Deerman, a furniture builder in Bozeman Montana submitted some recent work for critique. It’s been  a little while since we’ve done this and a few thoughts might be helpful about critiques in general. This might be a bit different than a critique in a classroom setting but actually I think that’s a strength. The majority of participant’s are woodworkers and builders more interested in concise constructive comments than dissertations on the influence of post-neo-midlothianism.

If you have a comment, it will help you as well as everyone else if you can give not just your opinion but also  communicate the reasons why. Whether you like something or hate it, there’s no benefit to anyone if you can’t explain what you see. If fact that’s a pretty good approach when looking at any built work. Why does it work for you? Change this or that because….  

Also, feel free to ask questions, I’m sure John would benefit by some give and take about his design choices.

 Below are John’s comments.

 I have been building furniture since 1993 and have taken many paths. The piece I would like you and your readers to critique is from a line of modern furniture I am developing. It is a bench seat. 52″ long, 17″ deep and 15″ high. It is made of Cherry and rift sawn red larch. The joinery is through mortise and tenon wedged both at the shelf aprons and at the top joints. The shelf is attached with Miller dowels. It is finished with a smoothing plane and scraper cards and Skidmores oil wax finish.
    You critique will be appreciated.

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Woodworker and writer
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24 Responses to Design critique July 2011

  1. Nathan says:

    Overall I find the piece to be visually pleasing, the contrast between the light and the dark is effective and, the spacing between the slats of the seats and between the two seats is a nice effect. There are a few details though that I find could use a little work. Based on the Photographs I believe that the through dowels that mount the shelf to the frame stand proud too much. It would make more sense to me if they were proud about 2/3 of the amount of the through tenons. Also, in the top photo, the hollow to the rear of the seat looks amorphous, I feel it would look more in keeping with the overall visual language of the piece if the junction between the hollow and the flat were to be a crisper line. Thank you for submitting this piece and I hope to see more of your work in the future.

    • John Deerman says:

      Hi Nathan,
      Your critique is much appreciated. I agree with everything you said actually. I would like the seats to have a nice crisp edge to the detail. I also was considering shortening the dowels a bit. At the length they are now they look to heavy at most angles. Good input.
      Thank you,
      John Deerman

  2. Hugh Reeves says:

    I am certainly an amateur, so take these comments for what they are worth. First off, overall I think the piece is very attractive. I find the inner carved out recess visually appealing. It seems to invite you to sit. I have been really drawn to that feature in the Maloof rockers. What I don’t like (and is certainly just my own personal taste) is the concentric outer ring beyond which you have further carved out. I think the overall effect is to raise this horseshoe-shaped area which reminds me too much of a toilet seat. Hope this is helpful.

    • John Deerman says:

      Hi Hugh,
      Don’t think that because you are an “amateur” that you can’t offer a valid opinion. I design my furniture to sell to people that aren’t wood workers. And believe it or not regular people have diiferent ideas than woodworkers when it comes to like and dislikes. Unfortunenty woodworkers spend to much time looking at other woodworkers design and are thus influenced and shielded from the people that will or will not buy the piece.
      So you think my work looks like a toilet huh? I will take this into consideration. Maybe I will market this as a bathroom accessory.
      Thank you,
      John Deerman

  3. Raney says:


    I quite like the bench design — I think your choice of woods is really good here; the subtlety of the color variations is very pleasing. I also think the shaping of the seat is really well done. There are two items that I think interfere a bit with the overall coherence of the design, though.

    First, I think the through-dowel details are a nice touch. They give really nice accent to the otherwise rectilinear design. The wedged through tenons on the leg stretchers, however, seem to conflict with the dowels. They just seem out of place with the rest of the design. I’d suggest you consider either using dowels at that joint as well, or perhaps just switch to a housed tenon.

    The other item is the seat — the shaping has given the seat a definite front and back, but the front-back symmetry of overall shape seems to be in conflict with that. Just a couple of possibilities to illustrate what I mean are to continue the side shaping around the back, such that the back of the seat drops away somewhat in an arc that continues those two side-profiles. Another possible idea is to eliminate the last two openings at the rear of the seat rather than continue the slats all the way to the back. This would give some more weight to the rear of the seat, and add to the effect that the shaping gives the seat.

    Just a couple of ideas, but those two areas seemed the areas that might be streamlined in an otherwise quite pleasing design.

  4. John Deerman says:

    Hi Raney,
    Thank you for your comments. I like your comments about the dowels but the through tenons I think I will keep. I live where most of the home built are log or timberframe and this type of joinery fits in well with that aesthetic. I do like your idea of dropping the rar edge and giving the seat more visual room by easing some of the slats at the back. The whole time I have been designing this piece I imagined it up against a bed or wall and mentaly I would add the wall into the design. I will try to drop the back about 15 degrees and see what looks like.
    Thank you,
    John Deerman

  5. Jason says:

    The top of the bench is plain ol’ sick cool! I REALLY like it. I’ve been influenced for a future project (ie, I’m gunna steal YOUR idea. 🙂 ) The other thing I really like is your playing with the strait lines, and circles, and subtle curves on the top. Based on one of your comments above, I can indeed see this piece in a mountain-like home in Montana. It has good mass.

    From the photos shown, I would throw out a few ideas. I like the M&T exposed as you have them, but the plugs seem a bit much for me. My eye wants to look at one thing, not two. The contrasting wood and proud plugs distract my eye from your other joinery. And frankly, I don’t think that circles/plugs are all that interesting in comparison to the legs. Speaking of legs, I also think that nice VG on all sides would be a nice idea on them as well. OR all flatsawn. The clean strait lines would go great with the top, but some wild uncontrolled flat sawn would likely look good with big beams in a log home. But I don’t like both. Sorry.

    It could just be the angle of the camera, but I’m not sure the two awesome seats relate proportionate to the little divider/trays and to the base. I see that in the first photo mainly. The other 2 it looks great. This may not be a design issue, but more of a photography point.

    I commend you for your willingness to have a bunch of comments vomited on you from the peanut gallery. Keep up the GREAT work.


    • John Deerman says:

      Thank you peanut gallery,
      When you are talking about grain I think you are talking about the grain on the base. I am using quartersawn wood for more than just looks. I oriented the grain verticaly as this allowed me to make the frame only 1.5 inches and still remain stiff. Most modern benches are made with steel frames that alow for very skinny legs and aprons and I did’t want this bench to look heavy. If you could see down the narrow end of the bench you would notice the grain all running straight from top to bottom. I have made this bench using rift sawn red larch and yes it was a noticable improvment with out to much loss in strength. Maybe that should be the grain pattern of choice. Thank you.

  6. walkerg says:

    Nice work. Several things really stand out to me that sets this apart. The contours on the seats warm it up and make it welcoming, not like some cold rectilinear bench you are forced to wait out a delay in an airport. The contrasting voids in the seats also provides some visual interest. If this is for a line of furniture as you say, you have possibilities of experimenting with those voids to create different looks or visual weight to the piece. You’ve probably already thought of this, but you could confine the voids to the contour of the sculpted saddle (would emphasize the seat), you might also break up the voids and make them more random and spontanious, or you could mirror the effect in the small shelf that runs below the seats. Quite a lot of different looks by altering one fairly simple aspect of the design. I also agree with previous comments that the dowel joinery could stand to be downplayed. Thanks for sharing.

    • John Deerman says:

      Hi George,
      I like your idea of confining the voids more centrally to the seat. There seems to be a concensous in that regard. I really find that I am a linear designer. I have a modern eye when it come to design that frees and confines me. The idea of randomizing the voids would be fun but a departure from the form. I am reminded of the now classic “Nelson” bench made by Gearge Nelson and sold for so many years by Herman Miller. That look and feel speak to me and yet when you compare this design to the Nelson bench you can notice how I “broke loose” when designing it. Thank you.

  7. Dean says:

    Hello John, that’s an outstanding piece of work! I can see a lot of thought and planning went into the final product. I can only share one thing that caught my attention. The light wood spanning between the two seats, jarred me visually. I can’t really describe why it goes against my visual grain so to speak. I see the legs are also a light wood but they don’t seem to detract visually as much as the two light pieces of wood by the seats do. I’m guessing others don’t notice it and it fits visually for them. You have a piece to be proud of.

    • John Deerman says:

      Hi Dean,
      Actually there is a big differance between the wood on the top and bottom shelves and the seats. The shelves were made from “new” lumber bought at the very nice and very local Helena Hardwoods store ( a big shout out.) But the wood for the seats came from a dismantled wood mill in New York state that was built in 1862. So the cherry you see in the seats has had plenty of time to age to that classic patina we all dream about while the other can only hope it will bea round as long. The cherry came from trim around windows and as such was not large enough to make a shelf board out of it. Thank you.

  8. basilg says:


    Congratulations I very much like the overall design.
    I feel you could improve this by simplifying the design by removing the dowels, and using a blind mortise and tenon on the shelves or sticking with the wedged tenons throughout. Additionally the shelf between the seats appears to me unfinished, I would suggest putting in a solid piece so that there is a shelf lower than the seats which hides the frame and no space shows. I think the edges of the curves ( female silhouette rather than toilet seat ) would look much cleaner with a sharp edge.

    Kind regards

    • John Deerman says:

      Thank you Basilq,
      I do agree that the female shape is much more appealing than a toilet, although there was that time I used the public restroom at the Roche Bobois in Colorado and was quite impressed with the lew but I digress. The shape on the top is of a free form horse shoe. In the rockies where I live there is a new regional style coming of age a sort of blend between modern and rustic with a western or lodge influence. A lot of reclaimed materials are being incorporated as is a roughness in the construction. Finding the balance between rough and refined has been a challenge. Thank you for you input.

  9. JimG33 says:

    Personally I’d rather see each of the seats as a slab so the eye can follow the carving, the negative spaces in the slats and the carving fight with each other. Since you spent so much time glueing these seats, they don’t have to start as a single wide board. I’ve always loved wedged through tenons, but the dowells should be flush or blind. Just one more thing, why is the seat so low? Chair standard is 17″ and since there is no back, seating position can feel kind of scrunchy. I do, as does everyone for the last 30 years, have a great love of aged cherry. Love the colors.

  10. John Deerman says:

    Hi JimG33,
    The negative spaces are what make the piece so intriguing. It takes the boxiness out of the form and gives it depth. The shape travels with you as you approach it from different angles. As to why the seat is so low well there have been plenty of studies as to seat hight that would suggest that while in cases of a dinningroom chair the height should be 17″ at other times this would be far to high. Most people have a measurement of 15.5″ from floor to the bend in the knee. This design is a bench seat. It will be used for putting on shoes more often than not. When you are in that position it can be uncomfortable to be at 17″ off the floor whille 15″ allows for a more comfortable position by not pinching your thigh and allowing room for your stomach to go when you bend over. Sounds like a detail that is overboard, maybe, but when you buy something that is crafted for you it should have this attention to detail,
    Thank you.

  11. Gary Roberts says:

    I find the form to be somewhat confusing, at least ergonomically. The bench form invites you to sit anywhere. The contoured seat forms force you to sit in only one position. For the user, that means you have to plant yourself just so or else end up on the slope. Lacking arms to guide you such as in windsor chairs, leaves the sitter at the mercy of the bench.

    On an even more ergonomic slant, the slat form looks quite uncomfortable if you are not wearing some fairly substantial clothing. I wouldn’t want to sit there wearing light hiking shorts. As you get older, you want more comfort.

  12. John Deerman says:

    Hi Gary,
    I completely understand your frustration. So many times I have wanted to drive my truck from the bed but the short sighted designers at Toyota only put the steering wheel in the cab. As a designer of what has become known as “studio” furniture my success lies not in making what can be found else where but in design new and exciting forms that are a joy to own and use. My typical client has grown tired of mass produced, looks like everything else furniture. This bench top design came partly out of some “friendship” benches I made for another client. A friendship bench allows for two people to sit across from one another facing opposite directions thus making conversation more enjoyable. So now I will share with you an aspect of my design thoughts that I just cringe at when I speak out loud in this way. When two people get together to talk wether strangers or friends they never really are together yet through conversation that they can bridge whatever differences they have and enjoy the time spent in company. So in looking at the bench design you have seating for two yet they are separate but between the two you have a bridge, not connected, but there to symbolicaly remind them that a connection can be reached without interfering with each persons personal space. Okay, that was almost painful. I am always bothered by artist who explain the work. If the art does not speak then neither should the artist. My apologies to anyone who got a little queasy.

  13. amosswogger says:

    If someone were to stand on the little shelf between the two seats, would it support their weight? I know it is not meant to be stood upon, but I could think of scenarios where it might (kids, changing light bulbs overhead, etc…).

    • John Deerman says:

      Short answer, yes. Real answer yes, but. The bench is strong enough to support two adults safely but it will not support a child using it as a spring board to launch it self onto mommy and daddy’s bed. You could use it to change a light bulb but at a price of $1500 you might think twice and grab something more expendable.
      Thank you.

  14. Justin says:

    John, there are aspects I really like about this piece – your wood choice, how the laminated wood contrast plays with the slats, and some of the exposed joinery. The woods work well together and (as before stated) I like the through mortise and tenon. However, I agree that the through dowels are a bit much, kind of draw me away from the other details.

    For me, the main area that I find a little lacking (and this is hard to describe for me) is the form vs. function relationship. Which is following which? Most of the design is based on the form, I think – exposed joints, slats, large square seats, straight lines in the lower structure, etc. There is only one aspect of this piece that speaks to its function – the carved seat that fit our bottoms. And while these are very nice, they are the only feature of the bench that suggest its function (the lower shelf also suggests function as a utilitarian storage, but I doubt it will be much used on a nice piece like this one). So, my suggestion to possibly remedy this disproportionate focus on form, maybe use some more human lines – shapes that imply living beings use this or at least built this piece. Maybe a curved lower shelf, or rounded outer profile of the seats. I don’t really know how to proceed to tip things back toward equality in the form vs function realm, but I feel that this is the direction you may want to explore. I think a bench should visually convey that I SHOULD sit on it, not like sitting is one creative option, if I want to explore this wooden object.

    I apologize if my thoughts are abstract or confusing. I am new to this type of critique. Hope you can sift this for some truths.


  15. John Deerman says:

    Hi Justin,
    I wish you could see this bench in person. I make a variation on this bench with a major change. Instead of using lumber for the seats I upholster them with hair on cow hide. That is a strong nod to western influence. Any how when I have put these benches on public display even though the cow bench is more comfortable more people will sit on the cherry bench than the cow hide version. That must speak to the inviting nature of the formed seats that becon the passerby to sit. I don’t know how a rounded shelf makes the bench more “human” than a square one that may be pesonal preferance I guess. In this day and age the only thing I see over and over again would be the use of cup holders ( big enough to hold a 16 oz latte, perhaps) but I just can’t see myself adding them to this.
    Thank you.

  16. aaron says:

    I think that overall the design is very nice. I disagree that the carved seats force you to sit in a specific place and that that is contrary to the “theory” of a bench. Actually, this bench is more of a double chair – the fact that there are two seats, carved or not, allows only 2 specific seating options. that it’s meant to be placed against a wall further naturally limits the orientation that two people could have on it.

    anyway, I do agree that the exposed dowel ends are probably better off flush or hidden.

  17. John Deerman says:

    Hi Aaron,
    Well then that settles it. I will first shorten and then maybe remove the dowels at the shelf. Thank you for your input. If you had been the first to respond this critique would have ended there and the design would have advanced to the next stage in it’s development. Thank you to everyone that reponded. This was very valuable to me. I appreciate all the comments and support.
    John Deerman

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