Design Critique Feb 2012

Adrian Mariano submitted these drawings and comments about a design for a small table. As always with these requests for feedback, make sure your feedback both positive and negative include some insight into your thinking. It’s also fine to offer questions to help Adrian think through this or see it in a new light.  

The following are Adrian’s thoughts:

I’m designing a table to use for game playing in front of a sofa.  I
have a nice piece of claro walnut (30″x60″) to use for the tabletop
and was thinking about (but am not committed to) mahogany for the
base.  I built up a design based on a variety of pratical
considerations (and we’ve been using a prototype piece of plywood on
boxes).  So for example, I placed 5″ above the floor to allow room to
clean under the table (rather than using some system like integer
proportions).  The height is around 24″ because that makes it possible
to sit with legs under the tabletop.  I have the apron set back 6″
from the front and 9″ from the ends to allow room for this.  I wanted
drawers 4″ high to allow card games to be stored on edge.  Because of
the large overhang, it doesn’t make sense to put drawers under the
top, as is common, so I started with the idea of drawers under the
shelf along the front.

But then I thought that drawers along the front down low would hit the
sofa when opened.  So I moved the drawers to the end.  With the
drawers on the end I wanted to have a place for pens and paper that
was easier to reach from the sofa (and there is some space), so I
added little drawers to the front.  The result is a design based
entirely on my best interpretations of the practical considerations
rather than with design thinking, and I think it looks kind of funny.
So I’m wondering why it looks funny.  Is there something fundamentally
weird about my design?  Does it need to be “fixed” somehow?  It seems
like the small drawers floating in the large apron may be the reason
for the strange look.  (I think my early design with three drawers
under the apron looks more “normal”.)

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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14 Responses to Design Critique Feb 2012

  1. millcrek says:

    I prefer to work on a design with a simple front view and a side view. For me it is easier to work out the front then the side and usually the isometric view takes care of itself. With just isometric views you are trying to deal with every thing at the same time.
    , which is more difficult. In your design the top is all curves and the base is all straight lines. I would repeat one of the curves from the top in the base to tie them together. The human mind is subconsciously trying to simplify the information it takes in. One of the way it does it is by recognizing similarities or repeats, even if they are not identical. Subconsciously you say that this edge is like this edge so they must relate to each other. This ties the top to the base. I hope this makes some sense.

  2. My guess is that the problem is with the big open space between the top and the drawers — almost as if the drawers had somehow sagged down from the conventional location! I’d suggest trying an element — not necessarily functional — that would tie the top and the drawers together. Perhaps a flattened H shape, modified with some curves?

  3. I don’t really mind it as it is! You’ve explained all the functional practicalities that lead to the design and they make sense to me. I agree with Millcreek, you could do something to tie the bottom in a bit more and the only thing I can see that would not overly complicate the construction is to add small gentle curves on the drawer-top panel. However if the overhang is going to snag on legs or diminish the space of the pen drawer then I wouldn’t do it. You could tie the top and bottom together other ways. For example you could add a bordering inlay to the top, inset from the edge, and then repeat the same curved inlay shape, albeit smaller, on the bottom panel. Something like walnut with a holly inlay would look nice. As far as design method goes, context is important and this low table will primarily be viewed from a standing or sitting position, so the aesthetics from those angles is most important. The last image there looks pretty good to me. When I was designing a low table like this I had a good deal of trouble working off elevation and end elevation drawings and it wasn’t until I used sketchup to drive the design from a contextual viewpoint that I started to make headway. I guess what I’m trying to say is do what works for you! Thanks for sharing your design.

  4. Clint says:

    For what it is worth, this piece gives me the feeling of an executive desktop with no kneehole. It doesn’t feel proportioned like a sofa table, but like a taller/larger piece of furniture that has been scaled down.

    I don’t mind the proportions as you present them, but they just seem off for the type of piece. As a desk, heavy on the bottom is acceptable. As a sofa table, I just keep looking at it thinking it should be lighter on the bottom and longer.

    That said, coffee tables are a bear. They can be anything, and so frequently become less beautiful and balanced than they might.

    Coming at it another way, though, function is beauty. I may be slightly at odds to some of the posts, here, but I think a thing that functions perfectly achieves its own aesthetic. If I have a choice to keep that perfect function and also create a beautiful object that can be appreciated for its appearance apart from its function, then I have done something masterful.

    Make your table perfectly functional, is my advice. In this case, part of its function is to make use of a specific board of a specific size that is already in your hands.

    Also, just make the table and make some mistakes. Learn, appreciate what you’ve learned, and if you REALLY hate it, build another later.

  5. Adrian Mariano says:

    Thanks to everyone who has written in with ideas.

    millcrek, this design is in Sketchup, which means I do the design in 3d, not as front view or side view. But with things like the drawer layouts and so on it really does happen one view at a time, really. The views are perspective views, not isometric. I thought they were the most useful for understanding how the piece would look.

    David Greenwood suggests an element to tie the top and the drawers together. But I don’t understand his suggestion at all. (A flattened H shape?) Can anybody clarify?

    On unity of form between the top and bottom: I could, of course, make the top rectangular to match the bottom. But that seems less interesting. But it wasn’t obvious to me where I could insert some matching curves below. I could make the shelf above the drawer *slightly* curved, but too much curve would start to overhang the drawers. I’m guessing if they bulged out by an inch that would be OK, but 2″, probably not. Is it enough? (I may also collide with issues about the handling of wood movement that affect how the shelf looks—I haven’t figured that out yet.)

    I tried to think of other ways to incorporate curves in the base. If I made the drawer pulls as shown in the drawings as wide strips I could make them curve so they would mirror the top in minature. That seems like it might look pretty good. I thought about making the legs curve somehow, but my mind’s eye suggests that would look weird. (When drawing up the design I tried tapering the legs below the drawer and that looked odd.)

    I have pondered the other question about unity in color of the top (walnut) with the bottom (mahogany). The walnut has a really pretty marbled figure so I don’t want to mess with it by inlaying something. But I was pondering whether making the drawer pulls or the small drawer fronts from walnut would be a good way to unify the piece. (I only have a small amount of extra claro walnut.) Another idea I had that I am not sure about is inlaying walnut stripes on the legs.

    I’m a big proponent of function, so nobody need worry that I’m going to sacrifice function for design, but I would like to try to do my best on the design under the practical restrictions I’ve created.

  6. jlsmith says:

    Some thoughts on the Fallacy of Functionalism

    “I’m a big proponent of function, so nobody need worry that I’m going to sacrifice function for design.”

    Do you really mean design (perhaps you mean aesthetics), for in order to create a form that performs a certain function(s) the form must be designed.

    While fundamental, function is never comprehensive and thinking in terms of ‘sacrificing’ is only going to burden you as you attempt to create a form. Function should be view more like a beginning than an end. It has to be ‘there’ IN the form but it will only get you part of the way to where you really want to go. As proof I offer your own statement:

    “The result is a design based entirely on my best interpretations of the practical considerations rather than with design thinking, and I think it looks kind of funny.”

    Would it be fair to say that as a visually interesting (or pleasing) form your ‘design’ doesn’t FUNCTION very well? And by the way, what are the ‘practical considerations’ that caused you to decide to use the piece of walnut? Was it because you already own it, it’s the only piece you have that is big enough or maybe you always just thought it would look great as a tabletop? Is the reason really ‘practical’ in the same way as making sure the drawers can fully open is? I could go on (for example why 5” for cleaning clearance why not 6”, is it based on the dimensions of your vacuum cleaner), but hopefully my point is clear enough. Is it not an illusion (maybe delusion) to believe a form can be created based ENTIRELY on practical considerations?

    So what does this suggest about how to re-design your table so that it doesn’t ‘look funny’ and yet still does everything you want it to do? Not a lot actually, but if it gives you pause long enough to examine your approach to form making (designing) it might just give you the ability to open up your thought process thus allowing the opportunity for improvement.

  7. Jack Folse says:

    The main thing I notice is that the shelf/drawer unit is too low in comparison to the table height. If the entire unit were raised, I think it would be more balanced. Also, if the long edge of the drawer unit was curved to mimic the top, that would address the issue raised by Millcrek about the similarities between the top and base. Instead of thinking how to make the base reflect the top, how about reflecting the base materials in the top where it will be seen. Why not some Mahogany stringing or border to unite the top and base?

  8. Adrian Mariano says:

    Of course jlsmith is right. I can’t claim that my design is solely the result of functional considerations. And I agree that the word aesthetic better captures the issues I’m trying to address right now. I chose the marbled claro walnut wood for the top because it was the right size and looked good. I applied the curve to the top because it seemed like a nice look. I sized the width of the legs without any particular regard to function. There are undoubtedly other aesthetic decisions lurking in the design that I made without even being aware that I was making decisions, just because of what I think of as the way tables look.

    As for 5 inches off the floor: I built a cabinet that is 2.5 inches off the floor and that has been a little annoying at times. The sofa is about 5 inches off the floor and that seems OK. I wanted to have room to use the shelf so I don’t want to raise the drawer higher than necessary. (In fact, my first design concept had two shelves with the drawer in the middle, but when I drew this design up in Sketchup it seemed silly—there was no space to actually put anything on the shelves, only about 4 inches above each one.

    Jlsmith says, “Function should be view more like a beginning than an end. It has to be ‘there’ IN the form but it will only get you part of the way to where you really want to go.” And of course that’s the whole point of seeking a design critique. I started with (mostly) function, and now I’m trying to figure out where to go from there, and I’m thought outside comments could prod me to think in different directions.

    • jlsmith says:

      Function is inseparable from form and form is inseparable from aesthetics. Therefore function is inseparable from aesthetics. Attempting to bifurcate the design process into function and aesthetics is literally impossible (anyone who claims otherwise is simply in denial).

      Design (the act of form making with conscious intent) is not a linear process. It is more like solving Rubik’s Cube. To apply this analogy to your design, one could say your design has only ‘solved’ a some of the cube’s faces and in order to solve the rest of the cube the ‘solved’ faces will have to change. This is the nature of design; everything affects everything else.

      When reading your description it is clear you developed a specific functional program (conscious intent) for the table. However, when discussing aesthetics your description becomes vague (the curves ‘look good’, seems OK, etc.). Do you think it would be beneficial if you spent as much time (effort) developing an aesthetic program (conscious intent) as you did the functional program?

      It is very difficult to figure out ‘where to go’ when the ‘where’ is undefined. You might be surprised how much developing an aesthetic program for the table will assist you in the creative development of the form.

      • Adrian Mariano says:

        I don’t think I have a conscious grasp of aesthetics that enables me to do as you suggest and pursue the “aesthetic program” with the same effort as the functional one. As you note, my thoughts about aesthetics are all vague. When I constructed the design with just a single small drawer on the front it “looked odd” to me. I changed it to two drawers and it looked less odd. I made the bottom drawer wider than the top one and I thought maybe it looked better, but my wife disagreed. it’s not clear to me that this question has the same kind of answer as a functional question. After all, if the drawer hits the sofa when you open it then that’s what it does. But it’s harder to be sure about the existence of absolutes in aesthetics. (Ken T below refers to George Walker’s identification of principles and proportions that are generally more pleasing…but on the other hand ends his comment with “different strokes for different folks.”)

        It certainly seems reasonable that having an aesthetic “destination” in mind would be useful. And I suppose I have some kind of destination in mind, even if I can’t usefully articulate it. I mean, I didn’t decorate it with elaborate moldings or use decorative curves on the top apron. I don’t plan to ornament it with carving. My aesthetic notions probably have to do with having grown up with Danish Modern furniture and plain simple pieces. I was inspired to make the top curved by a Wearing’s “Essential Woodworker” which suggested that a curved top was better than just rounding the corners. But I think the coffee table I grew up with had gently curved edges, so that may be why that idea appealed to me.

  9. Ken T says:

    I find ALL the comments very interesting and it makes me wonder what the Ark might have looked like if this forum had been available at that time…would it have elevators and a skylight.
    Design is an individual thing, expressing your individual preference. Do you prefer a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Meier, or Frank Ghery? Do you like furniture by Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, Gustav Stickley, or the Greenes? All these designers are generally accepted to be excellent…but why is there not just one?
    There is no pill, formula, or proportion that will appeal to everyone…that’s why Heinz has 57 ingredients.

    Your design represents what you need it to do and in the end..if you like it, it’s good! It may not suit me, but then I’m not going to buy it. If you want others (many of them) to buy it, then you have to really think about applying EVERYTHING mentioned in this forum.
    Whether you draw it in Sketchup or chalk on the floor, whatever you need to do to express the totality of you design is what you must do.

    I believe George Walker’s articles illustrate that there are principles and proportions that have been in place and proven throughout history that are more pleasing to many of those who view ANY piece, whether it be a building or a piece of furniture and that these proportions manifest themselves throughout many parts of the finished product. Using these principles can, and generally does, produce a more pleasing result.

    Your design is a good starting point and looks Craftsman in some respects and that will be pleasing to some, the top suggests Danish modern (to me) and that will appeal to some. The fact that you have it in Sketchup gives you the chance to experiment by putting the components on layers and switching them in and out.

    Remember the saying… Different strokes for different folks.
    Good luck

  10. Chuck Nickerson says:

    This is my third time reviewing this entry and its comments. I wanted to think this through before posting. Given your functional requirements, I’d focus on having the top and the drawer element match style elements. That is, work the curved edges of the top into the drawer element.

    If you didn’t already have the wood for the top, I’d suggest going thicker to offset the visual weight of the drawer element.

    If it were my table, I’d try to unify (or make similar) the drawer pulls for the front and side drawers.

    Id would be great if you posted a photo of the finished piece.

  11. Adrian Mariano says:

    I think the idea of making the top thicker to help balance the thickness of the drawer is a good one. Even though I can’t do that, it does suggest that I should avoid an edge treatment that makes the top look thinner, and it makes me wonder if there is some way to make the drawer apron look smaller even though it isn’t, perhaps with a big chamfer or round over on the bottom, for example.

    I’ve drawn the model with walnut drawer pulls that are (almost) the full width of the drawers and curve like the top, though the curve is less, so all the drawer pulls have the same form. And I think that looks good. I also thought I could make those pulls from walnut which helps relate them to the top. I did also experiment with trying to make the edges of the shelf curved. That seems to be more difficult. It seems like it looks strange to curve the long edge of the shelf if I don’t also curve the long apron. I pondered making the drawer fronts curved like the top, but I’m thinking that wouldn’t look good.

    I will certainly post the project somewhere when it’s complete, but I don’t know how to link it back to this blog. Note that it will be a long time before it’s done.

  12. jlsmith says:

    Your apprehension is understandable and you are correct that you aren’t going to find the ‘same kind of answers’ about aesthetics. The suggestion was to put forth the same type of effort, for it will take effort to overcome your apprehension and to be able to articulate your own aesthetics.

    As to the ‘existence of absolutes’ it might be worth pondering if thinking in such rigid terms is useful. The design process always addresses a complex set of issues that rarely (if ever) have only one solution, so thinking in such terms can be liability.

    One possible technique that might help you articulate (and then develop) an aesthetic vision for the table is to continue the ‘elimination’ process you discussed at the end of your comment. Many people find it much easier to articulate what they don’t want than what they do. Eliminating what you don’t want can greatly reduce the ‘noise to signal’ ratio, removing distractions and allowing you to focus your efforts.

    Another useful process is precedents research. While the internet makes this very easy to do it also can make it overwhelming. Therefore, it can be beneficial to first reduce the universe of options to a more manageable size through the elimination process. Once you find multiple examples of tables that you ‘like’, you can analyze them to determine what ideas they have in common or what unique features they have that appeal to you and thus help reveal (to you) your own aesthetic sense.

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